Diane Robertson has picked up the baton to produce The Leimert Park Jazz Festival dedicated to introducing community to not only its eponymous annual festival, but also to celebrating the rich diversity and vibrancy of Leimert ParK Villages’, residents, business owners and community organizations for collective healing.
By LaMar Anderson | August 19, 2021 | 6:00am
Thank you for taking the time to sit with me today and share with us a bit about yourself and the work you do in Leimert Park and for the community of Los Angeles. Can we start with the Leimert Park Jazz Festival?
I am Diane Robertson, the Executive Producer of the Leimert Park Jazz Festival. It’s produced in association with The World Stage.
Where are you from, or did you grow up in Los Angeles?
I am born and reared in Brooklyn, New York. I have been in Los Angeles for fifteen years and in Leimert Park for about seven and a half years.
Are you calling Leimert Park home now?
I am calling it home now; it took a long time for me to feel anchored here. When I first moved to Los Angeles [County], I spent the first seven years in Sherman Oaks in the Vally. It wasn’t until I moved to Leimert Park did I begin to feel that I could create a life for myself in Los Angeles.
So your transition from New York to LA was that something you planned for and worked towards?
I did everything in New York, school, everything; after I graduated law school, I worked as an intellectual property lawyer at a midsize intellectual property firm- I should say, but I knew I wanted to work in the entertainment industry. After I left the firm, I got a job at ABC News Productions in New York. It was a temporary contract position. I was there for about two years, and during my time there, I realized I wanted to be in Los Angeles and pursue opportunities out here. I did not have many contacts at all. I had one friend who relocated from New York who was also a lawyer in the entertainment industry, and I called him and said -I am ready for a change, but I didn’t have the liberty of moving without first having a job and so I asked if he would just keep me in mind if he heard of anything. Some months later, he called me he learned of position at Warner Horizon Television; it’s a long story, but ultimately I got the job and then moved out here.
Prior to moving to California and certainly when you were living in Sherman Oaks, had you been familiar with Leimert Park? What was your experience?
No, I was not familiar with Leimert Park before moving to Los Angeles. It was probably a year and a half after I arrived here; someone brought me down to the Leimert Park Village on a Sunday afternoon. You know, Sundays are very vibrant, and there was the drum circle happening, a lot of people and sounds, and it really felt familiar especially being from Brooklyn. It was that moment where I felt most connected since moving to Los Angeles. The Valley, Sherman Oaks is a very different community, and having been brought here that day felt familiar to a certain extent, and I knew that when I was ready to purchase a home, I wanted it to be here.
With a background in intellectual property law and working for Warner Horizon Television, what was your decision to want to contribute to the vibrancy of Leimert Park by having something like the Leimert Park Jazz Festival?
When I first moved to Leimert Park, I immediately inquired with my neighbors about the existence of a block club. A few people shared with me that there was a block club, but it had been inactive for a few years, and I thought it might be time to resurrect it and asked my neighbors about their interest in doing that; we had a meeting one evening in a neighbor’s back yard. There were probably eight or nine of us, and people were very willing to do that as a way to just, you know, bring the community together. I became the block club president. This was in, I think, the Fall of 2014. I wanted to think about what we could do to build community within our more immediate neighbors but the community overall. I decided we should have a block party, so in the Summer of 2015, we did a block that I called The Sutro Avenue Summer Soiree, at the time I lived on Sutro Avenue, and I got a permit from the city to block the street from traffic and activated the street and had a Dj spinning throughout the day.
We had different zones; kids zone, community zone, things like that, and we invited the community to come and spend the day with us; build relationships, hang out with friends they already knew, and new ones. It was really well received, and that was the first year; it’s been building organically over the years. In 2018 is when I had the idea of introducing the jazz stage to the event, and I approached my friend Dwight Trible who’s a jazz vocalist and the current executive director of The World Stage. He’s been the executive director there now for about seven or eight years now, at least since I’ve moved to Leimert Park. I asked him if he would be interested in co-curating a Jazz stage at this event, and he said yes, so we did.
On one end of the street, we had the Dj who had been there for prior years, and we placed the jazz stage on the opposite end of the street. It was very, very well received, and I thought we had something, so the next year, -2019, we did it again. Our headliner that year was Pete Escovedo, the legendary percussionist, so I was very, very excited about that. I got such great feedback from people who were thankful we could produce that level of the concert right on a local street in Leimert Park for free. It was great, so I thought we should really focus on the Jazz component. I also recognized while Leimert Park has a number of festivals produced throughout the year: music festivals, mask festivals, heritage festivals but no festival being produced under the name Leimert Park. There was no Leimert Park Jazz Festival, and I really thought that was a missed opportunity. Now many years ago, there was a World Stage Jazz Festival, right, but again it wasn’t “Leimert Park Jazz Festival. In my mind, I kept thinking Leimert Park has the opportunity to have an eponymous festival like the Central Ave Jazz Festival and enjoy the same longevity. Now they’re in their 26th or 27th year, now their roots in Jazz and Blues and art runs a lot deeper. I think theirs goes back to the ’20s. Leimert Park’s roots are not that deep but, in its own right, warrants a jazz festival. I spoke with Dwight about it; he liked the idea, so I went about creating a new logo and planning to rebrand The Sutro Avenue Summer Soiree to the Leimert Park Jazz Festival, and we were going to launch in 2020.
Well, you know what happened in 2020; everything that I’d planned leading up to the main event, I had smaller things in mind all that was thwarted because of COVID-19. I did not want to miss a full year, so I decided to adapt like everyone else in 2020 and produced a virtual experience which was really well received; it premiered on Facebook.
The beauty of that is it brought an audience that we would not have had if it was live and in person. Although this is a festival very much rooted in community but I think having it live expanded our audience and helped to highlight Leimert Park and the festival in spaces we would not have occupied. We had people logging on from London, Germany, different cities around the US.
One of the things I have heard over the past 18 months is challenges, yes, but the opportunities because now there is the new learning curve that, to an extent, we all have scrambled to decrease the learning for adapting to changes. To your point of adapting, the virtual experience showed you an audience outside of what you might have primarily even focused on in terms of physical activation of the space. Do you see current and future years perhaps having virtual participation be an integral part of the festival, perhaps a hybrid experience?
So that’s exactly what’s happening. We are going to be doing this in person at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, but I am also going to offer it on a streaming platform, and that will give us an opportunity to continue to expand our reach.
With the strategic partnership with Dwight and The World Stage, how about other jazz aficionados and people throughout Leimert- have they been helpful to get it to the next level?
First, I want to go back. I said there was not a festival being produced under the name Leimert Park Jazz Festival, and that is true. There was, I learned, I think it was maybe in the early-mid ’90s before the internet became big. There was a festival produced for three consecutive years. I understand the name The Leimert Park Jazz Festival. How I found out is two years ago and applied and received funding from the Los Angeles City Department of Cultural Affairs for the event, and I had submitted the flyer for the virtual event when we changed the name. I submitted the flyer to the Department of Cultural Affairs to request that it be included in their list of events around the city. They published this list. It made its way to the communications department. Someone who used to work there in the communication department was one of the two women who produced the original Leimert Park Jazz Festival, and she called me. She was so appreciative that someone had finally picked up the baton and was going to continue this. She had hoped that it had happened many years ago. Their lives just changed, I think, they got married, started having children, but she said the three years they produced it -it was very, very successful. Life happened, and I guess no one took the baton. So she just wanted to call and introduce herself, and it meant so much to me, and we’ve stayed in touch. It was really important to me to have her support and almost approval.
Now fast forward last year , it was virtual, but I wanted to do what I could to align with the merchants in the Leimert Park Village. I was able to secure a partnership with some of them and did a cross-promotional activity. It was a restaurant promotion. I had some postcards printed, and they offered a discount on a meal on the day of the event, and we promoted each other’s business. I think with COVID, it probably didn’t work as well as it could have. I thought it was a great marketing tool, but you COVID made everything challenging.
Yes, I think perceptions of activities physically and shared spaces are still kind of emerging; people are still coming back to a sense of being comfortable, and with the other summer events happening while leading up to this year’s festival should help- right?
Yes. We’ve had to shift the date a bit. When it was The Soiree… started out at the end of July, but now, last year premiered August 1st, but this year it’s the last Saturday in August, August 28th. So I have to figure out a fixed date, but we are still working that through. I have reached out to five merchants in The Village, and we are going to be talking about how we are going to partner this year; and hopefully, we can come up with something a little bit more robust because it is going to be an in person event. There’s two more merchants I need to connect with, but so far, there is interest, and we are going to meet and brainstorm what makes sense for them. Each business might have a different idea on what will work for them, but I am open to all of the ideas. My goal really is to have this festival be as aligned as possible with what’s going on in The Village and be mutually supportive.
People might not have seen or read the news and not be aware of the ongoing and real struggle for ownership of the space we can engage it for long-term representation. I am curious to hear your thoughts on navigating this climate as you look to innovate with the festival and how you engage the community.
Right, so one of the roles that I play in the community, in addition to being the Sutro Avenue Block Club president, which is one of the most active block clubs in the neighborhood, we have quite a few. I also serve on our neighborhood council. The Empowerment Congress West Area Neighborhood [Development] Council. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the neighborhood council system in Los Angeles, but there are ninety-nine certified throughout the city. The role of the neighborhood council, really, is to create more civic engagement and sort of be the bridge between citizens and local government. We work closely with our council members’ office on a lot of issues impacting our city. On that council, I serve as the Area 3 rep. Area 3 is Leimert Park. My goal is to help bridge gaps between what is happening in the Leimert Park Village and the residential neighborhood of Leimert Park.
When people think of Leimert Park, I think they automatically think of The Village and forget that this is a neighborhood. This is a residential community, and I don’t always know that what is happening in The Village is aligned with what the community of homeowners and renters here want. Even for example, how the area there is activated, what the businesses are offering. Do they care about us as customers, right? I don’t know that that’s always the case, just having discussed those types of things with my neighbors and even. While I am very supportive of the development of The Village, I want to make sure that the Black-owned businesses that we have there I want them to remain. I also need to know that they understand that even within the Black community, there is a lot of diversity, and I don’t know that I feel that is always the case with what happens in the Leimert Park Village; from events to product offerings to, you know, all of that.
Do you see an area that needs focus as it relates to outside entities coming to dictate those ideas about the use of space under “inclusivity” to the people who are: merchants, vendors, or residents? Would outside entities undermine the ability to have The Village be realized in ways that are representative of themselves?
Yeah, I don’t know that the way to effectuate that is to bring in outsiders. What I’d like to see more of is collaboration, more cohesion, and diversity of opinion and perspective, and all of that is fine, but I think what I’ve been seeing to a certain extent. I think progress has been hindered a bit because of various factions. I think there is a way to meet in the middle if people are willing to compromise. Give a little to get a little. I don’t know how much is happening. I feel as though it might be getting better, but that’s been an issue.
What are your thoughts around what I’ve seen in the last couple of years, perhaps, name and visual notoriety, in the space of art and entertainment where it seems to have helped put Leimert Park as a go-to place on the map of Los Angeles for every culture really, effectively highlighting it as a tourist destination? How do you see that playing into everyone’s ability to really stake your claim and have a certain level of pride and ownership?
Yeah. I actually think those things might make it more challenging. I think that all eyes are on Leimert Park Village. For example, the train. I call it the train, not Metro, because we do that in New York; they call it Metro here, haha. The Metro station in The Village was important for the community. I think there are some unintended consequences that came with that. I think people are seeing that I think it’s very attractive to developers, right, that they can develop these residential projects and attracts tenants or buyers if they are condos and promote the fact that they can walk to the subway leave their car at home, but we all know, we’ve seen it and are seeing it; theses developments are largely unaffordable for people who live in the community. I don’t know that the people who were on the front line ensuring that we got that station stop here; I don’t know that that was on the forefront in their mind. I am sure it wasn’t.
As Area 3 rep, you are able to see and hear from different perspectives; what are some suggestions you make or would have others consider as it relates to getting Leimert Park to where you see it being a thriving community and really beginning to receive the funding it needs for various levels of development, innovation, and the activation for the younger generations to see it as a place they really want to call their own?
I think a few things are happening now. One, we have a new Council Member in our district, Council District 10, and that’s council member Mark Ridley Thomas. He is extremely committed to the potential of Leimert Park Village and has already been able to make some headway in terms of cleaning up some of the homeless encampments that were down there and getting wrap-around services and temporary housing for those people. It is a much larger issue than Leimert Park Village, right? It’s a citywide issue, but he’s committed to making Leimert Park a priority of his while he is in this role. We are excited about that; he is also engaged with stakeholders in the community. The various community associations and block clubs he has been convening monthly meetings with us, and it’s a collaborative effort, and we all appreciate his commitment to doing that, so that’s one thing. The other is in The Village itself they’ve just re-established their merchants’ association so that the merchants are working together and supporting each other and it’s not so much, you know, every man is an island, right? Because no one succeeds by him or herself. I think they are aware of that and working together a little bit more collaboratively, maybe now than in prior years. There’s also a group that is organizing the vendors. There have been some tensions between the vendors and the business owners, legitimately, but I think we are on the precipice of something really positive, and I do think though even with all those things happening and this is a tall order, I don’t have the answer.
We need to really start thinking about ownership. Business ownership, property ownership because even with all of the great things happening again; the better relationships that are forming between the merchants and the vendors, our city council office committing to do certain things in the community. I think the vast majority of the merchants are tenants, and as a tenant, you’re always vulnerable; that’s my biggest concern. Property owners are and have been for a long time sitting on those properties waiting for certain changes like the train, like the Vision Theatre to be completed. Until they figure out what they are going to do with those properties, and that can include selling, that can include deciding now is the time to raise rents. I don’t know if the merchants are thinking about those things, but I think when you are a renter, you are vulnerable and at-risk; that’s a concern of mine. I am also concerned about residential property ownership. As the neighborhood becomes attractive to so many more people, the real estate market is really out of control.
Are you saying in California in general or Leimert?
I am saying California in general, but I’m talking specifically about Leimert Park, where now homes are going on the market for a million dollars. It prevents a lot of us, a lot of people who grew up here, from buying a home here. I hear it all the time. I don’t know what the answer is, but that is an issue as well. I think that for the people who own their property to really understand what that means, how important that is, and not to sell unless you really have to. If it’s passed down to the children and grandchildren, you know, I think we need a lot more financial literacy in our community. More education on the fact homeownership is one of the greatest pathways to financial security and generational wealth. If you have the opportunity to be a homeowner, take it seriously; the decisions you make don’t just impact you. It has very long-term effects on what this neighborhood will be like in years to come.
Is there an area in Brooklyn that reminds you of Leimert Park? Often times I refer to Harlem as it is/was a centrally located eco-system of business-home ownership, and artist community, so now, with the real estate values being what they are; I can imagine an artist reading this and thinking there is no way I can afford the space beyond being a vendor. Any suggestions as to how one can think like a business owner to invest in Leimert Park and the surrounding area?
An area in Brooklyn that comes to mind is Fort Greene in Brooklyn, where I lived for about twelve years. I’ve been away from Brooklyn for fifteen years or so. Brooklyn is a completely different community; it just is. I don’t want that to happen to Leimert Park; I really don’t.
So you’re saying perhaps in terms of displacement, aka gentrification?
Throughout world history, you can chart or track how African people have been displaced and a continuation of practices for hundreds of years.
Right. I think one of the strategies could be cooperative economics, you know-to buy a property. Whether it’s a commercial building or a residential property. One person may not be able to do it, but one, two, three, or four friends can get together maybe buy a commercial space and operate their business out of that or buy a triplex or four-plex. You have to live somewhere; you’re gonna pay rent to someone somewhere, why not get four people together and buy a four family [property], and each of you takes one of the units. I love that idea, it may not be for everyone, but I think it is one solution to the history of [displacement]. I may not be smart to think of many more, but when I think about ownership in particular and the challenges that come with it, and it’s multi-layered, I get it. We don’t have the jobs -right- that’s paying the living wages oftentimes. There are still disparities in education and salaries. I get all of those other issues, but we’re still responsible for the condition of our lives, to a certain extent, and so I always say -bloom where you are planted- you know. Work with what you have. If you don’t have enough money to buy something on your own. You and three of your friends may be able to do it together.
I want to circle back to the festival. Can you tell us what we can look forward to in this year’s iteration that you are really excited about and want us to know?
This year will be the biggest one yet by virtue of the venue; we are at the upper-level parking deck of The Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Mall near Staples and Wells Fargo, if you are familiar with the area. It will be Saturday, August 28th, doors will open at 2pm. The concert will begin at 3pm and end at 8pm. We will have a stage obviously and some other activations in the space a kids zone. They’ll be arts and crafts and art projects, a community resource zone where we invite community organizations to come out and share what their offering, whether; mental health organizations. In the past, we have partnered with local yoga studios to do chair yoga throughout the day. We will have a health and wellness zone. We are partnering with Drew University to have COVID 19 vaccine tent set up. We are also hoping to have a rapid HIV testing tent set up. We are trying to arrange a beer garden and wine bar.
Our confirmed talents are Katalyst Collective, Sy Smith, Azar Lawrence, ADAAWE, Jose Rizo’s Mongorama, Dwight Trible, Jacques Lesure, and Tootie [Albert] Heath, the last and remaining brother of The Heath Brothers. I am so excited to have him on the line-up.
Particularly after fourteen months or so of isolation due to COVID-19, I am really excited about this festival. I do think it’s going to be one of several music events bringing people together that’s going to be a part of our community collective healing. Music therapeutic, you know, music has been known to reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. Those things have increased since the pandemic, and I think people are ready to be out; socialize. Humans were made for relationships, made for social interactions, and we haven’t had that, so I am excited about bringing this back in an in-person experience for that reason, especially. We are still going to do things safely. I am vaccinated, and I know a lot of people are, but not everyone is, so we are going to make sure we take that into consideration in the layout of the space.
What would you tell anyone who maybe has never been to Leimert and only heard about it; what can they look forward to, whether coming to The Leimert Park Jazz Festival or The Village or walking throughout the neighborhood? What are some things you’d be excited to share with them?
You have to absolutely visit The World Stage. It’s a small Jazz venue performance art space, it holds about 80-85 seats, it’s a small space, but big talents come through there. Dwight has a lot of relationships, and some of the talent he’s been able to book over the years in this small space is pretty phenomenal. We have great coffee shops; Harun Coffee, Hot and Cool Cafe. We are lacking in restaurants, and I think that’ll start to change, but right now, we have great Jamaican food in Ackee Bamboo. This is not quite Leimert Park but fairly close; Swift Cafe on Crenshaw, a little bit north of Leimert Park Village on Crenshaw. A great young Black woman who owns it; Chef Kendra. Eso Won Books, of course, iconic in the community, KAOS Network-Ben Caldwell’s space he’s probably one of the oldest merchants there. His space has acted over the years as an artist incubator. Sika has been there for a long time, with great African-inspired apparel, home goods, and jewelry. There’s so much; Art + Practice is down there, it’s a vibrant space, Ride-on Bike Shop / Co-op is a relatively new merchant; Sole Folks which is an upscale Hip-Hop apparel-sneaker boutique. Really there is a lot to do and see.
If you want to take a walk around the community, it is a beautiful, beautiful neighborhood with gorgeous Spanish-style architecture with really lovely well-manicured homes. I love the fact that it nicely accommodates both homeowners and renters. This has always been a big renters community as well. There are a lot on 42nd Street also 43rd Place, pre-Stocker there are a lot of multi-family buildings sandwiched in-between these lovely single-family homes, and I love the diversity of this community.
How can people connect with Diane and support the Leimert Park Jazz Festival?
We have a website at www.LeimertParkJazzFestival.com. If anyone is interested in signing up for ongoing updates, there’s a place on the site where they can do that; you can also follow us on Facebook and Instagram: @LeimertParkJazzFestival. The event is free and open to the public. I see this festival as having the potential to be one of the premier jazz festivals in South Los Angeles, if not all of LA. That’s what I say, that’s what I put in the universe, and I feel it so deeply in my spirit. We are not there yet, but with the anemic budget with which I produce this, I think it has a high production value, it’s highly regarded, and I am very proud of it.
I am in the process of looking for more sponsors, and it’s challenging once we are coming out of a pandemic but also as a small newer event producer who doesn’t really have the statistics to show potential sponsors. They want to know about numbers and all of that we’re building; we will get there. I do appreciate the sponsors we’ve had over the years, as well as the people who volunteer, who provided their services on an in-kind donation basis because they want to see this succeed. But I do see this having longevity like the Central Avenue Jazz Festival. I probably won’t be executive producing by then, haha, but hopefully, there will be someone whom I can then hand this off to and keep it going.
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