Yvonne Ervin, who launched the Tucson Jazz Festival and as founding director of the Tucson Jazz Society grew it to be the biggest jazz society in the country, died Wednesday night at the Mayo Clinic Hospital in Phoenix after suffering a heart attack after liver transplant surgery. She was 59.
Ervin had been hospitalized with hepatitis A since October and had been taken by ambulance to the Phoenix hospital last week to undergo the liver transplant, said her husband, Alan Hershowitz.
Ervin was the indefatigable force behind Tucson’s jazz music scene.
Her death comes two weeks before the start of the 2019 HSL Properties Tucson Jazz Festival on Jan. 11, a festival that she launched in 2015 after being approached by Tucson lawyer Elliot Glicksman and Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild.
“From the get-go, the festival would never have happened without Yvonne Ervin,” Glicksman said Thursday. “Yvonne was the complete driving force to make it happen.”
Glicksman said it was Ervin’s deep ties to the jazz world far beyond her adopted Tucson hometown that made the festival a success from its inception. The festival broke even its first year and boasted sold-out concerts over the next three events. This year’s festival is Jan. 11-21.
“It’s going to leave a big void, one that hopefully people will pick up,” Rothschild said. “She’s going to be remembered, and we need to remember her, for the jazz scene in particular. In some ways she was one of a kind.”
Ervin’s love of jazz goes back to her childhood in Illinois, where she first played the clarinet before switching to alto saxophone and then tenor sax, said her husband.
“She got quite good at it. She was also just interested in the music itself and the people,” Hershowitz said.
Ervin was 21 when she left home to attend the University of Arizona in 1981. She double-majored in journalism and saxophone performance.
In a journalism career that spanned 30 years, she interviewed more than 150 jazz legends, and her work appeared in local media as well as national publications including Showtimes West, Down Beat and Music Hound’s Guide to Jazz. According to her online bio posted on her website (yvonneervin.com), 30 of her interviews are archived at the Library of Congress.
She was a founding member of the Jazz Journalists Association, where she served as vice president, and was active with the Tucson Jazz Institute and its fundraising arm, the Tucson Jazz Music Foundation.
“She was always attending the various festivals around the country, connecting with those who were coming to Tucson and looking for future guest artists,” said the foundation’s Krystyna Parafinczuk. “The loss is national because she was involved with everyone. And while you think jazz is a big community it’s actually small. She had the energy and the connections and understood how it operates.”
Ervin’s first stint in Tucson — she left for a dozen years beginning in 1998 — stretched 18 years and included landing the top job as the first executive director of the Tucson Jazz Society. Over nine years, she grew the organization from 500 members and a $50,000 budget to 2,100 members and a budget of $250,000 to support 42 concert productions a year. She was the society’s first paid employee, a job she landed after volunteering for eight years.
She also was marketing director for several years for the Tucson Symphony Orchestra and the statewide Arizona Dance Theatre before moving to New York.
But it was her love of and devotion to jazz that brought a smile to her face. As a performer in the all-woman ensemble Bitches Brew, which took its name from Miles Davis’s 1970 album, she earned a spot in the Tucson Musicians Hall of Fame.
Her work behind the scenes put Tucson on the jazz map, from her work with the Jazz Society to her work launching the binational “Jazz on the Border: The Mingus Project” festival in 1993 to honor Nogales, Arizona, native and jazz great Charles Mingus. That concert turned into the annual Charles Mingus Hometown Jazz Festival, which will be held on April 27 in Nogales.
“No one in Tucson has a more in-depth understanding of the jazz world as it is today,” said George Hanson, executive director of the Tucson Desert Song Festival, which has collaborated with Ervin’s Tucson Jazz Festival for the past three years.
“She’s very, very close to being irreplaceable. You could do a national search and find someone who would do half the amount she does for twice the money. She made Tucson’s cultural life richer and will be sorely missed.”
Ervin also partnered with the UA and UA Presents for the festival including bringing in rising star Trombone Shorty for this year’s festival. He will perform Jan. 18 at Centennial Hall.
“I can’t imagine not seeing her smiling face at future events,” said UA Presents marketing director Mario DiVetta. “All of us at UA Presents are grieving for the loss to the community and for her family.”
News of Ervin’s passing took her friends and colleagues around the country by surprise.
“I wish I could’ve said goodbye,” said Tucson comedian and writer Henry Barajas, who now lives in Los Angeles and wrote on Facebook that Ervin gave “me a job when I didn’t have one.”
“She loved jazz. She loved the people that made it,” he said. “I hope that she’s up there listening to God’s impression of Louie. Rest in power, Yvonne.”
“Hard to fathom that my dear friend and colleague, Yvonne Ervin, passed this morning. She was a force for so much good in the music. ... Yvonne enriched the lives of tens of thousands of jazz lovers and musicians, and she was an inspiration to me for the more than 20 years I have known her,” Daniel Atkinson, the jazz coordinator for the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library in San Diego, posted on Facebook. “Rest in peace, my friend, I am spinning Mingus’ ‘Goodbye Porkpie Hat’ for you and remembering all the projects and the music that we shared.”
Hershowitz said Ervin would want her legacy to be the educational opportunities that she promoted through the jazz festival and beyond.
“I think she would want the continuation of the great education and performing opportunities here and the development of so many fine jazz musicians,” he said.
“I think the educational aspect of it has always been extremely important to her. The jazz fest has always featured hometown kids done good.”
The Tucson Jazz Music Foundation on Thursday announced the creation of a memorial scholarship for girls in Ervin’s name.
“Empowering girls in jazz, and women in jazz, was a part of Yvonne’s ‘jazz mission’ and the FDN would like to annually remember and honor her through this memorial scholarship,” the foundation posted on Facebook.
In addition to her all-female jazz ensemble, Ervin also put together the Primavera Jazz Festival in the 1980s to celebrate women in the arts.
The foundation’s scholarship is open to girls 10 to 17. Applications are available through the foundation’s website, tjmfdn.org/scholarships
Hershowitz said memorial services will be announced later.