Tracing the Evolution of the Gem & Jam Festival
The Gem and Jam Festival has been entertaining Tucson, Arizona, since 2005 under the leadership of its founder Toby White, who now works alongside Josh Pollack. The team is gearing up for their 2022 event, the first since the beginning of the pandemic.
Just a month shy of COVID shutdowns, Gem and Jam saw their most successful weekend yet, with more than 5,000 attendees every night and top-flight headliners Tipper, Billy Strings, Big Gigantic, and crowd favorite The Floozies. But Gem and Jam isn't just about great music. It is a weekend that has a little something for everybody. White and Pollack describe the vibe as intimate and creative, emphasizing not just music but art and mindfulness.
White bills the festival as "a multi-day festival that includes art, music, performances, a gem show, all sorts of different kinds of market vending, healing sanctuary… kind of an all-inclusive festival." Powered by acts like STS9, Shpongle, Lotus, Liquid Stranger, and Claude VonStroke, 2022 promises to be the best fest yet.
"Just the diversity of music and the diversity of genres is something that we strive for and something that sets us apart from a lot of other festivals," said Pollack. Most fests deal more specifically with various genres, and even the ones that have a variety are usually five times as big. "I think we deliver this really high-end experience on more of a boutique level."
"You can see bluegrass, and you can see techno, all in the same day."
Gem and Jam began as a music and art festival meant to work in conjunction with the annual Tucson Gem Mineral Show, the largest of its kind. But, surprisingly, neither White nor Pollack are Arizona natives.
"I had a friend of mine years ago… he was heavily into the gem show down in Tucson," explained White. "He said there was nothing going on down there [with music]. Initially in 2005 he said… you plan it, I'll fund it." White took advantage of the untapped music market in the area and jumped on it. The first acts included Delta Nove, Carlos Washington, and Lymbyc Systym.
As the festival continued, Gem and Jam turned into a self-contained entity, cultivating an audience entirely its own. But while the festival has seen increased success over the years, it's also battled periods of uncertainty. There was no festival in 2011 and 2012 due to residual effects from the Great Recession. "The event took a hit at that point, and [we] kind of second-guessed doing it again," said White.
It was then that White met Pollack working at an event in San Francisco. The pair hit it off and wanted to find another project where they could work together, and White mentioned that he was interested in bringing back Gem and Jam. "Obviously, I jumped at that opportunity because that event was very much on my radar," said Pollack.
Several years of successful Gem and Jam weekends followed with Pollack on board. As the needs evolved, the fest found itself changing venues, ultimately landing at its present location, the Pima County Fairgrounds.
"It was more a sort of club event for the first five or six years," said White. "Then it became a theater… and we expanded into the outside parking lot, which gave it more of a festival-like feel but still not quite there. Then we moved over to the Slaughter House… which allowed us to… expand on the festival idea."
It wasn't until they moved to the fairgrounds, though, that Gem and Jam patrons were able to be fully immersed into the festival vibe. "The infrastructure was there to do whatever we wanted."
There was another break in 2019 and a comeback in 2020, only for COVID-19 to handicap the event in 2021. But through all the growing pains, White, Pollack, and the team have persisted. "I think the passion [has] kept it alive for a long time," explained White.
Both Pollack and White began their careers following that passion for music.
Pollack got his start in the industry doing after-parties for STS9, who are headlining the festival this year. After getting into the Colorado music scene, Pollack followed the band around the country, eventually recognizing and filling the party void left when their shows ended at midnight. He ultimately progressed to doing his own stand-alone events.
"[I get] a lot of inherent motivation and internal satisfaction from being able to put these events together and bring people together like this and create these moments for people to connect," said Pollack. Originally from Chicago, Pollack now lives in California's Sierra Foothills, in what he describes as something of an artist enclave.
White, meanwhile, discovered his passion for music at a young age while growing up in Connecticut. His parents took him and his brother to his first show to see Poison Tesla at age seven.
"I don't think [my parents] knew what they were getting themselves into, but it was quite the experienced," White chuckled. Following his passion for music, he also had the desire "to bring people together." In college, he majored in hospitality, leading him to host his own events.
Like many music professionals, putting on a festival is not White's day job. Based in Oregon, he and his wife are looking for a permanent home for the 1965 Airstream they've converted into a high-end bar. Pollack has seen it, and he described it as "very swanky."
If you make it to Gem and Jam this year, you might just see the Airstream, which made a previous appearance at the 2020 festival. "I'm figuring out a way to possibly bring this thing down," said White.
The Gem and Jam Music and Arts Festival will be held February 4-6, 2022, at the Pima County Fairgrounds. More information and tickets can be found on their website. Follow Gem & Jam on Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | YouTube