The inaugural Camellia City three-day jazz festival to be held on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, Slidell, Louisiana, USA, starting 7th October 2017 is the culmination of a long-held dream by jazz lovers, Will Bias and Diane Colmore- Bias – one that started to take root in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Kreol Magazine is a partner and sponsor of the festival and editor Georgina Dhillon spoke to the organisers about the event and what it could mean for the area.

A love of jazz has become a mission for the husband and wife team responsible for bringing the first festival of its kind to Slidell. Will and Diane are passionate about smooth jazz but the step from being fans to promoters with their own production company isn’t one many people take, so what made them do it, I wanted to know?

As so often is the case, something drastic had to happen first. The catalyst for Will and Diane was Hurricane Katrina which swept across the Gulf coast, including southeast Louisiana in 2005, with devastating consequences. One of the many victims of Katrina was the New Orleans jazz scene which was effectively silenced after many of the popular venues were flattened. This had dire consequences for the musicians who had nowhere to perform, as well as for fans, who were deprived of their favourite music. This is where Will and Diane enter the story.

Guests during the Launch of the festival held at Bayou Haven Bed and Breakfast in Slidell

Guests during the Launch of the festival held at Bayou Haven Bed and Breakfast in Slidell

Resurrecting the jazz scene

Right after Katrina, we opened up a supper club in the garden district of New Orleans because our local artists just didn’t have anywhere to perform. Everything was just a mess and everybody was at a low point. The artists wanted to perform. There was a real need!

Having bought a building, established a club, and formed their own company – Jin Jeans Productions – musicians and fans were soon flocking to the new venue on a weekly basis. Apart from resurrecting the jazz scene in the area, benefit gigs helped local causes such as the St Augustine High School marching band which had lost all its musical equipment and uniforms in Katrina. The benefit managed to raise $80,000. Other partnerships with local groups would follow. Over the coming years, Jin Jeans Productions expanded, still working with local musicians mainly, but then inviting national and international jazz musicians to come and perform.

Diane explains:

Will and I were travelling the circuit of smooth contemporary jazz festivals like Sea Breeze and Monterey, as well as events in Europe. We started approaching artists and asking them why weren’t they coming to New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz? They were saying it was because no one was inviting them – so we did!

This, in time, would help to forge the distinctive Jin Jeans model of blending together national and internationally renowned jazz artists with the talent of local musicians and creating an exciting fusion of contemporary jazz, Big-Easy style. Their aim was to produce first-class concerts and jazz events that would help to promote the culture of contemporary jazz through spotlighting national and international jazz artists, music and culture. But, as Will says, “Jin Jeans also wanted to offer hard-working adults an escape from the daily grind by relaxing over the sounds of the soul of New Orleans, which is its music. The culture of jazz is as important today as it was in the early Louis Armstrong years; that awareness bridges gaps and connects communities that otherwise would never cross paths.”

Connecting with the community

There has always been a strong connection with the community and, over the years, Will and Diane have organised a diverse range of programmes to help support music education and the preservation of New Orleans’ culture, especially as it relates to the young and other culture bearers. Having moved their base from New Orleans to Lake Pontchartrain in Slidell, St Tammany parish, Jin Jeans attracted some of the biggest names on the smooth jazz scene, including Brian Simpson, Nick Colionne, Elan Trotman, Lin Rountree, Karen Briggs, Marcus Anderson, and prominent local artists. So where did the idea for a jazz festival come from and why specifically a smooth jazz event?

“We have lots of wonderful jazz festivals here, but we don’t have a smooth jazz festival in the state of Louisiana,” says Diane. Having followed the contemporary smooth jazz scene for many years, she says they fell in love with the ambience the music creates. “It’s something that you have to witness for yourself. Smooth jazz is transcending, it’s transforming and has the ability to connect the millennials with old school baby boomers all in a sound. We just want to bring the music to this region and allow people to experience what we have experienced for years.”

For people still not entirely sure, Will explains the space that smooth jazz occupies: “A lot of the time when we think of jazz we think of artists like Miles Davis. There’s also traditional jazz and Dixie, which people are used to in this region. Smooth jazz is like the next thing from R&B – this is music you can dance to!” Turning their dream of hosting a three-day festival into a reality has taken a lot of work and backing from the community to make it happen. All sectors of St Tammany parish, including local businesses of all sizes, civic organisations, tourist commission and even the local school board are getting behind the project. The October festival will be the first of it’s kind in Louisiana and is also the first time Will and Diane have staged an outside event, but with 15 years’ experience to draw on, they are excited rather than daunted by the challenge.

Giving something back

As Diane explains: “Will and I have never taken no for an answer. I’m a stickler for organisation. I pretty much spearhead the front of things while Will works behind the scenes, making sure everything is up to par, from security to sound. We also have a tremendous group working with us and without them and the support of the community, the festival wouldn’t be possible.” As well as drawing visitors to the area and benefiting local businesses, Diane says the jazz festival has three components that will “give something back to the community”. These include the auctioning of an art piece, with proceeds going to an adopted school; a percentage of all ticket sales shared with non-profit organisations in the area such as Habitat for Humanity; and a partnership with a local music company to restore damaged instruments and donate these to the music department of an adopted school.

The festival itself will include a golf tournament, sip-n-sail jazz cruise, and a full-day, outdoor smooth jazz experience and jazz brunch to end the weekend. Performers already booked include Gerald Albright, Alex Bugnon, Chieli Minucci, Gerald Veasley, Steve Oliver, Marcus Anderson, Stephanie Jordan, 3rd Force, Joey Sommerville, Generation NeXt, Bill Summers, New Orleans Allstars, and more. “This event is poised to become an annual anchor of the region and the experience of a lifetime. We are delighted to be the owners of this event that has catalytic potential for the greater New Orleans region. However, it would not be possible without a professional and dedicated key personnel and supporting staff,” says Will.

There is no doubting Will and Diane’s enthusiasm and ambition for what the Camellia City Smooth Jazz Festival can achieve, and they welcome more ideas and suggestions. As Will says:

We are open for ideas and suggestions, because what we want to do is grow and broaden and we don’t know everything. That’s a good thing because we are willing to learn, so we want to partner with people and have people come with ideas.

The festival is being held at the Northshore Harbor Center from 7th October. For more information on tickets and sponsorship packages, visit http://camcityjazzfest.com/