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CLIFFORD BROWN JAZZ FESTIVAL


“In Tina Betz’s eyes, Wilmington looks a lot like New Orleans.”

Valerie Helmbreck, The News Journal, June 24, 1990

That was the opening line from when The News Journal covered Rodney Square’s first jazz festival in 1990. Now, 30 years later, Tina Betz is the city’s Cultural Affairs director and still behind the scenes and praying away the rain in the days leading up to the Clifford Brown Jazz Festival, the largest free jazz festival on the east coast.

This year’s festival runs June 19-22 and kicks off with a community celebration near the site of Clifford Brown’s family home on the East Side this Sunday, but a quick look into history tells us that the festival had a different name when it debuted. A very ‘80s name. So we started our chat by asking Tina: What’s up with that? …

“You mean 'Jazzin' on the Square?' Yeah, that was my idea, back in the dark ages of 1988. I don’t know. I was trying to be cute with the apostrophe at the end.”

“It was the next year that some folks approached then Mayor Dan Frawley and said that it would be appropriate to name the festival after Clifford Brown. And it made total sense. Clifford Brown grew up here in Wilmington. He attended Howard High School and was taught by Boysie Lowery – which is who the Light Up the Queen Foundation’s jazz residency is named after. The street where his house sat is now Clifford Brown Walk on Wilmington's East Side.”

“So we honor the fact that he is one of Wilmington's talented children, and in in the very short time that we had him with us, he earned all the respect that we're giving him.”

What was that first year like?

“The idea, to have a multi-day music festival in downtown Wilmington, had not been done up to that point. Wilmington at that time had lost some of the some of the vibrancy it had back in the 50s and the early 60s. And so this was an idea to try to bring some of that vitality back.”

“That first year was definitely, you know, a first year. We were still figuring it out. I do remember sitting in the RV waiting for the rain to stop and saying to myself, 'Why would you do an outdoor Festival, when you have no control over the rain?' Maybe a thousand people attended. But by the second year, you knew that this was something that was good for the community and had some something that was lasting about it. It was clear this was going to be a Wilmington tradition. In retrospect.”

The crowds have grown over the years.

“Every year, we know that there are people who come to the festival from all around the world, because we ask. People start calling in November about next year's festival. So it's it is become world renown and, fortunately, it's a festival that our local community also has come to appreciate as well.”

What are you looking for when you book the acts?

“So we try to have at least one trumpeter who plays the festival. That’s a nod to Clifford Brown that I don't think there has been a year that I've programmed it where there hasn’t been at least one trumpet player.”

“After that, I look at who's played the festival, who's got a new project – we try to do as few repeats as possible. And I ask colleagues, who would you like to see? Have you presented them before? And are they low drama? The ones who are low or no drama, that’s where we want to go.”

“But it’s also about taking a look at the breadth and the depth of the jazz genre. The question sometimes always comes up: ‘Is that really jazz?’ It’s a question that probably goes back as long as there’s been jazz, and it will probably be here long after I'm gone … at least gone from the Clifford Brown Jazz Festival, and probably beyond that. It’s nice to be able to show how jazz has so many different textures and so many different interpretations. I think it's a good question to ask because that means people are thinking about the music. So continue to think about it. And experiment with it.”

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