Elkhart Jazz Festival 2015: Event continues three-year growth streak, organizers say

June 22, 2015

As the last notes of smooth jazz wafted over downtown Elkhart on Sunday afternoon, June 21, Jazz Festival patrons lingered on the plaza to sample vendor food and take pictures with the painted elk.

Truth in Jazz trumpeter Dennis Wakeman, who helped close down the free stage after a weekend of 30 artist performances, said he heard murmurings from attendees that this was the best year yet.

He said the festival gives back to the community by providing free access to jazz music, and it helps foster an appreciation of the art in a town known as the Band Instrument Capital of the World.

Ann Paulen and Bev Wolfgram, both of Wisconsin, have been attending the Elkhart Jazz Festival for close to 10 years — and they will both be back for 2016.

They said they have enjoyed watching the city invest in, and reinvigorate, the downtown area, especially the botanical gardens and the Lerner Theatre.

"The development along the river is wonderful," Paulen said. "This is a really neat thing for this town. The collaboration is wonderful."

Both had high praises for the festival, the volunteers and the musicians — especially Dave Bennett, who they named as the highlight of their weekend.

"He's so engaging," Wolfgram said. "It's something different, you feel invigorated. I want to go home and do something I've always wanted to do."

Paulen noted how safe she felt walking around downtown late at night, despite news that a man had been shot and killed just four blocks away.

That's exactly why Julie and John Slater, both of Elkhart, love the jazz festival — it highlights the strengths of their community.

The couple only made it downtown for the last show of the festival because they had family in town for Father's Day weekend, but they used words like "amazing," wonderful" and "love it" to describe the event.

"The Jazz Festival makes me proud to say I'm from Elkhart," Julie Slater said. "The community puts something together they should be proud of."

It’s difficult to accurately count the festival’s attendees as thousands come and go from the free attractions on South Main Street, but organizers estimated between 20,000 and 25,000 people visited the downtown event throughout the weekend, said David Smith, general manager of The Lerner Theatre. Attendance in past years has been between 15,000 and 20,000.

While the final ticket totals are still being tallied, Smith said sales outpaced last year, marking the third consecutive year of growth for the festival.

This year’s two headlining acts, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and David Sanborn, attracted a combined crowd of about 2,500, said Trevor Wendzonka, the Lerner’s marketing manager.

Organizers this year shifted their marketing focus to promote the festival more online and on social media, which drew a younger and more diverse crowd, Smith said.

“We also saw a shift this year in how the public is buying (passes),” he said. 

More visitors bought day passes or single-session passes instead of full-festival passes, and they were more likely to buy them on the day of the event rather than ahead of time, he said. This shift may have been due to the uncertain weather forecast for this year’s event, which included a chance of rain throughout the weekend.

“It’s hard to commit to an event that’s partially produced outdoors when you’re unsure what weather is going to be,” Smith said. “If we’d have had a better forecast, more people who have purchased (passes) midweek.”

The weather cooperated for most of the festival, but one set scheduled for the free stage had to be moved indoors, Wendzonka said.

Instead of seeing the Tony Monaco Trio featuring Fareed Haque on the Civic Plaza on Saturday night, the crowd moved into the Lerner.

“There’s always a few obstacles you have to overcome,” Smith said.

Crews were still dismantling equipment and tents on Main Street on Monday, June 22, but organizers had already begun planning next year’s festival, scheduled for June 24 to 26.

“You just can’t stop,” Wendzonka said. “That’s part of the fun too — you feel so good about what you were able to do for the city and the people who showed up that you want to do it again.”