As part of Black History Month, we share the story of the award-winning Ocean City Jazz Festival. We share this, in part, to inspire readers who harbor a dream and haven’t yet realized it, as well as to highlight black philanthropy and the strength and assets of black communities across the country.
This year’s July 4th weekend will mark the tenth anniversary of the Ocean City Jazz Festival, which has grown from the porch of the Ocean City Community Center on the North Carolina shore to a four-day festival on the beach with nationally recognized performers.
Over the past four years, the festival has grown from a one-day event with two performing artists and 150 people attending to four days with 10 artists attracting over 600 persons daily. In the past three years the number of sponsors has increased 20 percent and revenues from sponsors have increased 50 percent.
Carla and Craig Torrey are the driving force behind the event. This husband-and-wife team — with a band of volunteers — have steadily grown the festival with consistency, partnerships, and a willingness to invest time in changing how they position the event before sponsors, how they communicate their value, and whom they approach.
Bottom line: the festival recruits sponsors with a business case. They document their economic impact and provide attendance numbers and demographics including breakouts by gender, ethnicity, income, past festival attendance, educational attainment, age, household ownership and household structure. They communicate the business value of festival sponsorship so well that they were selected as the winner of “Best Sponsorship Packet” at the Showfest Excellence Awards, beating out 169 other North Carolina festivals.
Ocean City is the first place on the North Carolina shore where Blacks could purchase beachfront property, and this year marks the 70th anniversary of this historic African American community. This history was made 15 years before the federal Civil Rights Act mandated change, and Carla’s father was part of it. He was a contractor who built his home and went on to build many of the homes within the community. Carla’s experience spending summers in Ocean City and her love for her father drew Carla and Craig to invest their time, talent, treasures, and resources into the jazz festival.
“My dad would tell the story of how he paid $500 for the lot and how it took him 10 years to pay it off. We often sit on the porch and think about how that $500 investment came a long way,” said Carla. As Carla Torrey shared with us, this was an investment that “Black people weren’t supposed to make.” Here’s our interview with Carla and Craig.
Saad&Shaw: How long have you been involved with the jazz festival, and what got you involved?
Carla: We’ve been involved for five years. When my father passed in 2009 I wanted to do something that I felt would be important to him, and I felt the Ocean City community was that. That is how we got involved with the Ocean City Beach Citizens Council. After being involved with the council we moved to participation with the jazz festival. The first question we asked was, ‘How would you like to elevate this?’ It began with 100 people on a porch and we wanted to know, ‘Do you want to reach a greater audience?’ We felt the community needed more promotion and awareness about its history.
Saad&Shaw: What keeps you committed to the festival?
Carla: We are really excited about trying to make a difference in the community. We want to grow festival revenue so we can stop the land loss. Last year we had three properties that were lost because of tax issues. If we can get enough revenue from the festival we can stop some of that.
Craig: On the fun side, we really like seeing people have a good time and really enjoy the atmosphere of the festival. Part of us enjoys the challenge.
Saad&Shaw: Tell us about this award the festival won. What was the difference in you winning?
Craig: We were up against 169 well-established festivals. Most of the other festivals had 20,000 and 30,000 in attendance, but we beat them out. No matter how big or small you are, if you pay attention to detail and you want to make people feel good about being at your event, that is a plus. The difference in terms of the sponsorship brochure was the detail in it, the amount of collaboration with partners, that increases our reach. And our story grabs you. People see it and they want to experience it.
Saad&Shaw: Well that was our experience. As we got to know you two and learned about the festival and the community we wanted to know more and we wanted to experience the festival. So did our friends. When we came last summer, we fell in love. And speaking of love, we love that you call the festival “jazz with a purpose.”
Carla: It’s entertaining and yet it draws attention to the mission of our organization. This is a personal mission for us: we’ve turned the festival into an entertaining and fundraising event, full of pride and community engagement.
Saad&Shaw: The festival is what we call a “start small, plan big” event. You have started small and practiced making the case locally, regionally, and now reaching across the country. Your commitment and dedication is infectious. You and your team are humble. You ask for guidance and put things in motion.
Carla: Another goal is that the history is not lost. It is important for future generations to understand the strength and faith it took to step out and say, ‘I know this hasn’t been done before and the world thinks I shouldn’t be here, but I’m going to do this.’ That’s the history of our community, and the community has been here for 70 years. I grew up and I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to be there. I would look to the left and see white people and look to the right and see white people, but I never felt afraid or that I didn’t have a right to be there. It was only as I got older that I realized that I wasn’t supposed to be there.
Craig: We want to be able to help members if they have any problems paying their taxes so they don’t lose their property. Our future vision could be a conservancy that purchases property and retains the legacy of the community.
Saad&Shaw: It’s historic what you are doing. It will impact the North Carolina African American community for generations to come. From a fundraising perspective you show what can be accomplished with dedication and sacrifice. You live what we teach: if you believe in a cause, go make the case. You live our motto: “keep pecking at the rock – sooner or later it’s gonna crack.” We take off our hats to you two and your volunteer team. We’ll see you at the festival!
Contact the Ocean City Jazz Festival to become a sponsor. Purchase tickets and join us and so many others over the July 4th weekend.