From a dream to red ink
JAPANESE JAZZ PIANIST Hiromi opened for Sheryl Crow at one of this year's Jazz Plus shows.
First in a series
It began as an improbable dream, a fantasy that took independent root in the imaginations of Jim Pugash and Jim Horowitz, who didn't know each other but thought that a Wine Country jazz festival, along the lines of the one Horowitz directed in Aspen, Colo., would work in tiny Sonoma.
And they were right. Sort of.
Pugash, an enormously generous - and wealthy - real estate financier who founded the Hearthstone investment firm, met Horowitz after the trajectories of their musical passions intersected through introductions provided by Infineon Raceway president Steve Page.
Horowitz, who had co-founded Jazz Aspen Snowmass in 1991, had a nonprofit festival model that worked, having already survived and learned from all the calamities and growing pains endemic in the world of music festivals.
Pugash had the commitment and the money to launch a festival in Sonoma and to stand behind it with a promise to funnel profits into music education in the Sonoma Valley Unified School District.
In 2005, Sonoma Jazz Plus was born, the "plus" a nod to the value-added nature of a music festival in the heart of Wine Country where world-class food and drink automatically became part of the festival equation. That first year the program included Tony Bennett, Diana Krall and Boz Scaggs, with Steve Winwood. It was a nearly-sold-out success and suddenly Sonoma was another name on the national music festival circuit.
But while the first concert was a rousing success, the economic model was a work in progress and by most accounting, there have never been any profits. Pugash, nevertheless, insisted on underwriting the costs so that the promised funds would still flow into school music programs. Since the first festival in 2005, more than $450,000 has gone to those music programs and another $150,000 has gone to youth sports, primarily in the form of lease payments to the Field of Dreams for use as the festival site.
Then, in 2006, Pugash's brilliant and vibrant life came to a sudden, unexpected end when he lost a battle with pancreatic cancer. The foundation on which the event was built was gone and eventually Jazz Aspen Snowmass brought Sonoma into its corporate tent, since there was really no one else to take it on and keep it going.
Pugash's death was the first shock to Sonoma Jazz Plus. The historic recession was the second.
Revenues dropped, costs were cut and, some critics argue, the quality of the food and music experience suffered. Revenues dropped from $1,757,707 in 2009 to $1,381,394 in 2011. And while uncertainty about the future of Sonoma Jazz Plus seemed to follow in the wake of each year's festival, it wasn't until this year that doubts fell into sharp financial focus when Horowitz reported an operating loss of more than $351,000.
Horowitz admits that some members of the parent board in Aspen question the wisdom of any effort to keep the Sonoma festival alive. So why try?
"I've gone to bed asking myself that question. There isn't one answer. Some board members say we should cut our losses. But I have this thing with Jim Pugash. He threw himself into this. Not just his money, his passion. Then he had cancer and, boom. He told me at the time, 'it doesn't look like I'm going to live even a year. This means everything to me. This is my legacy. Please don't let them stop you.'"
In June, Horowitz announced that unless Sonoma Jazz Plus could find patrons, angels and corporate sponsors willing to kick in some $500,000 by Aug. 15, the festival would die.
It was a lot of money. Some people immediately said it was too much money for too little return. Others complained the musical menu didn't merit so much investment.
But Horowitz isn't convinced the Sonoma model won't work. He says he's been through all this before in Aspen, and that festival is now on solid ground.
Reaching an informed conclusion about the likely and logical future of Sonoma Jazz Plus requires more information than most members of the public currently have.
In part II: A look inside the Sonoma bottom line, alternate views and visions of the festival's future, what the music money has begot and how much is really needed to keep festival afloat.