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Retiring Berks Jazz Fest GM John Ernesto leaves behind a lasting legacy

It’s hard to imagine now, but by his own admission, John Ernesto knew little about jazz and nothing about booking acts or programming music when he took over as general manager of Berks Arts’ annual Boscov’s Berks Jazz Fest back in 1994.

In the 30 ensuing years, Ernesto has become the driving force behind the scenes as the-little-festival-that-could climbed the ladder of the jazz world despite its humble, small-town setting, and grew to be one of Berks County’s biggest tourism draws.

Two weeks ago, Berks Arts announced that this year’s 33rd festival, running April 5-14, will be Ernesto’s last. Turning 76 in May, he has decided the time is right for him to embrace the next phase of life: full retirement. (Ernesto retired from Reading Eagle in 2014 after a 49-year career there.)

Saying goodbye to the jazz festival was not a decision Ernesto made lightly, but during a recent interview at Cheers American Bistro in the DoubleTree by Hilton hotel in downtown Reading, which has served as ground zero for the festival the past nine years, he said it’s one he finds himself at peace with.

It’s not the festivals themselves that are the hard part, he said, it’s the in-betweens. He compared it to the recent retirement of Philadelphia Eagles center Jason Kelce: “Down inside, he wants to play football, but going from today to next season, that’s rough.

“We all have a shelf-life, and I’m very at peace with my decision. I take away more memories than any one person deserves. I’m thankful for the relationships and friendships.

“Suzie (his wife) and I, most of our friendships revolve around music. We talk about it all the time. We’ve been very fortunate and blessed to meet all these people; we’re friends with fans from all over the country who call and check in. And artists. It’s very humbling.”

‘It just consumes your life’

Planning a 10-day event that draws musicians and jazz fans not just from around the corner but around the world requires a massive commitment that takes more than one man. One of the things Ernesto is most proud of is the way the festival is and always has been a community effort centered on teamwork.

“There’s a core group of people — a coalition of the arts community, the business community, the hotel community and the volunteers — and everybody worked together,” he said. “They all came together to make jazz fest work.”

But he admits that the 30th anniversary festival in 2020, which was postponed no thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic just days before it was set to begin, took its toll on him. He first rebuilt the entire fest for April 2021, and then again for August 2021 after the pandemic again derailed the April dates. And all the while he was simultaneously programming the subsequent festival for spring 2022.

“So all summer long while we’re getting ready for August, we’re also working on the next one,” he said. “It just consumes your life. … I still enjoy it; I love the festival. But I started asking myself, ‘Do I want to do what it takes to go from May to the next spring and spend the entire summer on the phone, booking, programming?’ Then when I did this one (2024), I was pushing myself. I started questioning myself. When that creeps in, it’s time.”

Last June, Ernesto notified Berks Arts that this would be his final fest.

John Ernesto, left, and Gary Spencer, Berks Arts production manager, right, with Philadelphia bassist Gerald Veasley, a major contributor to Berks Jazz Fest through the years.
John Ernesto, left, and Gary Spencer, Berks Arts production manager, right, with Philadelphia bassist Gerald Veasley, a major contributor to Berks Jazz Fest through the years.

‘You don’t say no to Albert’

As anyone who knows him will tell you, Ernesto is unassuming.

Throughout his tenure, he’s done his best to remain in the shadows and let the spotlights shine on the real talent — the musicians.

“I never was on a main stage to introduce a band,” he said, then paused before adding, “except one night. Albert Boscov (the late department store magnate and major festival sponsor) made me go out with him. I wasn’t going to go, but you don’t say no to Albert.”

Yet despite Ernesto’s low profile, those in the jazz fest scene know and fully appreciate him, as evidenced by the multiple fans, hotel security guards and random passers-by who recognized him and took a moment to wish him a happy retirement on a weekday afternoon at the DoubleTree.

Asked about the festival’s reputation in the jazz world, which, make no mistake, is considerable, he demurred, reluctant to draw comparisons, before conceding: “It’s well-respected, but the thing I’m appreciative of is when people say we’ve all built something here that’s special. People say it’s the biggest jazz festival on the East Coast; I say no, it’s the biggest jazz festival in Berks County. (laughs)

“Everybody’s business model is different, you know. The most important thing is it’s respected by the industry: the agents, the managers, the fans and the artists.”

But Rick Braun, the Los Angeles-based trumpeter, record producer and festival mainstay since its inception, had no qualms about giving the event its due: “He built the Berks Jazz Fest through his calm and knowledgeable guidance to be one of the most renowned jazz festivals not only in the United States but in the world.”

John Ernesto, right, with jazz guitarist Chuck Loeb, part of Ernesto's "holy trinity." Loeb died of cancer in 2017.
John Ernesto, right, with jazz guitarist Chuck Loeb, part of Ernesto’s “holy trinity.” Loeb died of cancer in 2017.

The holy trinity

Ernesto is quick to give credit where due, particularly to three artists Suzie long ago dubbed “the holy trinity”: Braun, bassist Gerald Veasley and the late guitarist Chuck Loeb. All three proved instrumental in helping to program the festival year in and year out — especially the special concerts that have been one of the festival’s calling cards, such as the Loeb-directed 2006 tribute to Wes Montgomery that featured seven stellar guitarists sharing one stage, sans egos.

“Rick Braun had ties in Allentown so he spent a lot of time back here in the early days,” Ernesto said. “He would come visit his family, visit his mom. I clearly remember him playing ‘My Funny Valentine’ for his mom from right in front of the stage before she passed.

“And Gerald Veasley, being from Philadelphia, and Chuck Loeb, he lived in New York, but they took that collaborative spirit to a whole other level. We all became really good friends. And Chuck was a first-rate producer. He understood the business and he would love to brainstorm ideas and be involved in the festival.”

One of those ideas was the annual Berks Bop Night, which aimed to bridge the gap between straight-ahead and contemporary jazz.

“I felt a lot of contemporary jazz artists were being disrespected by the traditional jazz world, like they’re not really jazz musicians, which is really BS, and it bothered me,” Ernesto said. “These guys all had killer chops. So how do we kind of bridge that? So we came up with Berks Bop Night, where the contemporary artists get together and they play a night of bop.”

Another big idea was the Thursday Night Jam, which pulled together many of each year’s featured artists on one stage. After Loeb died of cancer, they rechristened it the Chuck Loeb Memorial All Star Jam.

“I think about Chuck a lot when I’m programming,” Ernesto said. “He was a wonderful person. When we lost him in 2017, that was a tough day.”

‘I knew nothing’

Ernesto knows he couldn’t have done any of this on his own. He was, after all, quite green — or, as he put it, “I knew nothing” — when he stepped into the general manager’s job in the festival’s fourth year.

He was running the marketing and promotions department at the Reading Eagle in 1991 when the festival debuted and its organizers approached the newspaper about helping to promote it.

A year later, Berks Arts Council executive director and the festival founder, Bill Royston, was ousted for financial improprieties. Everyone rallied around Berks Arts board member Kay Haring, who helmed year two, then Scenic River Days founder Bob Kerper took over for year three and asked Ernesto to get more involved, so he became co-chair.

“He (Kerper) said to me halfway through that festival, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore,’” Ernesto recalled, laughing.

So for year four, Ernesto took over as general manager, an independent contractor position under the auspices of Berks Arts, while still working full-time at the Eagle, where he was grateful for the talents of another holy trinity: colleagues Connie Andrews, Lisa Schleicher and Dana Hoffman.

He asked the arts council for permission to bring back Royston as a consultant, to help teach him the ropes of booking and managing a festival.

“To my surprise, they said yes,” Ernesto said. “So he was a consultant to me for a couple of years.”

Simultaneously, Ernesto was immersing himself in jazz, from both a music and business perspective, traveling to conferences in New York and getting to know as many people as he could.

It didn’t hurt that he had a knack for organizing events, no doubt inherited from his father, who owned Charlie’s Tavern, a bar/Italian restaurant on Schuylkill Avenue where he ran a club called Charlie’s Travelers that would take excursions to sporting events.

By 2000, under Ernesto’s leadership, the festival was expanding from three to 10 days and drawing upwards of 30,000 fans to Berks County annually. It had firmly found its footing.

John Ernesto, right, with his first jazz hero, Dave Brubeck, who made two appearances at Berks Jazz Fest.
John Ernesto, right, with his first jazz hero, Dave Brubeck, who made two appearances at Berks Jazz Fest.

‘My God, that’s Dave Brubeck’

Ernesto’s early musical influences weren’t from the jazz world but rather R&B. In his teen years, he and his friends would trek to the Latin Casino, a club in Cherry Hill, N.J., to see the likes of The Temptations, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. His appreciation for jazz came a little later, when he discovered Dave Brubeck, which led him to Ramsey Lewis, Sergio Mendez, Hugo Montenegro and others.

“That was my introduction to jazz,” he said. “I wouldn’t call myself a hard-core jazzer, but I enjoyed it.”

When he met Suzie, a folky and accomplished singer in her own right, his tastes expanded even more.

He still remembers standing in the wings with Suzie as Brubeck took the stage for his first Berks Jazz Fest appearance back in the ’90s.

“It just kind of hit me,” he said. “I said to Suzie, ‘My God, that’s Dave Brubeck.’ It’s one of those moments where you kind of go full circle, and one of the great memories. Fortunately, we were able to present him twice before he passed.”

John and Suzie Ernesto with jazz great Wynton Marsalis, who has appeared at Berks Jazz Fest three times.
John and Suzie Ernesto with jazz great Wynton Marsalis, who has appeared at Berks Jazz Fest three times.

Over the years, Ernesto booked other such venerable acts as Grover Washington Jr., Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, The Yellowjackets, Marian McPartland, Al Jarreau, George Benson and Wynton Marsalis, to name just a few. Marsalis, prior to his 2022 performance, told Ernesto: “What you guys have accomplished here, to keep this festival going for 30-plus years, is nothing short of amazing. It just doesn’t happen in the industry anymore.”

“You get to work with people you never imagined,” Ernesto said. “When I look back on it, I went from not knowing anything about the music to having the opportunity to program and work with some major hitters. Talk about being blessed and humbled. It was very humbling. ”

‘Enjoy the moment’

Despite the distractions and swirling emotions that have gone with announcing his retirement, Ernesto is really looking forward to his final festival, which fittingly will feature performances by many of his longtime friends and collaborators. He intends to go out on a high note.

“Ticket sales are good,” he said. “My goal is to have a great time, have the opportunity to thank people personally for 10 days for being a part of this, and just kind of enjoy the moment.”

He is not leaving the arts scene completely. He loves being involved in community-focused events. He plans to continue curating the Jazz on the Avenue series at the Yocum Institute for Arts Education, which started in 2019. He also will continue to serve on the Reading Pops Orchestra board, as well as the Miller Center Advisory Council at Reading Area Community College.

But he really wants to make more time for his family, which has at times taken a backseat as he immersed himself in the festival. Already, he and Suzie, a diehard Phillies fan, are planning a trip to Florida for spring training next year, something they’ve always wanted but never been able to do.

“I really just want to relax,” he said. “I wake up every day worrying about this (the festival). Sometimes I feel I cheated my family a little bit. My oldest daughter, Kate, was born March 26. Many years her birthday was celebrated at the jazz festival. And what made it work, quite frankly, is Suzie — our relationship. She loves music. She’s performed at the festival. She knows more about music than I’ll ever know.

“We’ve been a team through this. We’re going to be married 47 years in September. And that’s what’s made it kind of gratifying to me is that we did it together. If that weren’t the case, it probably wouldn’t have worked. … Now I have a grandson who’s dabbling in saxophone. It’s pretty cool.”

So what does he envision come April 15, the first day of the rest of his life?

“I’m just going to pay my taxes and move on,” he said, grinning.

And with that, he turned and walked away.

What they’re saying

Berks Jazz Fest artists pay tribute to John Ernesto:

“Organizing musicians is like herding cats. And throw in managers, artists, agents, two weeks of multiple shows at several unique, multi-sized venues and you’re now dealing with the world’s largest herd of cats with an obstacle course thrown in for good measure. John Ernesto has been taking care of all of us cats and doing it expertly with patience and a smile on his face for the last 34 years without fail. I’ve learned so much from John over the years. I’ve seen him put out so many fires and deal with so many emergencies and temperamental artist types and never lose his calm demeanor or his sense of humor. I consider John and Suzie Ernesto to be dear friends and enjoy every moment we get to spend together. There was a time when his job was on the line and many of us artists got together and did a letter-writing campaign in his support. I think that was about 12 years ago, and we’re so glad that he stuck with us. He built the Berks Jazz Fest through his calm and knowledgeable guidance to be one of the most renowned jazz festivals not only in the United States but in the world! On behalf of all the musicians I want to express our gratitude, love and best wishes.” — Rick Braun, trumpeter

“John Ernesto isn’t just a friend, he’s a ‘we-can-do-it’ champion! For 30 years, his motto has been, “We can do that!” — always emphasizing the power of teamwork. The Berks Jazz Fest has thrived because John sees the magic in collaboration. He lifts up fans, musicians, everyone! Yet this humble man rarely takes credit. As a musician, I cherish his respect for the art, and as a friend, his loyalty warms my heart. John Ernesto proves that putting people-first creates something truly special. Thanks, John, for the music and the friendship!” — Gerald Veasley, bassist

“John Ernesto is the heartbeat of the Berks Fest. And thank God he’s made it his life’s mission to share his incredible passion for jazz with other hearts! And that passion has impacted every one of us. In less obvious ways like allowing me to have experienced the beauty of the bucolic hike paths along the Schuylkill, but primarily in the warm smiles of every single audience member from every corner of the globe! Luckily for us John has passed on his love of jazz to the many who will now passionately promote America’s greatest export for generations to come.” — Kirk Whalum, saxophonist

“I met John through my very early association with the Berks Jazz Fest, and we have become good friends throughout the years. Whether it was working with my marketing, management and/or musical participation, he has been very supportive for all that I have contributed. He works well with the best people he can find (all year long, around the clock), and trusts their skills and commitment to making the best possible festival, year after year. He’s built a good foundation for the Berks Jazz Fest to continue to bring enjoyment to audiences, musicians, volunteers and community pride/prosperity. — Mike Anderson, Berks Horns saxophonist and part of Berks Jazz Fest organizing committee since 1991

“It has been my pleasure to know John Ernesto for well over 30 years now and truly an honor to call him my friend. Without hesitation, I can say that John is one of the greatest people I know. It takes immense dedication to put on an event like the Berks Jazz Fest as he has year after year. Anyone who has ever attended the festival can easily see the mountain of organization and planning that goes into it. John’s love of the music and care for each musician and guest is the reason why the festival feels more like a family reunion. John and his wife, Suzie, have created a sense of community and friendship for all of us. Happy retirement John and thank you for building one of the world’s greatest musical events that has meant so much to so many! We love you!” — Eric Marienthal, saxophonist

Source: Berkshire mont

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