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Cambridge Jazz Festival History

What has led us to become Cambridge Jazz Foundation, is the history of Cambridge Jazz Festival which was born through the combined talents and efforts of former Cambridge City Counsellor Larry Ward, and Ron Savage, Dean of the Professional Performance Division at Berklee College of Music. Both shared a passion and vision of creating a jazz festival in Cambridge. At the suggestion of Jason Weeks, Executive Director of Cambridge Arts, Larry and Ron joined forces in preparation for what has become the largest jazz festival in the history of Cambridge

The first meeting between Larry and Ron took place at Ron's office at Berklee. Larry rode his bicycle for what he thought would be a short meeting that would simply serve as a "get to know you" meeting. At the onset of the meeting, both stated they were pressed for time. However, once they started the "get to know you" process, the meeting lasted for almost three hours. Larry described it as an instinctual connection. Within minutes they realized they had a kinship both being from the south. Ron is from NC and Larry grew up in VA spending his summers in NC since his father was from NC.

By the end of the meeting, they decided the first festival would take place in July (2014), only giving themselves eight months to pull it off. Both of them stated that the most important step they took was to agree upon three guiding principles that to this day remains the measuring stick for success. First, is to be organized, second, have good music, and third, make sure everybody you promise money gets paid. With those principles, they both were responsible for the organization of the festival. Ron was responsible for assuring good music, and Larry had to raise money, fast! 

Larry started by applying for a $2,000  "feasibility grant."  Thinking it would be a slam dunk, he was shocked when the grant was soundly rejected on the basis no experience of running a festival, no financial backing, and only eight months to when the first festival was to kick off. The granting committee felt there was no chance of them being successful. Needless to say, they were very disappointed, given the facts that Larry had done organizing for more than 10 years and Ron had played in over 200 festivals. While discouraged they were not deterred. Of course, people questioned if there was enough time and could the needed money be raised. 

Larry reached out to friends Elizabeth Bartles, and Kathy and Rick Kosinski for help to organize the festival. This group would become the beginnings of the founding members. Week after week, meetings took place and details were being ironed out. As the planning unfolded, other founding members included Deena Anderson who became the stage manager, Mari Badger, developed the website and marketing materials, Donna Deangelis was the day of manager, responsible for the overseeing the festival, Alessandra Fix, and Cia Lee, both high school students handled getting volunteers and social media. While the founding members were busy organizing, Ron was putting together a line-up of GRAMMY winning performers that was unheard of for a first time festival with a very limited budget.


As the months passed, things started to come together and pieces felt into place. A venue was one of those critical pieces. Initially, Larry proposed Danehy Park for the festival. For assistance, Larry reached out to Denise Jillson, Executive Director of the Harvard Square Association and the go to person on running events in Cambridge. She rightfully, suggested a venue with easier subway access might be better to start with. As a former City Councillor, Larry reached out to a colleague and then Mayor David Mahr. With his excitement about having a jazz festival and the ability to make things happen, the Mayor arranged a meeting with Jay Kiley who managed the Forest City property in Central Square. Jay willingly agreed to host and the site was secured! 

There was still the issue of money. The budget for the festival was set at a modest $37,000. This would cover everything from musicians, city fees, and operational fees such as stage, generators, police detail, and whatever else had to be paid for. Larry reached out and graciously got sponsorships from MIT, Harvard, Forest City, as well as others. In addition, many folks provided in-kind help that was invaluable. With just a couple of months to go, the festival was still short of the needed funding. A decision had to be made if it was going to happen or not. Less than two days from pulling the plug, a very generous  donor stepped in and provided the $20,000 needed to have the festival. Larry has often stated that his father always told him "money is not always what you need." This was a valuable lesson, because without the dedication, hard work, time, and sheer will, no one would have stepped up to insure the festival had enough money.

The festival was scheduled for the last Sunday in July. Larry and Ron picked July because it was the month with the least amount of rain in MA. CJF being an outdoor festival, with no rain date, having good weather was critical.

The day came and what happened, it rained! Not just rain, it RAINED! All throughout the day, act after act, it rained.

Larry had confessed to his wife, "I would have been ecstatic if 300 people had showed up without the rain". In spite of the rain, 2,500 people came and the founding team performed magnificently.

As was mentioned earlier, Ron was putting together an unbelievable line-up. When Larry would tell people who was playing he was met with awe and disbelief. Time after time, people would say, "Terri Lyne Carrington doesn't play first time festivals." Terri Lyne Carrington, who had won her first of three GRAMMY's was the headliner. On top of that, she brought a "special guest" who happened to be Valerie Simpson of famed Motown legends Ashford and Simpson. The lineup started with the Toth Brothers, George Russell Jr., Eguie Castrillo, Ron Savage Trio, and ended with Terri Lyne and Valerie, who brought out the sun.

Since Larry and Ron did not know what to expect, Bob Hurlbert of the Cambridge Community Foundation agreed to serve as the non-profit conduit for CJF. This allowed all sponsorships and donations to be tax deductible. Larry, Ron, and the core team walked away from the first year with one thing in mind, they wanted to do it again. Knowing the goal was to continue the festival, Ron and Larry decided to convert CJF into a non-profit organization. Not all were in agreement that the timing was right. However, knowing that they wanted the festival to grow, Larry and Ron steadfastly perused obtaining 501(c)(3) status for CJF.

The process of obtaining 501(c)(3) status can be somewhat daunting. The mounds of paperwork and time it took to get it right was overwhelming. Obtaining the 501(c)(3) status also meant CJF had to form a Board of Directors. To help with the process, Larry reached out to Deborah Avant who was serving as the treasurer for CJF. She introduced Larry to Pat Washington. They hit it off instantly. Pat was a retired Blue Cross/Blue Shield Vice President and had attended the very first festival. She was impressed and excited by what she saw and stated she would be willing to help. Larry and Deborah immediately asked if she would be willing to serve as the first board president and she accepted. In the fall after the first year, Pat, Deborah and Larry spent countless hours working on the paperwork to obtain 501(c)(3) status. Pat who is a stickler for details really drove the process and kept everything on track. Larry has stated going through the process assured him that Pat was the right person to be the first leader of CJF. After countless weeks of struggle, the paperwork was submitted and the wait was on.

On April 15th, 2105 we got the news that was music to our ears. CJF was officially granted 501(3)(c) status by the US Internal Revenue Service. Not only were we granted the designation, we got it on the first attempt with no errors (thanks Pat), and without hiring or even consulting a lawyer. Our IRS officer in her congratulatory phone call said "you did the next to impossible, you got it right on the very first try." This came right in time to start raising funds for year two.

In five short years, CJF has garnered two prestigious awards. The first is The Berklee Urban Service Award, which honors people who make a difference in Boston communities. The second is the 2018 NAACP Drum Major for Community Award, which honors people who make a difference in Cambridge.

The attendance has grown from 2,500 in 2014 to over 15,000 in 2018. CJF has also awarded over $5,000 in scholarships to individuals and the City of Cambridge. 

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