Tim Jackson

By Scott MacClelland

You can’t tell from speaking with Tim Jackson if his jazz career has ever faced a genuine crisis or taken a serious bump. On the contrary, the artistic director of the Monterey Jazz Festival (MJF) and the Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz usually sounds entirely unperturbed. Perhaps that’s the result of his coming of age on the laid-back sunny side of Monterey Bay.Tim Jackson Photo r.r. jones color

Jackson’s love of jazz was kindled by the blues, starting when he was a 7th grader. That beginning became a settled matter “by early high school,” he says, when he took up guitar and bass. He later added saxophone and, out of high school, the flute—the instrument he plays to this day. For Jackson, the beguilement of jazz “is based on its rhythmic pulse and its harmonic movement, but, essentially its improvisation and emotion.”

The idea to build a home for jazz in Santa Cruz came from Rich Wills who, along with Sheba Burney and Jackson, formed the core that launched Kuumbwa. “We went to flea markets to raise money to put on our first concert, April 6, 1975,” Jackson says with a certain pride. Then he moved the vision to the Laurel School (now Loudon Nelson Center). “We played for free and took donations.” The “very grassroots” effort led them to secure a 501c3 nonprofit tax status which paid off with some early grants. “James Coleman proposed we call ourselves by the Swahili word kuumbwa, which means spontaneous creativity.” Kuumbwa Jazz Center opened at its present location in May 1977.

Prior to this new, purposeful direction in his life, Jackson was playing flute in local gigs, surfing and working as a cook at the Crow’s Nest. He went to San Jose State to study with Isabelle Chapuis Starr and, independently, with jazzman Paul Contos, who, as the MJF’s Education Director and Next Generation Jazz Orchestra director, Jackson always credits among the festival’s champions. Jackson also credits his studies of classical music with Alvin Cromwell at Cabrillo College.

Kuumbwa “evolved,” says Jackson. “When you’ve got a venue, you’ve got bills to pay, so it has to stay in use.” Describing himself as ‘the last man standing,’ Jackson recalls, “I’m the one who had the consistent force, here every day. The others left after a period of time.” He and his board started renting out the facility, which, importantly, already had a kitchen. “Now it’s one of the main performing-arts venues in Santa Cruz County.”

When he learned, around 1990, that MJF co-founder Jimmy Lyons was planning to retire, “I reached out to Ruth Fenton,” the only member of the MJF board of directors whom he knew at the time. (Fenton was a Kuumbwa supporter and he also knew her as the founder of Youth Music Monterey.) “I had two meetings with the [MJF] board and in the spring of ‘91 they offered me the position.” He served as General Manager until 2011 when his title and responsibilities were refocused as Artistic Director. (He’s currently handling some of those earlier management tasks while the festival goes through some internal administrative adjustments.) The MJF’s budget is $3.7 million; Jackson has a full-time staff of nine year-round, but before and during the annual September weekend festival, volunteers, vendors and seasonal staff rise to something close to 200. Among others on his team Jackson cites Contos, marketing director Timothy Orr, and Rob Klevan, of UC Santa Cruz and CSU Monterey Bay, who is in charge of the Vocal Jazz Ensemble. (He also praises Bobbi Todaro who, as Kuumbwa’s managing director, keeps that motor humming.)

Jazz education is a huge part of both Kuumbwa and the MJF. (The latter pours upwards of $600K into its education programs each year.) Thanks in part to the Monterey Jazz Festival Noto, on Japan’s Noto Peninsula at Nanao, a sister city of Monterey, the MJF’s 2014 Next Generation Jazz Orchestra—21 high school musicians from California, Florida, New Jersey, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Washington State—preceded its September appearance at the MJF with a concert tour in July and early August that included Yoshi’s in San Francisco, the MJF Noto, the Tokyo TOC Jazz Club and Tomisato Jazz Festival.

It’s not too early to pencil into your calendar the 58th Monterey Jazz Festival, September 18-20, 2015. And you can track Kuumbwa on our Weekly PAMB Calendar.

Portrait photo by r.r. jones