Fest 411: Ashley Capps On Jazz & The Live Market’s Growing Big Ears

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The Stuff of Legends: The late, great transformational composer and saxophonist Ornette Coleman (right) is pictured in 2007 with promoter Ashley Capps at Bonnaroo, the festival he co-founded in Manchester, Tenn. Photo courtesy A.C. Entertainment

Ashley Capps has always had a penchant for adventurous music. This could be seen in the shows and festivals his former company, A.C. Entertainment, promoted or co-promoted primarily across the Southeastern U.S. This included the mega-fest Bonnaroo, as well as smaller fests such as Forecastle in Louisville, Ky., and Big Ears in his native Knoxville, Tenn. Though he sold A.C. to Live Nation in 2016, and left in 2021, Capps continues to operate Big Ears as a nonprofit and very much keeps up with contemporary music. Here, Capps discusses the state of the live jazz market and why he’s gratified to see more fests like his in the market.

Pollstar: How did you first get the bug for jazz and other adventurous sounds?
Ashley Capps: Both my father and mother were music fans. My father had a really nice collection of jazz, so I discovered Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and Lee Konitz and many others. His tastes were more than just jazz and he traveled to New York regularly. When I was a teenager, he let me roam around The Village and record stores and snuck me into jazz clubs on occasion. From the very beginning, even just 2 or 3 years old, I was always tuned onto music and listening to different kinds of music. Jazz was just part of it, I was listening to Sun Ra, John Coltrane, certainly Miles and Herbie and stuff like that while I was buying Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Neil Young records.

Were you a group of one in that pursuit in Knoxville growing up?
I had friends who were also interested in music, but we were a pretty small group when it came to jazz. I remember trying to share Miles’ Bitches Brew with friends, I don’t think it quite connected.

A lot of the classic rock bands rubbed up against jazz, if not embraced it. You’d see Miles or Ornette Coleman with The Dead, Hendrix connecting with Gil Evans or prog rock bands like Spyro Gyra or ELP, whomever, a lot of which was jazz.
That whole period was a melting pot. There were influences coming from everywhere and congealing. Bill Graham put these artists on stage together at The Fillmore. You might have Santana or The Dead, but you would also have Miles or Zappa and there was an atmosphere of this omnivorous musical curiosity congealing and all these influences going on. The music has never gone away, it’s gone through a lot of interesting transformations and permutations, but it continues to play a prominent role in what we’re listening to even if we don’t always realize it.

So you’ve been curating this music from day one?
Yes. I got a gig at the public radio station when I was in high school. They let me play anything I wanted for two hours after midnight once a week as long as it didn’t have any dirty words. The station had this amazing collection of vinyl, especially jazz, and I started listening to all these recordings I could never have afforded if I could even find them. Sometimes I would get calls from labels if I was playing their record on the radio. The first time REM ever came to Knoxville, their manager then, Jefferson Holt, called up for a place to play. I’d been playing “Radio Free Europe.” And then I was into the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Jack DeJohnette, Chick Corea and Gary Burton and started bringing them to town as well.

Between Jack DeJohnette and REM and I imagine there’s vastly different markets and demand for them?
I only did REM once. With Big Ears it occurred to me a few years ago when I was bringing Roscoe Mitchell and the Art Ensemble back and Jack DeJohnette and Wadada Leo Smith and Ralph Towner that it had gone full circle.

The jazz market now seems more fertile than in a long time – what’s your take?
In some of the major cities, especially, there are new generations of incredibly gifted young musicians very influenced by jazz, but also all of these other traditions, and there’s scenes of fans who have grown around them. I do think it goes in waves like other scenes do. There’ll be a resurgence and then it kind of peters out for a bit and then comes back. We’re definitely experiencing a wave right now and it’s a very exciting time.

Robert Glasper curated Blue Note Jazz Festival, C3 is putting together FORMAT – maybe your ideas are catching on?
Well, I do think the idea has some legs to it and it’s flattering to see other people taking this broader approach. There’s plenty of precedence for it. Big Ears is kind of an extreme iteration of it, but that kind of music omnivorousness goes back to the ‘60s. I love seeing it happen.