A Decade In, Big Ears is Part of Knoxville

Jason Moran and Milford Graves, Big Ears, Bijou Theatre, Knoxville, March 2018
Jason Moran and Milford Graves, Big Ears, Bijou Theatre, Knoxville, March 2018
Jason Moran and Milford Graves, Big Ears, Bijou Theatre, Knoxville, March 2018
Jason Moran and Milford Graves, Big Ears, Bijou Theatre, Knoxville, March 2018

The Big Ears Festival made its latest lineup announcement yesterday and, as always, the list includes luminaries in numerous musical genres all assembling for the festival next March. You can find the full list here, but even better, you can find samples of the work of each of the artists by clicking their photographs. I love the ability to have a small idea of what I’m about to encounter as I approach the festival each year — and it helps with making a personal schedule.

I met recently with Ashley Capps to discuss the festival as it approaches the tenth anniversary of its first incarnation. I found him, as always, excited about the latest line-up and keen to explain both the unique nature of the performers and performances, while simultaneously emphasizing their accessibility to a broad swath of music lovers.

The “unique conception and vision” of the festival has been well documented. The genre blending that happens with every festival has been widely praised by both artists and the press. Simply a list of the kind of press participating in this week’s announcement reveals the kind of attention Big Ears and, by association, Knoxville receives: Billboard, Stereo Gum, Rolling Stone and more.

Ashley pointed me to a quote from last year’s keynote address by Rhiannon Giddens that expresses it well: “This festival not only crosses boundaries…it completely ignores them. It dances over their grave.” It’s a bold description for any festival and it’s likely one that might be expected for a New York City event.

The festival not only blends and integrates numerous genres — some of which festival goers might not have previously known existed — it also blends gender and ethnicity more than any festival of which I am aware. Alongside the luminaries like Meredith Monk and Carla Bley (who will return this year) are younger virtuosos and innovators such as Joan La Barbara, Kim Kashkashian, Rachel Grimes, Mary Halvorson and many others.

This year features no shortage of world premieres, as well as performances of classic works. The Nashville Ballet will perform for the first time at the festival. It’s a first step into dance for the festival as it continues to expand and stretch into new directions. The performance will be one of the first performances of Lucy Negro Redux which features the poetry of Caroline Randall and the music of Rhiannon Giddens.

Each year has a musical focal point and this year it is the “Fifty year legacy of ECM records.” Featured artists from the label, such as the “Art Ensemble of Chicago, Jack Dejohnette with Ravi Coltrane, Ralph Towner, Carla Bley and others” will offer two dozen or more performances throughout the festival.

The thing most on Ashley’s mind in our conversation, however, was the impact Big Ears has had on Knoxville and the expanding integration of the two. Big Ears has become a non-profit and he hopes to see it become sustainable into the future, well beyond his personal involvement. This summer, the festival received a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts. He feels the festival can become even more of a signature event for the city.

Here’s Ashley:

Big Ears is Knoxville’s largest music festival, by any measure – it sells more tickets and presents more events and activities than any other cultural event in the region.  It fills our hotels, restaurants, shops and streets. Local restaurants and businesses have shared that Big Ears brings them big business, with some reporting that it is their biggest weekend of the year.

Big Ears embraces Knoxville’s cultural community, showcasing the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, the Knoxville Museum of Art, the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra, the University of Tennessee’s Nief-Norf,  UT’s Downtown Gallery; our extraordinary historic theaters, The Bijou and the Tennessee, as well as downtown landmarks like Church Street Methodist Church and St. John’s Cathedral. It highlights the unique venues that give Knoxville its special character:  Boyd’s Jig & Reel, the Square Room, the Standard, the Mill & Mine, Suttree’s and others. It weaves in the locally-based music, art, and poetry scenes and activates our public spaces with activity and free events.

Big Ears embraces, supports and highlights the arts education initiatives of the Community School for the Arts and the Joy of Music School; it encourages artists to conduct lectures and workshops for students at the University of Tennessee and opens up rehearsals and sound checks for young people to witness and experience the artistic process at work.

The importance of arts and culture in the economic vitality of our cities was recently illuminated by the study conducted by the Arts and Culture Alliance, in associations with Americans for the Arts.  Big Ears brings thousands of people to Knoxville from throughout the country and the world. During their stay, they live downtown – staying in our hotels, eating at our restaurants, shopping in our shops.  The nature of Big Ears directly engages visitors with our downtown businesses. It has a very direct and tangible impact.

As the above illustrates, the impact is tremendous and the impact runs two ways. Knoxville receives the economic and cultural impact of thousands of visitors — many of them international. At the same time, while being exposed to music from all over the world, visitors to Big Ears are also exposed to everything Knoxville. Would it be possible to expose them to more about our city in a four-day period than happens with Big Ears?

The Thing, Big Ears Festival, The Standard, Knoxville, March 2018
The Thing, Big Ears Festival, The Standard, Knoxville, March 2018

They hear our symphony orchestra and many other local artists. The see our unique historic buildings and experience our best venues and restaurants. They also experience our people, just as we experience a taste of their backgrounds and cultures. As community involvement expands, the festival becomes not only an expression of the music, but an expression of our city.

Check out the artist link above and pick up your tickets here. To live in this city and not experience this festival is a real loss.

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