Sights and Sounds

Q&A with Nelda Hill, Queen of Sights and Sounds (formerly Audio/Video) at Lawson McGhee Library, and the motivating force behind the Knoxville Jazz Festival

Q: Anything you can tell me about the library's decision to go into the jazz-fest bizness?

A: The lofty answer is that the 21st-century library is as much about creating content as collecting and preserving content. The more down-to-earth answer is back in 2006, we were looking for ways to promote the library's music and video collections. I had some money for concerts from the Friends of the Library and the infamous CD settlement case. I asked Donald [Brown] to do a concert and he did this loaves and fishes thing where we ended up doing a couple of concerts and a lecture. He said, ‘It's almost like a small festival,' so that's what we decided to call it. It went over so well, we decided to keep at it.

Q: Here's KJF number four. How is the event progressing? What's better about it and what do you expect to be even better as we move forward?

A: More people seem to be aware of the festival this year, people who aren't necessarily jazz fans, and they think it's pretty cool. We've had a lot of help this year from people like Phil Hardison at Flip Film and Design and Deb Hardison, who designed our poster and logo. I've enjoyed getting to work with the guys at the Square Room as well. I like to think that the musicians who come here have a good time and feel appreciated. I think Knoxville is special in the way it loves musicians. I'm not sure why we do, but I think it's great and I'd like to build on that. We tend to pigeon-hole ourselves as a country-music or folk-music town but Knoxville's musical culture is so much deeper and richer than a particular genre. We're already a jazz city, whether we know it or not. I hope that as the festival grows, more people will embrace who we are.

Q: One might expect a library-centric jazz festival to focus on archival music. But it'll wrap-up with bad boy Don Byron. Was booking music that some may find challenging an intentional decision?

A: Yes, absolutely. Keith Brown says that jazz is rooted in tradition, and one of its oldest traditions is breaking with tradition. (He says Louis Armstrong is still the most revolutionary player in jazz.) We want to help people learn to be open to new sounds and new ways of listening. Don Byron is challenging but he also makes some of the most beautiful music I've ever heard. He reaches beyond genres and yet he's grounded by jazz tradition. He takes Duke Ellington's "If it sounds good, it is good" to new levels.