Jazz Emerges as Essential Component of Knoxville’s Big Ears Festival


Henry Threadgill performs with Zooid at Big Ears in Knoxville, Tennessee.

(Photo: Cora Wagoner)

Big Ears, the annual four-day music celebration that first took place in 2009 in Knoxville, Tennessee, could well be the most exciting, exhaustive jazz festival that doesn’t call itself that. Big Ears covers all of downtown Knoxville, presenting events throughout the city. Having grown by fits and starts since 2009, it has achieved name recognition among mainstream music fans without losing its eclectic edge. But, as noted by Knoxville’s Ashley Capps, founder and executive director of Big Ears, “Jazz has really emerged as an important component of the festival since 2015. I don’t know why we waited until then. I would love to tell you that it’s all been some sort of a well-conceived strategy, but in truth, like the rest of the festival, it’s just evolved organically.” He added, “In the early days of the festival, there was relatively little to no jazz at all. In our first year, the closest we came to jazz was Jon Hassell and The Necks from Australia.”

The 2024 edition of the festival, which took place March 21–24, boasted a lineup that included contemporary headliners like Charles Lloyd, Herbie Hancock, Dave Holland and Jason Moran, plus ensembles representing today’s experimental and spiritual edge (Brandon Ross’ Phantom Station, Julian Lage’s Speak to Me Band, Steven Bernstein’s Sexmob, Shabaka’s new, flute-focused group) as well as younger jazz-adjacents like poet/activist Aja Monet, steel-string guitarist Yasmin Williams and emcee/drummer Kassa Overall. (Many other edgy, non-jazz musicians who performed and defy easy categorization deserve mention, including Molly Tuttle, John Paul Jones, Rhiannon Giddens, Kronos Quartet, Digable Planets, Nik Bärtsch and Laurie Anderson. Also scheduled were a generous array of talk events and a mini-film festival.)

While many jazz festivals mostly reflect which acts happen to be touring at the moment, a decidedly curatorial touch distinguishes Big Ears. This year’s packed lineup also featured rare collaborations, new projects and celebrations: Brad Mehldau with Christian McBride. McBride with bassist Edgar Meyer. Julian Lage with Joe Henry. Five Henry Threadgill concerts representing career high points: Air, Very Very Circus, Zooid, Make a Move and his intermittent trio with Vijay Iyer and Dafnis Prieto. Five performances by flutist/raconteur André 3000 with his current ambient ensemble.

That many musicians actively solicit Big Ears is another mark of the festival’s rising stature. “We didn’t even know we were presenting André 3000 until three weeks before the festival,” Capps recalls. “We heard that record [New Blue Sun] when it came out and it was such a completely unexpected creative move by a major artist that certainly embodied the Big Ears ethos, but we had no ideas that any live performances were possible, plus the festival was already booked. But we didn’t close the door. When they announced intimate club gigs in New York, Chicago, Atlanta and on the West Coast, that’s when the lightbulb went off and I thought we could create something that mirrored that residency concept. So we quickly shifted things around and put them into three different venues in four days.”

Among musicians and music professionals, a slot at Big Ears has become a hip, coveted achievement, on a par with a Tiny Desk concert appearance on NPR or an SFJAZZ residency. In an email, pianist Kris Davis, who performed with both Holland and Lage at this year’s festival, wrote, “To perform at Big Ears is to be recognized as a purveyor of creativity and innovation — the festival boldly champions creativity over genre boundaries and invites musicians that are disruptors in the industry to push the boundaries of expression.” Steven Bernstein agrees: “It’s the gold standard of smart and challenging curating. Being a musician who doesn’t fit into a category or genre and having the opportunity to experience Big Ears for the first time proved that was true.”

Knoxville is a town that offers both Southern charm and challenges: a town once stilled by the economic downturn of the late 20th Century, yet retaining its small-town flavor and tempo. Local cafes, bars and eateries dot the streets that connect the city’s downtown neighborhood with “Old City,” rife with repurposed office buildings, warehouses, even a railroad terminal.

It’s an area that’s easily traversed in a brisk, 15-minute walk — and brisk is the pace one must keep to in order to experience the diversity of Big Ears. This year, the festival presented music in 16 venues, from small platforms in bars to full-on, proscenium stages in large theaters, each offering between four and six performances every day.

Capps notes that “part of the scheduling methodology is to create opportunities for people to discover new artists they didn’t even know existed. It’s not just about diversity — the original vision was about the tapestry of connections and influences and interests that link so many different kinds of music even when audiences aren’t always aware of those links.”

From left, Ashley Capps, Carla Bley, Steve Swallow and Andy Sheppard at Big Ears in 2019. (Photo by Patrick Hinley)
From left, Ashley Capps, Carla Bley, Steve Swallow and Andy Sheppard at Big Ears in 2019.
(Photo by Patrick Hinely Work/Play)

This writer first met Ashley Capps around 1990 while tour-managing various South African groups through the U.S. One of the venues regularly booking music of that variety was Ella Guru’s, a club in Knoxville’s Old City named for a Captain Beefheart song. Capps was the owner and booker. His eclectic taste was readily apparent in the club’s bookings, which included jazz innovators among musicians representing other streams.

“Some of the artists I promoted in the early ’80s were with artists like Wadada Leo Smith, Jack DeJohnette and Evan Parker, who all later came to Big Ears in the last few years. When I first started in the 1980s, I promoted concerts for almost 10 years as a hobby basically because I couldn’t imagine it as a full-time job. But Ella’s changed that.”

Capps graduated from University of Tennessee in 1979. Taking on the booking role at Ella Guru’s tied in with general efforts to revive Knoxville’s Old City, which straddled the still active railroad tracks that ran through town. Annie DeLisle, the first wife of noted Knoxville son Cormac McCarthy, had opened Annie’s across the street in 1983 and had begun to book live jazz, planting a seed for the renovation of Old City. Capps’s efforts from the ’80s and through the ’90s helped create a consistent stop in the Southeast for touring groups. “But,” he adds, “I wanted to create an environment where what you might characterize as marginal music — especially in the Southeast — would have an audience. For me, audience building is at the heart and soul of it all. There’s nothing that gave me more pain as a promotor than bringing an artist to town and not having people show up to appreciate their art. But amazingly enough, it worked.”

There were ups and downs. “Ella’s closed on the Dec. 18, 1990. At that point I didn’t even know how I was going to pay my own rent. Then I heard from Wynton Marsalis’ agent, whom I knew well. He said, “Wynton needs a date — Jan. 24.” I told him the club was closed and I was broke. He was insistent and wouldn’t take no for an answer, and somehow we worked out a deal. So I booked it in UT’s old Music Hall and we had to charge a high price. I think it was $22.50. Still, we sold out — 700 tickets — and suddenly I could pay my rent again.”

AC Entertainment grew and expanded, promoting concerts and managing artists. In the late ’90s and into ’00s, Capps took on the management role of two of Knoxville’s leading venues: the Tennessee Theater, and later the Bijou. In 2002, he partnered with the New Orleans promoter Superfly Presents, founding the Bonnaroo Music Festival, a pop and rock, multi-stage outdoor extravaganza in rural Tennessee that proved hugely profitable and maintained a focus on genre-diversity, including a jazz-focused stage. By 2009, Bonnaroo was firmly established, consistently drawing nearly 100,000 people, and Capps was universally regarded as gatekeeper and tastemaker. That’s when he decided to refocus on Knoxville and start Big Ears.

“The advantage I had in 2009 were so many long-term relationships with musicians,” says Capps. “Like this year, getting John Paul Jones and Thurston Moore together. Both had been to Bonnaroo. And, again, this was a booking that was late in the game. I always try to leave a little bit of space in the schedule for these ideas to materialize, because they do develop rather organically.”

Having survived a few lapses — a three-year hiatus starting in 2011, and another two-year break brought on by COVID — Big Ears marked its 11th year as a major part of Knoxville’s economic calendar. The festival now stands as Knoxville’s most crowded weekend, drawing more people than even University of Tennessee’s homecoming. Capps explains the challenge of that growth.

“The audience grew very steadily, about 15 to 20 percent in the pre-COVID years, but in 2022 when we came back from the pandemic we experienced a 35 percent growth in attendance, which led to an early sell-out. It’s been dramatic. In 2014 we had a three- day festival attended by 3,200 people over the full weekend, both local and visiting. This year, the number is 30,443 over four days. We’ve had steady continual growth, much of it by word of mouth. It’s very difficult to advertise because the audience is very diverse and comes from all over the world — there’s no one place that they’re all hanging out.”

Asked about other small towns hosting popular festivals — like SXSW, which annually overwhelms Austin and its infrastructure — Capps admits that he has already put on the brakes, selling fewer tickets than last year. “We’re no longer in growth mode,” he says. “We’re planning to stay at this level for the foreseeable future, because it’s really about the experience and making sure that we maintain the character of the festival itself and nurture the experience that makes it so special. If you continually grow and grow and grow, there’s always the risk that you will lose that, and that’s not our purpose.”

In the fraternity of jazz festivals in North America, things are currently profitable but also more fluid than ever. Many are holding steady, their programming unchanging with the same veterans booking the talent: Christopher Collins in Detroit, Danny Melnick in Saratoga, Quint Davis and the AEG team in New Orleans, Maurin Auxéméry in Montreal. Others now benefit from more recent arrivals at the helm, active musicians as well, like Christian McBride in Newport, Terence Blanchard in San Francisco and Darin Atwater in Monterey. Big Ears has earned a place among these stalwarts, a rarified accomplishment given its location.

“For me, the charm and the challenge of being in Knoxville is the same thing,” says Capps. “It’s a key ingredient to Big Ears’ success. The Southern feel and the variety of great venues, all within walking distance of one another, and the hotels and great restaurants — it’s a shared experience that is essential for a great festival.”

The intimacy of the event makes encounters with musicians a regular occurrence. On the third morning of this year’s festival, I emerged into the hotel lobby ready to start another busy day and ran into an excited Henry Threadgill, who wanted to share a sudden revelation. We had run into each other multiple times and caught up on many things.

“This is the first truly American festival I’ve experienced — they’ve got singers and the Kronos quartet and bands and DJs and folk and country and jazz,” Threadgill said. “Wolf Trap and other places have tried, but in my lifetime this is the first time I’m seeing this. Plus talks and books and movies. …” Threadgill took a breath. “Hey! I’ve got to go — there’s a George Crumb movie starting.” And off he went. DB

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