American Pianists Association, Helen Small

Smart cities know how to turn their heritage into tourism gold while boosting hometown pride. That’s why no one was surprised when the first Indy Jazz Fest (IJF) in 1999 attracted 55,000 people from all over the nation. Indianapolis had a new powerhouse player on its cultural team and, at last, a public, festive nod to our music legacy, taking our rightful place next to New Orleans and Kansas City in the geography of jazz.

Then, in the Jazz Fest’s second year, hammering rain wiped out ticket sales and plunged the non-profit into a deluge of debt. By fall 2002, a new tradition was nearly dead.

Enter the American Pianists Association (APA), a national organization dedicated to discovering and advancing the careers of emerging world-class jazz and classical pianists. APA had been doing its own one-night jazz fund-raiser in Military Park since 1994, and accepted the invitation to be a partner in the inaugural Indy Jazz Fest. “However, by 2002, we were hearing how much trouble Jazz Fest was in,” says Helen Small, executive director of APA.

Small and the APA board decided to approach the IJF board to see what could be done to save and sustain Indy Jazz Fest.

What did it take? Generosity, civic self-respect and a lot of arm twisting.

Indianapolis Airport Authority President and attorney Lacy Johnson, an APA board member, led the way with a personal donation in the six figures, given on the condition that APA become the manager of IJF. “Lacy is a big supporter of Indianapolis as a top-flight city,” Small says. “His involvement was pivotal.” Michael O’Brien of Printing Partners and Tom Henry, both APA board members, joined the effort. Small appeared before the bond bank board President Bob Clifford to ask him to forgive IJF’s $300,000 debt to the City of Indianapolis. The team persuaded other vendors to take half of what they were owed to keep IJF alive. Headline sponsor Kroger also stuck with IJF in the darkest hour.

“It would have been tragic to have lost the event,” Small says. “Indianapolis was the crossroads of the cultural evolution of the ’20s and ’30s and played a large role in the careers of many influential jazz artists.” On Indiana Avenue, jazz icons played right alongside Indianapolis greats like Wes Montgomery and Slide Hampton.

Small, who worked for the Indianapolis Violin Competition before joining the American Pianists Association eight years ago, knew she had to overhaul the funding formula for Indy Jazz Fest. Ticket sales are no longer the cake, only the icing. Corporate and foundation support is raised before each festival, and makes up 90 percent of the festival budget. Good planning and fiscal discipline helped revive the full-blown IJF in 2004, to the delight of fans.

The 2005 Kroger Indy Jazz Fest is set for June 17-19, and will feature art sales in the Bank One Jazz Village, more kids’ activities and a much anticipated musical lineup. Indy Jazz Fest has been restored to a place among the city’s cultural crown jewels, and thanks to the American Pianists Association, no one should ever take it for granted.

-Anne Laker

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