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June 2008
Vol 87: No. 3
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All that jazz
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All that jazz

Rob Gibson has built a career around the love of music he developed while at UGA

by Kelly Simmons

Thursday night, a quarter to 10 and the Red Stick Ramblers are gearing up for their second show of the night, another 90 minutes of foot-stomping, hand-clapping, Cajun dance music. Outside the Charles H. Morris Center, where the show is scheduled, a man in a suit and tie pulls up on a bicycle, reflectors flashing in the glow of the streetlights. Rob Gibson (AB ’81) dismounts and greets guests who mingle in an adjacent tent, picking up tickets or sipping wine. Then, as quickly as he arrived, he zips away again—this time headed home to change into a more comfortable pair of slacks and sweater. Fifteen minutes later, he walks onto the stage, welcomes the crowd to the seventh different concert that day, and then joins them to enjoy the performance. Day eight of the Savannah Music Festival is drawing to a close. Nine to go.

Gibson is the wizard behind the curtain at the festival, responsible for the 86 performances that will draw more than 61,000 people over a nearly three-week period. Begun as small series of concerts across 10 days, it is now the state’s largest musical arts event and has become a nationally recognized festival, drawing international artists and guests. The 2008 edition, which ran from March 19 to April 5, was the biggest yet, generating $876,000 in ticket sales, a 16 percent increase over the previous year. Timed to coincide with Savannah’s prestigious Tour of Homes, the festival is credited with generating an additional $25 million for the local economy.

“The connection between art and commerce is healthy for both this community and our culture at large,” Gibson says.

Originally called Savannah Onstage International Arts Festival, the event focused on classical music and featured a singing competition. Much smaller, it operated on a budget of $600,000 to $700,000 a year and was held primarily in local churches. When Gibson arrived in 2002, the program had a five member staff and a six-figure debt.

“I figured it would take three to five years to turn it around,” he says. He began working the local community and finding corporate sponsors to invest in the program. He sought artists, and audiences, attempting to offer a little something for everyone. The new SMF debuted in 2003 with about 30 concerts, featuring The Blind Boys of Alabama, a special production of Porgy and Bess, and Wycliffe Gordon. Each year since, it has grown a little more, hosting acts such as Buddy Guy, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Emmylou Harris, Ricky Skaggs, and a wealth of original classical and jazz music productions.

Although he added events, Gibson stayed true to the festival’s longest running program: a singing competition celebrating musical traditions of historical significance to the United States. Called the American Traditions Competition, it draws vocalists from across the country. Thirty-two singers competed this year for a top prize of $10,000.

The competition’s semifinal rounds begin on a Saturday morning in Trinity United Methodist Church. Shirley Crabbe takes the stage and wows the audience with show tunes, including George and Ira Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me.”

Later, Josef Spencer delights the audience with Savannah native Johnny Mercer’s “Save the Bones for Henry Jones.”

“Henry don’t eat no meat,” the tenor croons in a jazzy upbeat style. A true showman, he grins slyly at the audience as he sings. “He don’t need no napkins ’cause the things that he eat don’t drip.”

A few blocks away, 2,500 schoolchildren from the Savannah area also are enjoying the SMF. As they file into the Johnny Mercer Theater, members of the Tales and Scales traveling ensemble demonstrate their instruments.

Ja’Kayla Chargois is fascinated by the bass trombone, which is a bit bigger than a regular trombone with a lower tone.

“We like the sound of that,” says Ja’Kayla, a kindergartner from Liberty Elementary School in Midway, about 30 miles from Savannah.

“It sounds like a jet airplane,” classmate Benjamin Taylor says.

The sounds of the instruments—a clarinet, flute, trombone and tambourine—resonate through the cavernous theater, creating a cacophony that delights the children.

“This is a good experience for them,” says Richmond Hill Primary School teacher Cindy Bosela, who chaperoned kindergartners wearing lime green T-shirts. “It’s something some of the kids would never see in a lifetime.”

Education is a big part of the SMF mission, Gibson says, and a priority of the festival. Youth concerts bring in roughly 20,000 school children from Georgia and South Carolina during the course of the festival. Gibson recalls his experience as a child going with his fourth grade class to hear the Atlanta Symphony. The orchestra played the “William Tell Overture,” and he was mesmerized.

“That adventure has stayed with me for 40 years,” he says. “Live musical experiences are still an indispensable part of the educational process for children.”

Though his mother taught piano, music was no more a part of his childhood than most kids, Gibson says. His parents made him learn to play the piano, but didn’t dictate his music taste. He grew up hearing Led Zeppelin, the Allman Brothers and James Brown. Jazz didn’t really become a part of his consciousness, he says, until he got to UGA in the late 1970s. He took a job at WUOG and began listening to Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. As program director for the station in 1979-80, he scheduled an eclectic assortment of music, including weekly broadcasts by The Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic, as well as jazz, blues, reggae, punk and bluegrass.

“Our philosophy,” he says of WUOG, “was all of the people, some of the time.”

While the station and music were a big part of his life in those years, he didn’t see them as a part of his future career. A business major when he arrived at UGA, he abandoned that after taking a course in accounting. He switched to journalism/telecommunications, but felt like much of what was being taught there he had previously learned.

“My parents said, ‘What do you want to do?’” he recalls. “I said, ‘I don’t know. Maybe go to law school?’”

“They said, ‘What about political science?’”

He graduated in 1981 with a bachelor’s degree in political science. He currently serves on the advisory boards for UGA Libraries and the music business certificate program.

“If somebody had told me in college I’d be producing performing arts events, I would have thought it was a great idea,” Gibson says. “To me, life was too short to not enjoy what you do.”

Gibson’s music career began shortly after he graduated from UGA. From 1981 to 1983, he was general manager and program director for WFRG-FM radio in Atlanta. In 1984, he founded Quantum Productions, a nonprofit arts organization in Atlanta that presented music, dance and film productions. In 1988, he also became director of the Atlanta Jazz Festival and Montreux Atlanta International Music Festival. He made his biggest splash in 1991, when he was hired to create and direct a jazz program at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City.

Jazz at Lincoln Center was to be the first new constituent of the center in more than 20 years, and the only uniquely American art form, alongside such organizations as The Metropolitan Opera and the New York City Ballet. Gibson’s vision, in addition to showcasing jazz concerts, was to offer educational programs, films and lectures on the history of jazz and to make the music accessible to children. “One thing that’s always miffed me about New York being the jazz capital of the world is that in many of the places you can go hear jazz, it’s illegal for children to go,” he told The New York Times in a 1991 front-page story that hangs framed in his Savannah office.

Over the next 10 years, Gibson, in partnership with artistic director Wynton Marsalis, created the world’s largest jazz organization, with more than 450 programs a year including performances, touring programs, lectures, broadcasts, CDs, DVDs and a wealth of educational endeavors.

A weekly National Public Radio program, “Jazz From Lincoln Center,” won a prestigious George Foster Peabody Award for Gibson and Marsalis in 1998.

That same year, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani selected Jazz at Lincoln Center as the cultural organization to build its new home in the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle. Gibson and Marsalis began planning what would become a $128 million state of the art facility. Fredrick P. Rose Hall opened in fall 2004.

During that time, Gibson also taught American music history at The Juilliard School, one of the Lincoln Center constituents he helped to develop.

After 12 years, Gibson left New York and moved his family back to their native Georgia. “My job became more about politics and less about music,” he explains.

Georgia music lovers are glad he’s back.

“Rob now infuses his vast knowledge of world music into the Savannah Music Festival and Georgians again benefit directly from his contribution,” says John English, a professor emeritus of journalism, who knew Gibson as an undergraduate. English and his wife Karen Smith (MS ’84, PhD ’86) drove from Athens to attend the festival this year. “I’m delighted he brought his expertise back to the state.”

It’s near the end of day nine of the festival, and Spanish singer Antonio Pitingo is onstage at the Morris Center, delighting the audience with his flamenco soul rendition of “Georgia on My Mind.” The Modern Skirts will follow with a rocking midnight performance. Gibson is in the back, a beer in hand, and leans against the wall taking it in. For him, this is what it’s all about.

“Our basic job is to connect audiences and artists,” he says. “When they come together, it can be a powerful experience.”

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photos by Peter Frey

Click on image to enlarge

The Red Stick Ramblers, a Cajun band from Baton Rouge, La., played to a packed house at two back-to-back shows during the festival.

Savannah Music Festival Director Rob Gibson uses a bike to get from one event to another in Savannah's historic district during the two-week festival.

A musician with the group Scales and Tales demonstrates the bass trombone to kids from Liberty Elementary School in Midway. Kingergartner Ja’Kayla Chargois, at right with pigtails, is enthralled by the deep sound.

Gibson shares a laugh with Tony Award-winning singer Audra McDonald during a sound check for McDonald’s performance in the Lucas Theater.

Miami Singer Josef Spencer, above, and Shirley Craqbe, below, of Orangeburg, N.Y., both made it to the semifinals of the 15th annual American Traditions Competition, a hallmark of the festival. Crabbe placed third in the contest; Spencer, sixth.

Pop star Bruce Hornsby, at piano, joined country legend Ricky Skaggs, far right, for a prime time Frida performance at the Johnny Mercer Theater.

Caroline Howell (AB ’80), Gibson’s wife, attends all the festival’s shows. A graduate of the Lamar Dodd School of Art, Howell is a member of the school's board of visitors.