Hosting a School Jazz Festival

By NAfME Member Dr. Jenny L. Neff

For the past 44 years, our school has hosted a festival for area middle school jazz bands – one of the longest running festivals in the area. The goal of the festival is to celebrate a great American music genre and provide feedback to participating bands. When you are organizing a festival, there are many things to take into consideration that define the nature of the event. There are also many logistics to cover to make the event a success.

Defining Your Festival

What type of experience do you want visiting bands to have at your event? Will bands receive comments, a rating, a score, or some combination? Is your festival a major fundraiser, a celebration of jazz, or both?

Nine years ago, I took over a program where a well-established competitive jazz festival had been in existence for over 30 years. I decided as part of carrying on the legacy of the program, we would continue the competitive nature of the event. However, when attending other festivals, there was a wide array of event styles.

Scores & Ratings Unique Offerings Event Climate
Bands receive comments only HS or college band as finale Competitive – announce bands and ratings
Bands receive scores and comments Professional combo whose members also clinic bands Participatory – announce bands/participation awards
Bands receive comments, scores, and ratings Professional combo whose members also judge bands Celebratory – final number with soloists from each band
Written scores & recorded comments Final chart with soloists from each band Combination – combine any of the above

Parent Involvement

A long running festival could not happen without the enlistment of parent volunteers. We try to have a lead parent volunteer for each grade (6, 7, and 8) so we always have experienced parents for the next year. In keeping with this “pass it on” idea, I ask parents to make post-festival notes that can be shared with me and other parents in the future, so we are always making improvements.

Defining jobs for the festival is essential. Which areas will the parents organize? Which will you organize? How will you keep the lines of communication open to make sure everything is seamless? I always get the lead parents organized in the Fall with a back-to-school night/open house “need” announcement, along with a follow-up email to parents of the jazz band members. This is ample time for a spring festival. By December/January, I have a face-to-face meeting with the lead parent(s) and outline a to-do list. I’ve always tried to have parents help in a way that allows me to focus on more musical aspects of the event. After the initial meeting, there are many email exchanges and typically a monthly meeting with the lead parent to touch base and monitor progress.

Examples of Parent Job Areas:

  • Raffle
  • Candy-grams
  • Concessions
  • Parent volunteer sign-ups (using Sign-Up Genius)
  • Program

Custodial Needs

I am fortunate to work with amazing colleagues and they include a crew of fabulous custodians. I talk to the head custodian at the end of January/early February about our needs for the festival and follow-up with an email of custodial needs. These often include: setting up tables and trash cans for concessions, hanging a banner we have on the stage, helping set up judge stations (desks and chairs), etc. As always, show your appreciation with a verbal and written thank you!

closeup detail of trumpet | AleksandarNakic

Contacting Your Supporters

You may have private teachers, music schools, music companies, etc. who believe in what you do and are willing to show their support for your festival. I email or talk to each of our contacts and ask if they would like to purchase an ad in our program or provide gift cards as awards for student soloists in exchange for a program ad. I know some programs ask companies to sponsor trophies or other items they need for the program in exchange for recognition in the program. If your festival is a major fundraiser, these sponsorships become even more important. Allow ample time for the companies to contact their regional offices. They may want to sponsor your festival but need to ask permission or process paperwork at higher levels within their company.

The Participants

Invite directors at the end of the year to participate in the next year’s jazz festival. Once the new school year begins, confirm that everyone will be at your event. Later, I send a performance schedule to directors so they can confirm transportation. Each band is limited to three charts and a 20-minute time slot. Non-competing bands perform between each competing band in order to keep things moving. Other logistics include how to get the bands from one place to the next (e.g., warm-up to performance area) and where their home base will be for the night.

Getting Your Students Involved

Even at the middle school level, students can handle assigned tasks that contribute to the success of the festival. We have two jazz bands, so while one is performing the other is “working”. Their jobs might include: stage crew, band greeter, warm-up room monitor, back stage monitor, homeroom monitor, etc. Some jobs even get the coveted walkie-talkie! The students feel a sense of pride and ownership in helping. Throughout the night, they meet musicians from other schools. While adults are covering some of the same jobs, the students feel like they are part of the event and have a fun time.


Don’t forget to thank parents and sponsors for all they do for your program and for the festival. During the event, it is always a good idea to thank those who helped and also invite those in attendance to share the value of the experience with education stakeholders and decision-makers. After the event, thank you emails, notes, or conversations are always appreciated.

Final Thoughts

Thoughtful reflection and notes after each festival, as well as follow-up with parents and all of those involved, help make each year of hosting a festival a little bit easier. Don’t be afraid to keep things fresh though by re-evaluating and adding something new if you choose. In the end, you want to have a fun event for everyone involved and one that supports your philosophical, musical, and fundraising goals.

About the author:

Jenny Neff headshot

Photo: Sherri Sabatino Portraits

NAfME member Jenny Neff (Ed.D.) is an Instrumental Music Teacher at Bala Cynwyd Middle School in the Lower Merion School District and is also the Council for Band – Eastern Division Representative for NAfME.

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