Crown Jewels of Jazz Heritage Festival: An Interview with Kathy Wade

The nonprofit educational foundation, Learning Through Art, Inc. is hosting the Crown Jewels of Jazz Heritage Festival fund-raiser Wednesday, August 21st through Saturday, August 24th. The four day festival, a reboot of the Crown Jewels of Jazz Gala, will transform seven blocks of OTR into a Global Jazz Village, featuring stages in Washington Park and Mt Adams' Seasongood Pavilion. 

The organizers have put together a stellar lineup of talent featuring local, national and international award winning Jazz artists including Pieces of a Dream, Marc Fields Septet, Airwave Band featuring Dixie Karas, John Aiken, Keenan West, Gregory Porter, Phil DeGreg and the Samba Jazz Syndicate, Mandy Gaines, The Cincy Brass, Diane Schuur, Kathy Wade, and the Blue Wisp Big Band.

The concerts are free of charge, however, festival attendees can support Learning Through Art's signature program, the four-time Emmy nominated, award winning Books Alive! For Kids literacy program with the purchase of a Bands for Books Alive wristband. There are three levels of support. Attendees can purchase a one day band for $15, a four day band for $40 or a limited edition VIP wristband for $150. Each wristband entitles festival goers to a 10-25% discount at over 35 participating businesses. The VIP package includes 

  • VIP lawn seating at the Washington Park concerts
  • "Meet the Artist Receptions" hosted and sponsored by the Blue Wisp Jazz Club
  • VIP credentials for access to all VIP areas and events
  • VIP wristbands

Wristbands can be purchased directly from the Learning Through Arts website, the Aronoff Box Office and Segway of Cincinnati.

We sat down with Learning Through Art, Inc co-founder and CEO, Kathy Wade to take a deeper dive into the evolution of the Crown Jewels of Jazz Heritage Festival, the Books Alive! for Kids literacy program and using art to engage the minds of children and adults alike.

CM: How did you get started with education and fund-raising through the arts?
KW: My late husband (and I) founded Learning Through Art 20+ years ago. 

We had three concerts that we'd do every summer. The Hood is Bigger Than You Think Tour was our first three concert series. The whole purpose of every summer was, and is always, to "build bridges, break down barriers to bring neighbors and neighborhoods together to celebrate our mosaic beauty."  We'd always do something in the park and that  ended up being Seasongood (Pavilion.) We would do the Kids, Cultures and Crafts Festival at some partner organization; taking people to places where they might not have been able to go in or couldn't afford it or may not have felt welcome. And the third one was the Crown Jewels of Jazz, our signature fund-raiser, where we would recognize people with our Heart for the Arts Award. 

CM: Oh my! I remember the promotions on tv and radio for that. How did The Hood is Bigger Than You Think lead into what you're doing now?
KW: It sticks real closely with our Zoo Day. As a matter of fact the last summer of our The Hood is Bigger Than You Think Tour was the first year that we approached the Zoo about putting together an event. It was their 130th anniversary. About a month after the celebration I went to them and asked them to partner with us on our Kids, Cultures and Crafts Festival. The whole purpose is to get people to meet their neighbor and wouldn't it be neat to have people come to the center of the city to break down barriers. And by the way can you open your doors for free?  

CM: How did that go?
KW: We're in our eighth year of the program. The first three years were free of charge. The third year we had 30,000 people in the zoo and it only holds 25,000. We shut down all of Burnett Avenue.  After the third year we moved it from Friday to the third Wednesday in July. Now we charge $1. That takes care of the security and the clean up. And we take care of the program. 

CM: Did that affirm your believe that art is a way for people to come together? 
KW: Oh, absolutely! We just re-branded ourselves for our 20th anniversary which was last year. Our theme started of as "Building Tomorrow's Audiences Today." Then we went to "Building Community Through Art." And now it's "Don't Just Learn. Experience" because everything we do is experiential. Art is our most common bond. So our expression and appreciation of it is (part of) what makes us human. Art can take you places you never thought you would go and meet people you never thought you would meet. 

CM: It seems that you're a master of the art of engagement. What are your thoughts about using art to drive community engagement and how did you get started?
KW: I earned a Masters Degree in Arts Administration from University of Cincinnati. I was doing educational programs because in my head I thought if my high school asks me to come back and perform that means I've made it. So I got together with Bill Cunliffe  to put together a Black Anthology of Music program for a  friend who was doing an internship at Cincinnati Public Schools. So that's where it all started. Going back into schools. Knowing that careers take time, you've got to figure out what you're going to do in the meantime. Actually, Learning Through Art was not my idea at all. It was my late husband's. I think he realized from the programs I was doing in schools that it was a wonderful  way to set up a nonprofit and engage the community. 

CM: How did your signature fund-raiser, the Crown Jewels of Jazz Gala, which was a sit down, black tie affair, morph into a multi day Jazz festival?
KW: I've had the idea for a festival in mind since '96-'97. I always knew that it was cool to have the fund-raiser, but we spent a lot of money on food. And my thought was I'd rather have you come and listen to the music. So we pushed pause on the gala. Fast forward a few years and we decided it was probably time restart it. We were going to do one last November, but the new music director came in for the symphony on the same day as our fund-raiser. So we decided to postpone and go to festival mode this year. 

CM: What was the process of putting together the festival?
KW: We were initially going to do it at The Banks. But then we put in for the Arts Place grant, which looks at how art creates vibrancy in communities. So we decided to go up to Washington Park because there was so much transformation in the neighborhood. One of our most important goals was to keep the concerts free. It's simpler logistically and more inviting. But we also needed a fund-raising element. When we met with 3CDC (the organization that manages the park) we worked out a plan where we produce their Wednesday night jazz series and re-brand it the Crown Jewels of Jazz Series. That will give us 12 weeks of branding by the time the festival rolls around. Then we went to work booking the artists we thought would make a really hip jazz series and festival. 

CM: So the concerts are free and the fund-raising is through the sale of the wristbands. Explain a little about Books Alive! For Kids.
KW: Books Alive! For Kids is a performing arts literacy program that makes books come alive through sight, sound and touch for children from pre K - 3rd grade. Our focus is on urban and rural areas simply because that's were there's the most need. So they read the book, make a craft and see a show, all based on the book to get them engaged. Because if you can't read, you can't succeed. 

CM: What does the classroom experience look like?
KW: Here's an example. The book we built this pack around is called "We Had A Picnic This Sunday Past." So the teachers work with the kids to read the book. Then they enrich the experience by discussing things like how to set the table, serving food according to color, proper portion sizes, table manners, food groups, nutrition, exercise, calculating the cost of a balanced meal, vocabulary words, restaurant etiquette through role play and whatever else a teacher can come up with to engage the children. We top all that off with a craft and a live show done by The Children's Theater. 

CM: That makes for a deeper experience by making it fun and interactive, right?
KW: Absolutely. The success rate has been unbelievable. We're in 18 states right now. We're in a partnership with the Links Inc through their signature program Links For Success: Children Achieving Excellence. The partnership allows other chapters around the country to use our literacy program. We come in provide the training and materials that allow them to bring the program into schools. Locally, we've been at Bond Hill Academy for the past 14 years. Last year 83% of the 3rd graders passed the reading proficiency tests. This year 88% did. That's up from 40-50% range when we started.  

CM: Like we said back in the day, the proof is in the pudding! It's amazing that you've been able to reach out and affect the lives of so many through your love of music. How did you develop your love for jazz?
KW: Both of my parents were jazz aficionados. My dad listened to musicians on his off days. And my mom listened to vocalists on her days off. So I had the best of both worlds. 

CM: Who are some of your biggest influences?
KW: My mother would play Billie Holiday's Lady in Satin, Carmen McCrae and Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. To this day, one of my all-time favorite songs is I Loves You Porgy. My dad would play Coltrane, Byrd, Red Garland and all those guys. 

CM: Is it fair to say your parents planted the seeds for your love of jazz? 
KW: Yes! And the music. My sister was of the whole Motown era. So I got to hear it, love it and know all the artists. But everyone had to listen to jazz in our house. My dad would play what I called the Clap Song by Dave Brubeck. It's actually called  Unsquare Dance. It's a rhythmic song. There were six of us and we all had to find a rhythm and clap it. 

CM: Where should people go to hear great jazz in Cincinnati?
KW: Schwartz Point, Blue Wisp, The Greenwich, and It's Commonly Jazz in Washington Park. And of course everyone should come out to the Crown Jewels of Jazz Heritage Festival. My whole goal with this festival is to run it through social media. I really want it to go viral. It's jazz. It's America's classical music. And I don't care who you like out there in the spectrum of music. (If you're a fan) Everybody has to take the journey and at some point you're gonna come to jazz. 

It's part of the foundation of all the music in this country.