By Reviving a Beloved Event, She’s Creating a More Vibrant Downtown
Ruth Griggs was having coffee with Amy Cahillane one day in 2017, when Cahillane, who had recently taken charge of the Downtown Northampton Assoc., posed a question.
“She said, ‘what do you think about the Jazz Festival?” Griggs recalled. “I said, ‘what do you mean?’”
Cahillane told Griggs that, in her interactions with people downtown, she kept getting asked questions like, “can we have the Jazz Festival back? We miss live music downtown. What happened to the festival? Can you get it back?”
Griggs had been involved in the first incarnation of the Northampton Jazz Festival, from 2011 to 2015, after returning to her hometown following a three-decade marketing career in New York City. “I went to the shows, and once they got to know I was a marketing professional, I kind of was an advisor to them. I was never on the board, but I was definitely an advisor and helped them out quite a bit, the last two years in particular.”
Then the festival went away for two years, and Cahillane was angling to get Griggs and others who had supported it in the past to bring it back to life, promising to help build stronger relationships between the festival and city leaders and boost marketing and fundraising efforts.
“Having a strong presence downtown and good relationships downtown was really important to me, and I also know all the jazz people who knew how to put on that festival, some of whom had been involved in previous festivals,” Griggs said. “So I set to work to rally some support.”
The biggest challenge at the time, she said, was not losing the event’s 501(c)(3) status, which had been achieved right before the final festival in 2015. “If you let a 501(c)(3) go without any kind of documentation to the feds or the state for three years, it’s gone. And I could not let that happen.”
So Griggs and others formed a board, pulled the festival back from the brink, and started planning for the return of the event in 2018. Oh, and that board put Griggs in charge.
“I really care about the vitality and the economy of Northampton. I’m hoping the Northampton Jazz Festival will continue to reaffirm and reinforce the unique entertainment value that Northampton offers.”
It made sense — since returning from New York in 2011, she had built a marketing firm, RC Communications, that focused on small to mid-sized businesses and especially nonprofits, which are, in many ways, the lifeblood of the region. She has also been a board member with the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce for the past six years and is currently its immediate past vice president.
“I am a marketing strategist by trade, and, as such, I am good at seeing the big picture, keeping my eye on the vision and mission of an organization,” Griggs told BusinessWest. “When you combine that with my work in nonprofits over the last 15 years, that adds up to the type of experience that enables me to lead a nonprofit, which, of course, is what the Jazz Fest is at the end of the day.”
Her leadership in the chamber and her role as an entrepreneur with RC Communications have helped her build a wide network in the business community, she added.
“I also just have a knack for getting things done; I am a doer,” she went on. “Fundraising for the Jazz Fest, which is a big part of what I do, benefits from these relationships. As president of the board, I oversee all operations of the festival and keep everyone’s eye on the ball, but I have a particular focus on marketing and fundraising and community relations, with the help of Amy Cahillane.”
Within that model, she leaves the choosing and booking of the musicians and the running of the performances to five producers who serve on the board. And the model works, with the two-day October festival roaring back to life in 2018 and following that with successful outings in 2019 and 2021 as well; pandemic-disrupted 2020 saw a series of virtual performances instead.
But that success isn’t contained to the festival, or even to jazz lovers. As a two-day event held in locations scattered throughout the downtown (more on that in a bit), the event promotes the downtown corridor and boosts its businesses, making the festival’s success a true economic-development story, and Griggs a Difference Maker.
“I really care about the vitality and the economy of Northampton,” she said. “I’m hoping the Northampton Jazz Festival will continue to reaffirm and reinforce the unique entertainment value that Northampton offers.”
Taking It to the Streets
One key factor in the festival’s growing impact on downtown Northampton is a change in how it’s staged. From 2011 to 2015, it was presented in the Armory Street Parking Lot behind Thornes Marketplace. Along with the music stage was a beer tent, food vendors, a chef competition, and an art fair. It was a fun, multi-activity event, and attendees enjoyed it, Griggs said.
“What I felt was lacking was, if you were on Main Street, you had no idea anything was going on,” she explained. “It was tucked behind Thornes. It was efficient in that everything took place in one place, but there wasn’t a lot of space for an audience.”
Then, Cahillane and board member Paul Arslanian both came up with the same idea independently for the 2018 festival.
“In order to keep the cost down, which had gotten very high, and to be more all around town, they said, ‘let’s stage it in different places,’” Griggs said of the decision to schedule music acts inside downtown businesses, requiring attendees to move around to see them all.
“The idea was to get people to walk from place to place and stop in at a gallery or stop in at a restaurant or stop in at a café, and we would leave time in between shows so people could do that,” she explained. “Half the mission is supporting the economy of Northampton and bringing vibrancy back, which is what people said they wanted.”
Saturday’s slate of performances ends with the only ticketed show of the festival, a nationally known headliner at the Academy of Music. In recent years, that show has featured the Paquito D’Rivera Quintet in 2018, the Kurt Elling Quintet in 2019, and the Art Blakey Centennial Celebration in 2021, featuring five original members of Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.
The model has worked well, Griggs said, although the board has talked about streamlining it by bringing the venues closer together. One thing that won’t change, however, is the Friday Jazz Strut, which features local and regional bands, including student bands, and overlapping performance schedules.
“We stage the music a half-hour apart, and every band plays for two hours,” she noted. “That definitely gets people all over town, patronizing the restaurants and breweries and cafés. And that’s important.”
Speaking of students, the festival board also supports jazz education through a program called Jazz Artists in the Schools, in which Arslanian secures jazz artists from big cities across the Northeast to workshop with local high-school jazz bands.
“It’s an incredible opportunity for students to learn from musicians who make music, who have successfully made music their life — active, performing musicians,” Griggs said.
While “the board is the Jazz Festival,” she said, noting that it’s certainly a working board with year-round responsibilities, the festival itself also pulls in dozens of young volunteers each year, and she’s been moved by the sentiments they’ve expressed.
“One said, ‘I’ll do whatever you need me to do. I’ll be a runner, whatever you need for this to run smoothly; this is important,’” she recalled. A woman who had recently moved from Brooklyn said, “when I found out that Northampton has a jazz festival, I thought, ‘wow, this is a cool down, I want to live here, this is really cool.’
“That’s important for me to hear,” Griggs noted, adding that one vocalist who took part in the Jazz Strut clamored for more involvement and is now serving on the board.
“That’s critically important to me,” she went on. “I want this to last. I’ve been at this now since 2017, and I’ll be darned if, when I step down, it dies. That cannot happen. I would feel I failed if that happened. It’s critically important. So we need to keep bringing in the younger players and the younger musicians and the younger people who really care about keeping it alive. I think the Jazz Festival is now, and will be, an important feather in Northampton’s cap.”
Another volunteer and musician noted the 2021 festival’s increased slate of women performers, telling Griggs that was a definite plus for such an event in Northampton. She was impressed by young jazz enthusiasts pointing that fact out. “The goal is to continue to showcase women in jazz.”
Griggs has certainly shone over the years as a woman in marketing. As noted, she worked in New York City for 30 years, marketing for dot-com firms, mutual funds, and large corporations like American Express and Coca-Cola. She and her husband actually owned a firm for eight of those years, doing mostly financial-services marketing.
“That was lucrative, but totally intangible,” she said. “I got so tired of marketing credit cards and things like that.”
Then, while taking her teenage sons on college tours, she fell in love with higher education and the idea of “marketing people.” So she segued into higher-ed marketing for Queensboro Community College in the city.
“It totally changed my life. I felt like I got a crash course in nonprofit marketing and fundraising, because I reported to Development.”
When she returned to Northampton in 2011, she carried that experience with her into her new firm, RC Communications, working with a host of nonprofits in the Valley. She was also part of the Creative, a marketing enterprise she formed with Janice Beetle and Maureen Scanlon.
“But I was getting so involved in the chamber and the Jazz Festival, I felt like I needed to pull back and be semi-retired,” she told BusinessWest. While she still works with a few long-time clients, the rest of her time is split between the Jazz Festival, the chamber, her role chairing the investment committee at Edwards Church, and also Valley Jazz Voices, a group, formed in 2015, of 30 vocalists who sing exclusively jazz throughout region. “I just have so many initiatives I’m doing in the community, I just feel fortunate that I can spend more time doing them.”
She sees a symbiosis in these roles, just as she does between the Jazz Festival and the downtown environment it lifts up, and gets a lift from in return.
“The relationships I’ve made in the chamber are helpful to my business, and also helpful to the Jazz Festival, which is, in turn, helpful to the town. It’s a complete full circle.”
And a full life, one with the controlled, yet exciting, rhythm of a jazz performance — a life of true impact, note by note.
“I feel like I’m making a difference that people see most visibly — in the Jazz Fest — because of all the other things I do,” Griggs said. “It’s all of those things that I think make a difference together.”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]