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Evelyn Grgurich remembers the first time the lineup for this year's Sedona Jazz on the Rocks festival was discussed.

"I brought up Pat Metheny's name a few times," she recalls, referring to the experimental jazz guitarist. A seven-year member of the Jazz on the Rocks board, Grgurich also served a term as its president. "There are some members who think he's too wild. That gives you an idea how strict the focus is on mainstream jazz." A mainstream jazz festival in the land of new-age? Despite Sedona's reputation as Arizona's capital of crystals and good karma, Jazz on the Rocks has become one of the town's most successful annual events. Yet new-age musicians have never appeared on the bill. The music that does cascade out across Oak Creek is always near the middle of jazz's stylistic road. Although it hasn't made for the most exciting festival in jazz history, this devotion to the mainstream has been the key to Jazz on the Rocks' survival. The festival brings $1.2 million into the local economy every year, according to a study by Northern Arizona University. Last year, in its first outing in a new and larger location, the festival drew a sold-out crowd of 4,000.

Jazz on the Rocks, even though it's not the largest or most adventurous jazz festival around, has become one of the most popular music festivals in the state. And the distinctive geology in and around Sedona has helped to make Jazz on the Rocks one of the most beloved events on the musical calendar. This season is special because it marks the tenth year that jazz has echoed up Oak Creek.

IN PUTTING TOGETHER the annual lineup, the board of the jazz festival takes several criteria into account. The first, of course, is what its big-band-bred crowd will buy. According to the festival's own marketing study, its patrons come mostly from the conservative, 40- to 65-year-old jazz audience.

Catering to those tastes, this year's Jazz on the Rocks will feature headliner Nancy Wilson, Tuck and Patti, the Billy Mitchell Band, Jon Faddis with the Keith Greko Trio, the Doug MacLeod Band and the Count Basie Orchestra directed by Frank Foster.

A second consideration is what the board members themselves want to see. A majority of the board members are also in the 40- to 65-year-old age range and so have nearly the same tastes as the audience. After that, the board must contend with artists' touring schedules and, more importantly, asking prices in filling out the starting lineup. Many artists are simply out of the festival's price range.

"We looked at having George Benson," Grgurich remembers. "I think he wanted $50,000, so we said, `Thank you very much, but we won't be having George Benson in Sedona in the near future.'"

Or Oscar Peterson. "I would love to see Oscar Peterson come," says board president Ken Fisher of perhaps the most middle-of-the-road jazz performer on Earth. "But he is just such a big financial nut for us to crack. And I wish we could get George Shearing. The age of some of these players is catching up with them and we're not going to be able to have them if we don't get them soon."

How does a mainstream jazz festival thrive in an environment in which new-age musical giants like George Winston are local heroes? Despite Sedona's reputation as a vortex of new-age thought, Jazz on the Rocks has a decidedly non-new-age flavor. The closest this year's bill will get to new-age music is Tuck and Patti, a solid jazz duo which just happens to record for new-age giant Windham Hill Records.

According to Grgurich and Fisher, new-age music has come up in discussions. Like the other "fringe" genres, it gets shot down. But even with its basic consensus on what should and should not be included, the Jazz on the Rocks board still has enough creative differences to keep things interesting. "There are sparks that fly," admits Fisher. "We don't agree on everything. The board is very opinionated and sometimes there are bad feelings."

"We have a couple of people on the board," says Grgurich, "who would like to see us feature acts like Spyro Gyra or Kenny G. I think there are enough festivals around now that cater to that sort of music. They're not what the Sedona jazz festival is all about."

Not only has the board said no to soft jazz, it has also vetoed artists whose music it finds a bit too experimental. Nobody's even brought up the truly avant garde side of jazz as a possibility. When asked about Ornette Coleman's appearing in Sedona, Fisher is adamant.

"I frankly doubt that kind of music will ever be brought in as long as the configuration of the board remains as it is. We're a true-blue jazz organization and we will stay that way."

JAZZ ON THE ROCKS was founded in 1982 by Johnny Gilbert, a pianist at a popular local restaurant, the Oak Creek Owl. Titled "The Day Sedona Turned Jazz," the first festival drew 1,000 paying customers. Changing its name to "Jazz on the Rocks," the festival survived its sophomore year with the help of the Lake Montezuma Kiwanis Club. For its first two years the festival depended on local talent, like the jazz bands of Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University. Grgurich attended the second festival, but had no idea she would soon be involved in staging the third.

"It was a very loose, seat-of-the-pants operation," she remembers. "After the first two years they were many thousands of dollars in debt. It became evident that nobody was going to support it any longer unless some new management became involved. That's when about six of us local jazz fans got together and said, `Let's try to save this thing before there's nothing left to save.'"

She and the other newcomers decided to form a board of directors and incorporate. The first problem the new board had to face was the $12,500 debt the 2-year-old festival had run up. Grants and corporate donations paid off part of that sum. The rest came from an original poster, prints of which were sold during the concert. Posters commissioned from Arizona artists are staples of the festival today.

The new board also stuck its toe for the first time into the treacherous waters of booking national acts. In 1984, Les McCann became the first nationally recognized jazz figure to play Jazz on the Rocks. Since then, name acts like Joe Williams, Billy Eckstine, Louis Bellson, Diane Schuur and Buddy DeFranco have made the pilgrimage.

The festival has also had to contend with an adversarial relationship with the City of Sedona. Jazz on the Rocks' first site, a field near Sedona Elementary School called the Posse Grounds, was incorporated into the city in 1988.

The site is just off the city's main road, and as the festival grew traffic problems multiplied. Crowd control and beer and wine permits also became bones of contention.

Problems with the city and a need for more space--two years ago, 1,300 fans were turned away--prompted the board to find a new venue. To give the festival room to grow, the board moved it to the Verde Valley School grounds on the outskirts of town. Although construction of a badly needed amphitheatre in time for last year's festival cost Jazz on the Rocks $150,000 of its $250,000 annual budget, the new site can comfortably accommodate 4,000 people. Having experienced the growing pains typical of events like this, Jazz on the Rocks is poised to become a nationally recognized festival. But growth is the one question that truly divides this otherwise like-minded board. Some of the members are firmly entrenched in Sedona's no-growth ethic while others aspire to creating a jazz festival the size of Monterey or Montreux.

"We can't get monstrous, if for no other reason than because of physical limits," Grgurich explains. "Plus, I don't think we ever want to lose the sense of intimacy that a smaller event has."

Ken Fisher sees it another way. "The town is working on developing a site," he says, his excitement evident, "an amphitheatre for all the performing arts. It's about a 50-acre parcel. If we want to get any bigger, we certainly can."

The 1991 Sedona Jazz on the Rocks festival will be held at Verde Valley School Amphitheatre outside Sedona on Saturday, September 28. Showtime is 9:30 a.m. until dusk.

"We don't agree on everything. The board is very opinionated and sometimes there are bad feelings."

Not only has the board said no to soft jazz, it has also vetoed artists whose music it finds a bit too experimental.

"We're a true-blue jazz organization and we will stay that way."


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Dave McElfresh