Curtis King, founder and director of The Black Academy of Arts and Letters, is finally watching his dream of a world-class jazz festival in Dallas come true.

Curtis King, founder and director of The Black Academy of Arts and Letters, is finally watching his dream of a world-class jazz festival in Dallas come true.

Rose Baca/The Dallas Morning News

Curtis King is playing the long game.

For almost 20 years, the founder of The Black Academy of Arts and Letters Inc. championed a world-class jazz festival for the city of Dallas. It has finally come to fruition with the first Riverfront Jazz Festival, on Sept. 1-3, at Texas Horse Park.

The talent alone positions it among the most elite jazz festivals in the country. King says he's been fielding calls from all over the world wondering one thing: How did they do it?

Riverfront Jazz Festival: Erykah Badu / Ruben Studdard / Jon Secada / Freda Payne

"It's a project of faith, a project of relationships, a project of believing in me with the idea and the mission of what we're doing," he says. 

Exclamatory names fit the bill across two main stages: jazz; and blues and soul. Along with Dallasite Erykah Badu, world-renowned talent such as Japan's Keiko Matsui, South Africa's Jonathan Butler and others will perform over Labor Day Weekend.

But the first night is "all Dallas," he says. Badu will headline opening night in her inimitable style. A group called "Young, Gifted and Black Artists" -- some of whom will also perform on the "Promising Young Artists" third stage on which he'll showcase "the genius and talent" in 15-minute sets each -- will perform. From Badu to "Blue," the designer of the festival logo, King says former and current students have been the engine that helped drive the event. 

King has an eye toward the future, though, and he sees three big things.

1. He wants Riverfront Jazz Festival to become an annual event. 

King's goal this year is to host 20,000 people over three days and to "open up some corporate and foundation relationships." The "idea is in the next 10 years, we can be on the Trinity River," King says. 

For now, he's committed to working with Wayne Kirk and the festival will live at Texas Horse Park (811 Pemberton Hill Road, Dallas) "until we grow to 200,000 people."

2. It could raise the visibility of the Black Academy of Arts and Letters.

King hopes the talent, already formidable, becomes undeniable and attracts a broad cross-section of people from North Texas and beyond. King says once Badu, well-regarded singer Will Downing and legendary musician Najee signed on to be honorary chairs of the festival, things started falling into place quickly. 

"That was the fire. The artists started contacting each other," King says, and they range in age from 14 to 84 and include Ruben Studdard, Freda Payne and Jon Secada.

3. The fest could have long-term sustainability.

In King's vision, the Riverfront Jazz Festival will benefit the youth in arts and education program at TBAAL. The organization goes through the stress "every year to try to make a budget" and an arts organization either becomes "destitute by starvation or suffocates from lack of support. Everybody's trying to find an audience or trying to find a new audience," King says. "Maybe the answer was a festival?"

This is a festival that a city as rich and diverse as Dallas deserves, says King. He sees this as the city's forever festival, a perfect marriage of place and idea.

He has his hands in the festival's planning, down to the last detail. On this day, he was finalizing the T-shirts in his office and placing artists in the lineup. It was even his idea to begin each day of the festival with prayer and meditation.

"With all the stuff that's going on in the world today .... walking on those holy grounds [will put] people into a spiritual place to receive musical blessing from all these great, great, great musical talents," King says. 

"I wanted to have something that would cross cultural boundaries, racial boundaries, religious boundaries, age, gender, sexuality ... something that's there for everybody. I specifically sat down and looked at the kind of artists that would attract those kinds of people.

"This is an amazing city. You can't have a better place to have a Riverfront Jazz Festival. This is something the city really needs."

Riverfront Jazz Festival will be Sept. 1 at 7 p.m. and Sept. 2-3 at noon at Texas Horse Park, 811 Pemberton Hill Road, Dallas. Daily, individual tickets are $50, $60 and $125, with a weekend pass for $135. Gates open an hour before show time each day. After-party is Sept. 1-3 at Texas Black Academy of Arts and Letters, 1309 Canton St., Dallas. $20 each day.

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