Anyone who knows Attorney Diane Robertson will not be surprised that a global pandemic can’t keep her signature event, the Leimert Park Jazz Festival, from taking place this year. Robertson is a force of nature when it comes to organizing, advocacy and building community. And, while gathering in the heart of Los Angeles’ Black community won’t be possible this year, she has decided that the show must go on — online.
The Leimert Park Jazz Festival: The Virtual Experience will premiere Saturday, August 29 at 12 p.m. on Facebook Live. Robertson, the festival’s founder and executive producer, is keeping it true to its mission. It will be a celebration of jazz, community, and the cultural heritage of Leimert Park – albeit virtually.
The festival began in 2015 as a simple block party called the “Sutro Avenue Summer Soiree.” Since then, it has grown in size and scope every year.
“Our first year, it rained on the morning of the event, and people were calling and texting me, asking ‘What are you going to do? Are you going to cancel?’ I said, ‘If I’m the only one out there with an umbrella, this show is going on!,’” Robertson recalled. She fondly remembers the kind gesture from Lynetta McElroy, president of a nearby block club, who brought a green juice to her that morning to keep her energy up. Fortunately, the community came out, umbrellas in tow, and the event was a success.
The second year, Robertson added more community resources, activities such as chair yoga, and sponsors. By year three, the once small Sutro block party was drawing several hundred people over the course of the afternoon. The T.H.E. Clinic provided health screenings, Renee Fisher’s S.H.I.N.E. Mawusi Women’s African Drum Circle kicked things off with a musical blessing, and one of the surprise hits of the event was a local square-dancing troupe.
In 2018, Robertson approached the Executive Director of The World Stage, Dwight Trible, and asked him to co-curate a jazz stage at the event. He agreed and it was enthusiastically received by attendees. The rest is history in the making.
“Leimert Park did not have a core, eponymous jazz festival, and I thought that was a missed opportunity,” Robertson said. “I see the possibility of this becoming one of the premier jazz festivals in Los Angeles — certainly in South L.A. The Central Avenue corridor has much the same history, and that festival has been going on for almost two decades. That’s my vision for the Leimert Park Jazz Festival.”
Since the festival’s beginning, Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and Los Angeles City Council President Emeritus Herb Wesson have been great supporters and sponsors.
“Kudos to Diane for keeping this tradition going and creating a virtual experience where we all can still gather,” said Supervisor Ridley-Thomas. “I haven’t missed a year and I’ll be there again on the 29th.”
“The great thing about having the festival move online is that now even more people will be able to enjoy the event,” Wesson said. “This is the perfect opportunity for people to pull up a chair and have the Leimert Park music experience right from their living rooms or backyards.”
The total run time for the show is about one and a half hours, instead of the usual seven, and each act will perform for about 15 minutes. There will also be a new component of the event this year — an art competition showcase.
In the run-up to the festival, local artists were invited to submit a piece of art that was visually expressive of the Leimert park community and its jazz legacy. The winning entry, by artist Wendel Wiggins, is featured on this year’s inaugural poster.
On the virtual stage, Trible is back as part of a lineup that includes Michael O’Neill & Friends, Munyungo Jackson’s Jungle Jazz Quartet, Sy Smith ft. The Myron McKinley Trio, and Mfuo. LeRoy Downs, the popular host numerous festivals and concerns, as well asof KKJZ’s Just Jazz program, returns as this year’s emcee.
Trible says performing “live” in an online jazz festival is now just part of the new normal for many working musicians.
“I’m starting to really embrace this new concept because you actually get to reach more people,” Trible said.
“What hasn’t changed, whether it is performed live, in person, or in an online event, is the power of music to teach, soothe and heal,” he said.
Robertson is hopeful live events will be back next year but, until then, she’s thankful for the opportunity to present the festival virtually and showcase Leimert Park’s rich history as the central hub of African American music, art and culture in South Los Angeles.
Tune in to watch the Leimert Park Jazz Festival on Facebook Live @leimertparkjazzfestival, Saturday, August 29 at 12pm. For more information, check out the festival’s website at leimertparkjazzfestival.com.