I knew this was coming, I saw Jerry at the Ronnie McDowell concert the other night. Mayor Iorns was there along with a decent sized crowd. This is just the begining of something that could go large if managed properly and I think it will be done right.
Photo caption: People in the crowd get up to dance Thursday as Emil Orth and the Beale Street Jazz Band perform at Handy's on the Plaza, a W.C. Handy Music Festival event. JIM HANNON/TimesDaily
FLORENCE -- It's a question that's asked -- or at least rolls around in people's minds -- year after year, summer after summer, at every W.C. Handy Music Festival.
This year, however, with heat indexes hovering between 100 and 110 degrees, the issue is sizzling its way to the top of virtually every Handy-related conversation across the Shoals.
"Why," someone will ask, "does Handy have to happen at the hottest time of the year?"
The answer goes back to the beginning of the festival, when organizers wanted to ensure that the area's annual salute to W.C. Handy -- the Florence-born "Father of the Blues" -- would take place during the summer school break, when children could take advantage of musical events and educational programs during the day.
During the past 24 years -- since the festival's musical debut in August 1982 -- the scheduling issue has grown slightly more complicated.
"We now have Arts Alive in May, the Helen Keller Festival is in June, the Alabama Ren-aissance Faire is in October -- and this one fills up the summer," said Nancy Gonce, the festival's executive director and one-of its original organizers.
"In order not to be in competition with those, this was the best time to do it," she explained.
"Now, with so many changes in the school calendars, school starts so much earlier that we had to move it out of the first week of August and into the final week of July."
Also, when the festival began, a large number of family reunions took place this time of year, broadening the festival's potential audience to a greater number of out-of-town visitors. Now, close to a quarter of a century later, Gonce says many other families -- as well as schools -- plan their reunions to coincide with "Handy Week."
"I just wish they would move it to the fall, when the weather's cooler, but not too cold yet," Clifton Ricks, of Leighton, remarked after hearing the Quad-Cities Mass Choir perform its annual Handy's Church gospel concert Wednesday at Greater St. Paul AME Church -- the same house of worship Handy attended in his youth.
"The Keller festival is in June, on the weekend closest to Helen Keller's birthday," Ricks noted. "They do a concert and birthday party for Handy every year at the Handy museum. Why not do the festival then?"
The sweltering-heat issue has been addressed and discussed a number of times by the Music Preservation Society, the organization that sponsors Handy Week, and by the board that coordinates the festival.
"It's a family event, so we want to have it at a time when families have an opportunity to bring their children," says Tori Bailey, chairman of the festival board. "Now kids are taking a week off for a break in the fall, but it's difficult to find a week when all the schools are out."
The good news, Bailey believes, is that the board is considering broadening the base of the festival into a year-round celebration of Handy's musical influence and the area's profound musical heritage.
"We're looking at doing a mini-festival in the spring, one in the fall and one in the winter," she said. "We're going to try to have a mini-Handy festival each quarter. The time of year we have the festival is definitely something we've talked about -- and it's certainly something we can revisit."
This year's Handy festivities continue through the weekend, with the Riverside Jazz concert starting at 6 this evening at McFarland Park, the traditional Street Strut starting at 10 a.m. Saturday in downtown Florence and a headliner concert by famed jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis Jr. set for Saturday night at 8 in Norton Auditorium.
"With the heat, I think people have found ways to improvise this year," Bailey said. "Some people like particular performers or particular types of music so much that they won't let the heat keep them from attending outdoor events. Other people just can't bear the heat, so they've chosen to attend indoor events instead. We've had overflow crowds at many of the indoor events."
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