Coastalgate: "uncertainty & chaos" at Coastal Jazz

I missed the genesis of a story that would spread to CBC News and The Globe and Mail, a couple months later.

Coastalgate: "uncertainty & chaos" at Coastal Jazz

I have donated personally to the Coastal Jazz and Blues Society, which is the non-profit that runs the Vancouver jazz festival. But Coastal, the largest non-profit music presenter in BC, has entered its biggest controversy in its 35 years of history, and I made a clueless mistake about it.

And as a donor, I had the right to attend Coastal’s Annual General Meeting on November 16th, 2021, and vote on business and board member stuff; but I couldn’t make it.

Little did I know, I missed the genesis of a story that would spread to CBC News and The Globe and Mail, a couple months later.

What I said in the video

On February 4th, 2022, Martin Dunphy of The Georgia Straight reported that Rainbow Robert would no longer work for Coastal, after she had worked for them for over 20 years, most recently leading the artistic programming.

I went to a concert presented by Coastal, on February 18th, 2022, where she received an ovation when the performer mentioned her name.

That week, Torsten Mueller, who is a Vancouver jazz musician, wrote an open letter to the Board of Coastal with the subject line: “The current crisis at Coastal Jazz and Blues Society”.

Over 330 names appear on this letter as signatories.

The first main allegation of the letter is that the board put Rainbow’s position and other staff positions on working notice, without providing detail on why.

Through an interview with Franco Ferrari, who is a longtime board member of Coastal and is at the centre of this controversy, The Globe and Mail elaborates on this:

In 2020, the board ordered what’s known as a 360 review of senior staff. After that, the board decided the distributed leadership structure wasn’t working, according to Mr. Ferrari. In October, 2020, the board put the three leaders and a director of administration on 14 months’ working notice, informing them their positions would be eliminated in December, 2021."

Now, Rainbow stepped down in February; the December scheduling didn’t quite come through. That’s partly because the AGM went off the rails.

The board members allegedly cussed out society members, and the letter says,

“When challenging questions were posed by members regarding the reasoning behind these decisions, they were met with derision and profanity from the board.”

On top of that, the letter alleges that:

“[someone] had volunteered as an acting Managing Director for a year, blurring the lines between board and operational roles in the organization – this was taken a step further when the Chair chose to write the “staff report” for the AGM, but later refused to present it after he had resigned mid-meeting.”

That’s an opaque mix of board work and paid staff work.

The letter concludes with this demand: “We ask that the board respect the decision of the voting membership by stepping down.”

The following week, Coastal published a statement from the board about the “uncertainty and chaos” of the AGM.

And it corroborates something else that the letter suggested: at the AGM, the members tried to vote out the board.

However, according to the response:

“There is no provision for “voting out” Board members — if the number of candidates exceeds the number of open Board positions, then an election should be held to determine which of the candidates are elected to the Board — otherwise the candidates are acclaimed. This was the legal assessment provided to the Board by an independent counsel, which was confirmed and agreed to by the Society’s own legal team.”

The Coastal bylaws are here in case you want to chip in with more specific knowledge.

Around this time, the social media activity of creative, improvising, local musicians here started heating up with criticism of the board.

And in CBC News, Aram Bajakian and Sonja Mueller, who is Torsten the letter author’s wife, appear as the two main interview subjects advocating against the board. They don’t add much from what we already saw in the open letter, they just bring it into the mainstream news.

But John Orysik, who is a co-founder of Coastal, also shows up to represent a pro-board perspective; and he gets spicier than the board’s statement.

To be clear, he’s not on the board anymore. According to CBC:

“He said that in the days leading up to the AGM, many new members registered with the society, including Bajakian and Sonja Muller. Orysik believes many of the new members were recruited to vote out the board over strained staffing issues within the organization.”

But another Coastal founder, Robert Kerr, disagrees. He says to the board, according to the Globe and Mail,

I am deeply offended by your statement that you are ‘carrying on the legacy and intent of our founders None of you yourselves are founding members and not one of you speak for me. If you have a shred of respect for the values and intent of those of us who founded, established and nurtured the organization to international acclaim, you should all resign immediately.”

And as we reach the present day, the last official statement on the matter goes to Nou Dadoun, a corevolunteer andboard member throughout Coastal’s history. On the website and wonderful time capsule, he writes:

There have been varying amounts of turmoil in the society for over a decade and it’s long past time for new blood and new perspectives to take the helm and face the challenges (of which there are many). I’ll have more to say about that turmoil, where we are and how we got here in the future but I’ve proposed meetings with a group of members of the Vancouver music community about a transition of leadership and I don’t want to muddy the waters before we get started.”

Neither do I.

I don’t know what to think about this story. If anything, it shows me two things:

  1. It’s so cute and old-fashioned how this story is playing out in the media between Aram and the Muellers, and board members and Coastal co-founders. Back in their day, people didn’t make YouTube storytimes about each other or direct the narrative themselves on their own social media.
  2. More personally, how much of an outsider I am with Coastal; more so than you’d think, considering I’m a lifelong jazz musician and a donor.

I have never worked with Coastal. I’ve never played at the festival, they’ve never offered me a performance at the festival, and I’ve never met Rainbow Robert or any of the Coastal founders.

The reason why I didn’t mention the late Ken Pickering in this video is because I never met him. There was a generation that grew up under his artistic direction at the festival, but it was the one older than mine; it’s not my story.

So as always, my work here is not the finish line: it’s a starting point for wherever you want to take it.