Poncho Sanchez headlines 4th Leimert Park Jazz Festival

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By Darlene Donloe

Contributing Writer

CRENSHAW — The fourth Leimert Park Jazz Festival, a celebration of jazz, community and the cultural heritage of its historic neighborhood namesake takes place Aug. 26 from 12:30 to 9 p.m. at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Mall.

What began as a community block party, has grown into one of the area’s premier musical events.

With a mission to build and strengthen the community while celebrating and showcasing the artistic and cultural spirit of the historic Leimert Park neighborhood, the jazz festival has become a highly anticipated summertime event.

Executive produced by Diane Robertson in association with World Stage, this year’s free jazz festival features both up-and-coming artists and established jazz veterans.

Robertson recently announced that “due to unforeseen circumstances,” Stanley Clarke, who was previously announced as this year’s headliner, had to cancel.

“We still have a stellar lineup,” said Robertson, an entertainment lawyer. “I feel blessed to have this caliber of jazz musicians on the lineup of what is a relatively young festival.”

This year’s roster lineup includes Poncho Sanchez, Carmen Lundy, Keyon Harrold, Gerald Clayton and the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz Performance at UCLA Alumni featuring Darynn Dean on vocals; Billy Mohler on bass; David Otis on alto sax; Jonathan Pinson on drums; and Mira Sprague on piano.

“We have something new this year,” said Robertson, a Brooklyn native. “We will have an inaugural emerging artist set this year featuring Veritas Miller with his band Truth Troupe as the opening act.”

This year’s co-emcees are Leroy Downs of radio station KCRW and Jose Rizo of KJAZZ.

While the music is the highlight, there will also be small retail pop-ups including five retailers from the mall, a wine and beer lounge, a food court with 16 food vendors, a kids’ zone and more.

“This festival is about great music and economic development, promoting and showcasing the small business owner in Leimert Park,” Robertson said. “We are supporting local Black businesses. This illustrates how Black businesses can collaborate.”

Robertson said that in launching the festival she wanted to positively impact the community by providing access to quality jazz programming that is free of charge.

“I always wanted this event to be free,” she said. “It was important to me that it remained a free event for the community. But, I am considering charging an entrance fee next year. It will always be a low cost. There will also be senior and children discounts.”

Even though she has four years of producing the festival under her belt, Robertson said she still faces a number of challenges mounting the show.

“First, I’m not a concert producer,” she said. “This is not a business for me. I wanted to do something for my community. It just kept growing. 

“Each year we learn how to do certain things better. Each year there are additional lessons to be learned. I can’t say it’s easier,” she added. “There are unique challenges to overcome. Those challenges present opportunities to learn, grow and get better.”

Robertson began planning this year’s show last September. Due to a limited budget, she wears most of the production hats.

“As the executive producer, I do a lot,” she said. “I really do wear many hats. I do everything from fundraising, booking the artists, social media, accounts payable, hiring security, identifying the food vendors and more. I do have a volunteer coordinator, and I have a very strong production manager in Pat Shields. She has been a huge asset.”

Shields, who calls Robertson “a visionary,” has worked on the festival since 2021.

Her responsibilities include supervising arrangements for building out the festival site — tents, fencing, bathrooms and security, and working with the food vendors to get their permits approved by the county health department. She also works with Robertson and the festival’s architectural firm to design the layout of the site and obtain the permits needed from the various city agencies.

“Diane is really passionate about providing a quality, free family event for the community and I like that,” Shields said. “I was impressed how she grew this festival from one block to its current site and knew that my organizational skills could help her.”

“Pat has this calming spirit about her,” Robertson said. “I’ve never seen her feathers get ruffled but she’s seen mine on several occasions.”

“I’m solution-oriented so I’m always looking for ways to fix a problem,” Shields said. “In my experience, there’s always a solution and you need a clear head to work out all scenarios. I’m also the voice of reason if any of the ideas are not feasible for financial or logistical reasons.”

“I’m so thankful she’s on board,” Robertson said.

This year Robertson anticipates a huge turnout.

“I never intended to start a jazz festival,” said Robertson, who manages to produce the festival while holding down a full-time job. “I feel like it’s a baby I birthed. Now that it’s here, I want to see it grow up and be the best it can be.  I’m anticipating between 3,000-3,500 this year.”

Robertson, who lives in Leimert Park, is passionate about her neighborhood.

I care about my community,” said Robertson, a block club leader and an elected board member of the neighborhood council. “What I contribute to it takes different forms. I feel it’s incumbent on me to see it through. The festival is contributing to the legacy of bringing Black arts and culture to Los Angeles. It’s to highlight, honor and preserve. Community service and civic engagement is a part of my personal definition of a purpose-driven life.”

Robertson is also a newly appointed commissioner on the Los Angeles Commission on Civil Rights and is on the advisory committee member of the African American Historic Places Project.

The festival’s companion art competition provides a platform for South L.A.-based visual artists.

Robertson recently announced Steven O’Connor was the winner of this year’s festival’s annual art competition.

A Los Angeles-based logo design professional with 25 years of experience, O’Connor won a $1,000 cash prize for the entry “Bass in Your Face.”

Finalists included Amanda Flowers for her entry “The Juke #97,” and Julian Portugal Gooden for “Sax 2023.”

The art competition judges were artist, animation director and filmmaker Lyndon J. Barrois, Sr., CAAM Board Member V. Joy Simmons, who is also an art collector and philanthropist; Erin Stennis, an art consultant; and Dominique Moody, an assemblage artist and visual griot.

Robertson stresses that everyone planning to attend the festival should check the website and click “Know Before You Go” to see prohibited items.

There is a clear bag policy with size restrictions. If the bag is not clear, it can’t be bigger than a clutch.

No outside beverages, food, coolers, chairs or umbrellas are allowed.

“We have a beer and wine lounge and food vendors,” Robertson said. “The restrictions are there so that the vendors can make money.”

While there is ample parking, Robertson also encourages the use of the K-Line.

Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at ddonloe@gmail.com.

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