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UPDATED: COC pulls plug on Downs jazz fest this year

Would have been event's 34th year

Posted: January 13, 2009 1:42 p.m.
Updated: January 13, 2009 2:05 p.m.

Dirk Fischer and KC Manji teamed to present the 2005 R.K. Downs Festival and conduct the keynote performance by the Studio Jazz Ensemble big band. Fischer had just turned over the baton to her, after 27 years as head of the COC music department and the band's conductor/arranger.

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In another sign of hard times for local arts, the R.K. Downs Jazz Festival, staged by College of the Canyons' music department since 1975, has been canceled this year, an official said Tuesday.

The annual festival, which would have marked its 34th year in February, is hosted by COC's Studio Jazz Ensemble big band and showcases the best jazz groups from local high school music programs, as well as groups from CalArts and other areas.

"This cancellation only affects 2009, and we plan to host the Festival in 2010," Floyd A. Moos said in an e-mail to COC and high school music directors Monday. Moos is COC's dean of fine and performing arts.

The all-day festival was scheduled Feb. 21 and was to be hosted by KC Manji, head of the COC music department and conductor of the Studio Jazz Ensemble.

The decision to pull the plug on this year's festival, which Moos and music department administrators made after a series of discussions with Manji and others in the department, combined creative and financial concerns, Moos said in an e-mail exchange with The Signal on Tuesday.

"The main factor (prompting the cancellation) was that the Studio Jazz Ensemble (COC's Music 153 course), a group that regularly performs at the festival, was not scheduled to perform this year," Moos said.

"KC Manji felt that since the Studio Jazz Ensemble class doesn't begin again until the spring 2009 semester commences on Feb. 9, the group would have only met twice - Tuesdays, Feb. 10 and Feb. 17 - and (that) was insufficient time to get the ensemble ‘performance-ready,'" Moos wrote in the e-mail.

He cited the California budget crisis as the other main reason for putting the event on hiatus.

"Until the state budget situation is clear, the music department is trying to be fiscally conservative," Moos said. "Due to greater student interest and a growing faculty, the department has expanded their vocal and instrumental performance groups in the last few years.

"This growth, of course, demands additional departmental fiscal support, and in addition to the state's uncertain budget, contributed to this one-time decision."

Moos was not able to put a dollar figure on the savings that will result from the cancellation.

"As is the case with many simple questions, it's almost impossible to answer," he wrote. "Most of the festival costs are labor-related: lighting, audio, production, usher coordination, custodial, etc. Then there are the materials for printing costs (programs), poster design and printing, etc., and costs for advertising and marketing as well. I'm sorry I can't give an exact figure, and my guess is that even the list of costs I've included (here) is missing something."

Moos confirmed next year's R.K. Downs festival is already on the calendar for Saturday, Feb. 20, 2010.

"We will offer COC Studio Jazz Ensemble (Music 153) in the winter intersession to allow for sufficient lead-in rehearsal time," he said.

Moos said the decision to cancel the festival will have no permanent effect on COC's jazz program.

"Our plans for spring and fall 2009 remain constant," he said. "Faculty, of course, are disappointed that this year's festival was canceled, but they understand that (Music 153) remains an important component of the overall music program."

The effect on local high school jazz programs remains to be seen.

"To many high school bands, the appeal of performing at the R.K. Downs Festival is its calendar placement," Moos said. "Scheduled early in the year, it gives high school bands, who have been rehearsing since August, another opportunity to perform in large venue before the adjudicated spring music festivals occur later in the year."

"I took Canyon (High School's jazz band) to the Downs festival every year until I left," said Randy Gilpin, Canyon's music director for 25 years before he moved to Ranch Pico Junior High five years ago as instrumental music director. He also started the jazz program there.

"The Downs festival originally provided a low-key, low-pressure opportunity for the high school bands to get early season performance experience, share in each others' performances and show off a little for the local community," Gilpin said. "It also recognized and showed appreciation for the important contributions of Robert Downs to local music education."

The festival was founded and is named after the COC Music Department's first chief, Robert K. Downs, a noted instructor and veteran of music programs in the U.S. Army and William S. Hart High School. Downs died more than a decade ago.

Dirk Fischer headed the department and conducted the Studio Jazz Ensemble for 27 years, through the end of 2004. He wrote many arrangements -- including two just last year -- still played by the 17-piece group, which has long served as a musical ambassador for the college.

Nearly a dozen jazz groups representing Santa Clarita Valley schools, including COC's Studio Jazz Ensemble, played the 2008 R.K. Downs festival. A band visiting from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas also appeared.

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