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Going Against the Flow: FunkJazz Kafé Founder Finds Ways to Re-Invent

By A. Scott Walton Executive Editor | 7/3/2013, 8:34 a.m.
Jason Orr, the FunkJazz founder, has a coy way of deflecting conversation away from the musical masterpiece he’s curated.

It’s a broiling hot afternoon in downtown Atlanta. Jason Orr slithers out of his red SUV, parked directly in front of The Tabernacle like a serpent welcoming the midday sun.

After a few pass code punches at the entryway of the imposing brick structure, he enters and conducts a guided tour of all six floors of the church-turned-concert venue like he owns the place.

Virtually, he does.  The FunkJazz Kafé experience Orr is internationally famous for producing put the Tabernacle on the map.

There’s no one there but us. He’s conducting us through what will be, come July 13th: when the empty stage and dressing rooms and stairways and alcoves come alive for the 2013 rendition of FunkJazz, which the National Black Arts Festival has attached itself to in order to enhance its appearance of relevance to a broader demographic.

Since 1994, FunkJazz has been celebrated as the one-day, career-launching festival for musical stars as various as Jill Scott, Goodie Mob, Janelle Monae, Joi, India Arie, Outkast, DeAngelo, Erika Badu and too many others to name.

“I remember the first (FunkJazz), when it was on Auburn Avenue,” says Sonia Murray, the veteran music critic for the AJC who is now the Content Manager for CBS Radio-Atlanta. “It was a great medium for exposing Atlanta talent and attracting top entertainers here. You’d never know who was going to appear on stage or emerge out of the crowd. Someone like Prince might fall through out of nowhere. That’s how it was.”

“The buzz was always about, ‘Who’s gonna show up this time’, because it was never announced ahead of time,” Murray added. “The highlight was who just happened to be in the audience and happened to get onstage.”

Orr, the FunkJazz founder, has a coy way of deflecting conversation away from the musical masterpiece he’s curated. But it’s all blatantly showcased in the self-produced documentary “Diary of a Decade” that Orr will screen Friday, July 12 (7 p.m.) at the Southwest Arts Center.

He was prescient enough to film performances and backstage interviews with personalities ranging from Jamie Foxx to Dick Gregory – on VHS tape, initially – and store them for future use.

“We were backstage taping while y’all were out there partying,” Orr says, dryly.

He’d prefer to let others push the event’s reputation forward. And some do, gladly, even if they wonder whether the conglomerates that micro-control music can allow the independent spirit of FunkJazz to prosper.

“When FunkJazz was at its peak, it was that thing to look forward to, unquestionably,” says Petey Franklin, one of Atlanta’s most accomplished party promoters. “It was ‘that thing’ to do. It was crazy. And the way he marketed it was amazing too.”

But you’re only as good as your last effort.

Orr will be challenged by the toll time takes on loyalists who now may have households to support, and to revive FunkJazz he must attract a new audience that may not be willing to pay up for an unannounced lineup of artists.