By Darlene Donloe, Contributing Writer
LEIMERT PARK — The Leimert Park Jazz Festival, forced to go virtual this year due to COVID-19, might look and feel different, but the show’s founder and producer promises that the quality of music will not suffer.
“We have attempted to bring the best music that is rooted in the community,” said Diane Robertson, who founded the festival five years ago when it was a block party called the Sutro Avenue Summer Soiree. “Of course, it’s hard to replicate the feeling you get from listening to live music in a public setting, but I think jazz fans who tune in will enjoy what they hear. This is the summer concert that COVID-19 can’t stop.”
Robertson, who contemplated canceling the festival this year, said although jazz fans are unable to gather in the heart of historic Leimert Park, they will be able to watch a pre-taped show via Facebook Live.
The third annual Leimert Park Jazz Festival – The Virtual Experience will air on Facebook from noon to 1:30 p.m. Aug. 29.
The festival lineup includes Munyungo Jackson’s Jungle Jazz Quartet, Michael O’Neill and Friends, MFUO, Dwight Trible and Sy Smith, featuring the Myron McKinley Trio.
“The event is not live because too many things could have gone wrong,” Robertson said. “This has been a really challenging undertaking. We wanted to comply so we made sure everyone was safe by social distancing. Each artist was free to record their portion wherever they wanted.”
Robertson said Munyungo Jackson and his Jungle Jazz Quartet (bass player Keith Jones, guitarist Errol Clooney and drummer Euro Zambrano) taped their appearance at the World Stage in Leimert Park.
The members of MFUO (guitarist Jacques Lesure, drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith, keyboardist Pete Kuzma and percussionist Christian Moraga) recorded in Lesure’s home.
Sy Smith recorded in her backyard and each band member of the Myron McKinley Trio (pianist Myron McKinley, bassist Ian Martin, and drummer/percussionist Stacey Lamont Sydnor) recorded from their respective homes.
Michael O’Neill and each member of his band (pianist David Witham, bassist Andrew Ford, and drummer Land Richards) also recorded in their respective homes.
The show is co-hosted by Robertson and Musichead’s Gallery and Just Jazz Café’s LeRoy Downs (aka The Jazzcat), who will interview participants throughout the two-hour event.
“LeRoy and I did our co-hosting section at the editor’s studio in Inglewood,” Robertson said. “We were properly physically distanced. All of the interviews with the participants were conducted via Zoom.”
This year Robertson introduced an inaugural art competition. Earlier this year she invited local artists to submit art they felt visually tells the story of Leimert Park and its jazz influence.
Artist Wendell Wiggins’ “Jazzfest In The Park’ won the competition and his art is being used for the inaugural poster.
Judges for the art competition included artists Patrick Henry Johnson and Michael Massenburg, Karen Mack (LA Commons), and arts consultant Terry Scott.
Robertson said the free, family-friendly festival has been newly branded to reflect the Leimert Park community.
“This year, I decided to rebrand the event because this neighborhood with its rich history needs its own festival,” said Robertson, an entertainment lawyer who lives in Leimert Park. “There are plenty of jazz festivals around Los Angeles, but there wasn’t one that spoke to the wonderful cultural heritage that embodies Leimert Park.”
To solidify the deal, Robertson approached Trible, executive director of the World Stage, to collaborate on curating a jazz stage.
“It resulted in a huge success in 2018,” Robertson said. “It was very well-received.”
Five years ago, the Leimert Park Jazz Festival started out as a block party on a residential street in Leimert Park. It featured a jazz stage, a wine lounge, kids zone, health and wellness zone, community resource zone, and more. Today, it has grown into a highly anticipated annual event.
Prior to this incarnation of the Leimert Park Jazz Festival, there was one produced by Diane Wimbish and Rhonda Mitchell from 1993-1996.
“The original Leimert Park Jazz Festival was the brainchild of Diana’s,” said Mitchell, a World Stage poet. “When she pulled me in, I was excited about it. I thought it was a great idea for the park. It brings out the best things about Leimert Park.”
Mitchell said she was happy to see the festival make a comeback.
“The community deserves it,” she said. “It’s nice to see all the arts back again. Our artists push us to the future. I’m rooted in the power of the community to heal. It’s a place where we were fed spiritually. It’s important to have that space in the community with artists. Back in the day, we would have 3,000 attend the festival. I think the community is calling for that again. Art is like something holy.”
Next year Robertson hopes the festival can, once again, be in person.
“My mission for the festival as it continues to be amplified, is that it’s a celebration of the jazz community and the cultural heritage of the historic Los Angeles neighborhood of Leimert Park,” said Robertson, a Brooklyn native. “For decades, Leimert Park has served as the cultural heartbeat of Black Los Angeles. My goal is for the Leimert Park Jazz Festival to become a premier jazz festival.”
In an effort to include local businesses in the area, Robertson has partnered with six local eateries that have agreed to offer a 20% discount on pickup orders on the day of the festival with the coupon code LeimertJazz2020. They include Hot & Cool Café, Ackee Bamboo Jamaican Cuisine, Post & Beam, Urban Taco, Orleans & York, and Swift Cafe and on a minimum order of $15.
The Leimert Park Jazz Festival is presented in partnership with L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, and L.A. City Councilman Herb J. Wesson.