Editor’s note: This is an archival article about the beginnings of the Red Clay Jazz Festival. It first appeared in forkauaionine.com on June 22, 2011 and is republished here for the Red Clay Jazz Festival 2012. Since then, the festival has grown. This year, the Red Clay Jazz Festival will run from June 27-30. For 2012 Red Clay Jazz Festival information, click here.
How Big Name Jazz Came to Kaua`i
A dream goes from kitchen table to four-day festival
by Anne E. O’Malley
It’s tough to imagine a world without music. Hawaiian music just on its own takes us to the moon, and its popularity around the world speaks to its universality.
Thanks to homegrown music and musicians and folks from all over the island who are also dedicated to bringing Kaua`i some of the finest musicians and music on the rest of the planet, Kaua`i is top of the charts in musical offerings, so we get Hawaiian music plus, plus, plus.
One of those ‘plus” offerings is back for its fourth year, the Red Clay Jazz Festival, run under the umbrella of the Kaua`i Concert Association. It has grassroots similar to those of lots of programs on the island that we now take for granted. In year four, it’s grown from one day to four, including five lead-up events and the anchor event, a day-long outdoor line-up at the Kaua`i Marriot Resort & Spa.
Considering the Red Clay Jazz Festival’s popularity and expansion, you’d almost think jazz spoke the native tongue in this land. In one sense, it does so, here as well as elsewhere. Consider what Kaua`i jazz musician Kirk Smart said in an interview in Kaua`i People a few years back, “Real jazz music has its roots in the blues, so that’s a visceral connection.”
Yeah. Everybody’s got viscera. And this music tugs at our guts, for sure, and it sings to the soul, makes the heart melt and any other sappy kinds of things you can think of, all true. It appeals to mathematicians and scientists, to farmers and basketball players — to taro growers and corporate heads, to convicts and saints, right-wingers and left-wingers and just about any subset of humanity you can name.
The dream begins
At first, such a festival was just a dream. But of course, dreams are those rich and juicy what-ifs the universe brings us and from which great things are born.
So yes, it was a dream. W.C. “Pete” Robinson had that dream. His widow, Judy Arrigo, heads the festival that was once that dream and has now come true.
Arrigo didn’t grow up listening to jazz, but in college, she began her own jazz journey. When she met up with Robinson in the early 1970s in the Bay area, she was hooked.
She recalls, “I went down to his house for brunch on a Sunday, and he had a reel-to-reel Miles Davis tape that went on and on forever. I fell in love with Miles and Pete.
“We’d go to various little clubs — one was the No Name bar that featured Al Jarreau. He was unknown at the time.
“I tried to get him this year, but his fee is over $20,000, so we didn’t get him. Back then, he was playing for tips.”
Arrigo says the couple regularly attended the Monterey Jazz Festival and the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl.
They began coming to Kaua`i in 1976 and thought it would be great to have a jazz festival here.
“That was the very beginning,” says Arrigo.
What is it about jazz?
What is it about jazz that grabs her?
“I guess the fact that the musicians can improvise, like Hubert Laws, trained as classical flautist, but when he does something in jazz, he takes the melody and flies off somewhere.
“It’s exhilarating to listen to. It has such a range of sound. Most any kind of instrument can go into a jazz improvisation. There’s something very unique about jazz and each musician brings something different in way they do it.”
Fast forward and the couple moves here in 1996.
“Pete was a jazz programmer on KKCR. He had a Tuesday and Thursday night program, the ‘Red Clay Review,’ which is where we got the name for the festival,” says Arrigo.
“He grew up with jazz. He loved it. He wasn’t a musician, but had the background. He knew all the musicians — who came before whom — he was much more steeped in it than I could even think about.
“He would research from books and CDs, sitting at the kitchen table and planning his programs.”
Arrigo says that the couple began bringing jazz musicians over in connection with KKCR Community radio, the first one in 1999. They began thinking how they might have a full-blown festival like the Playboy Jazz Festival, for three days.
What can we do?
Robinson died in 2000, and that’s when friends called and asked what they could do.
“I said, how about starting a fund with KKCR to start a jazz festival?”
Arrigo says that about $9,000 came in.
“I’d get checks in the mail. He was well loved by a whole bunch of people, and a whole bunch of people donated.”
It’s an expensive operation. When it was clear that KKCR couldn’t keep up with that kind of expense, Arrigo says that in 2003 that the festival moved over to the Kaua`i Concert Association, which is part of a statewide organization better able to share expenses.
A long list of musicians have played here through the festival, including Chick Correa, Gary Burton; Lew Soloff, Ernie Watts, Louis Hayes and the Cannonball Adderly Tribute Band, Kevin Mahogany, Ernestine Anderson, Bud Shank, Peter Sprague, Joyce Cooling, Devin Phillips and more.
The Fund is used to bring jazz to Kaua`i to be heard and experienced in concert as well as in classroom venues to ensure that Kauai’s children are exposed to this important original American music. Coming in late June, it’s tough to get to the kids, but the festival’s going to get into that.
If you build it, they will come
The festival is a success. Some visitors are booking their holidays here based on the Red Clay jazz experience.
“Last year, we heard from two parties from California and one from Nevada,” says Arrigo. “They come every year and they told us they come because of the jazz festival.
“Another couple met at the first jazz festival, got married, and keep coming back.”
The budget is growing; so are the grants and contributions. Last year’s festival brought 400 people; festival organizers hope to increase attendance somewhere from 500 to 600 persons.
Each festival showcases a local musician plus one from the other islands and two from the mainland.
One of the benefits to the community of the festival is that any profit is divided: half goes to the Kaua`i Concert Association (KCA); half stays with the festival and is used for music scholarships.
Last year, the Red Clay Jazz Festival’s share of the profit was $500. But what’s more important, according to Arrigo, is that KCA as a group has given over $25,000 worth of scholarships over its existence in voice and instrument studies.
From dream to reality. From a kitchen table to a committee of 10 with Arrigo as festival chair; from a single offering to a daylong festival of offerings; and from a one-day event to a four-day event. Arrigo’s watched it grow — helped it grow.
There’s only one thing more to add.
Says Arrigo, “This whole event is a group effort and my committee has been so wonderful. I could never have done this alone and it’s been a group of people who started off just because they love jazz. I don’t know that I could possibly do this if it wasn’t for them.”
For Red Clay Jazz Festival 2012 details, click here.