Chelsea Lafayette, managing director of Burlington Discover Jazz Festival, bids farewell after 14 years.
When I was in high school, my family and friends used to chide my characteristically abrupt method of ending phone conversations. I suppose I must have other endearing qualities that made up for my refusal to participate in the ceremonial script required to more gracefully end our exchanges. More recently, I have thought back to this tendency of mine as I struggle with finding a way to gracefully exit the shattered events industry, which I have loved since I promoted my first event when I was sixteen years old.
I fell deeply in love with event production as a student at Tulane University, where I attempted to produce on-campus events appealing enough to compete with the entire city of New Orleans. After moving to Burlington fourteen years ago, on Memorial Day weekend, the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival provided the backdrop to my first two weeks as a Vermonter.
When I saw that Pharoah Sanders was playing at some venue downtown with a strikingly beautiful marquee, I went home to see if they were hiring, and seven weeks later, I started in the programming department at the Flynn. Nine years later, I was offered my dream job running the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival. By 2019, we had grown the celebrated festival with a record number of Friends of Discover Jazz, more participating venues than ever, and record-breaking crowds at the Waterfront Tent.
Between 200 musicians, fourteen core seasonal festival staff, teams at the Flynn and Burlington City Arts, our local stagehand union, the production team at Atomic, 86 community partners representing most downtown restaurants, philanthropic businesses, local media, fellow non-profit organizations, and 38 venues, Vermont’s largest community event has an immeasurable impact. Last June was the first time in 37 years that Burlington did not have a jazz festival, and the experience was devastating. And that devastation was a drop in the bucket of what the world has experienced over the past year.
An estimated 2.7 million jobs were lost in the creative industry, not including those hanging onto jobs at reduced hours to mitigate financial losses. I have been lucky enough to be a part of the latter category. Despite the survivor’s guilt and shame of giving up on what I thought might be my life’s work, I found myself accepting a job offer at a tech company that continues to grow despite the worldwide pandemic.
To performing artists, my colleagues here in Burlington, festival staffers, production teams, and creators of the shared experiences that bring our communities together all over the world: give yourselves permission to feel your own personal trauma as well as the trauma of witnessing the decimation of our industry. It broke a lot of us. It broke me.
So I am stepping away, joining an exclusive club of former festival directors who attend events as patrons with relaxed, knowing faces.
The bench is deep though, and I will wait patiently in the audience for the greatest comeback of all time.