Talkin’ Tunes and Times Through TEDxSB

By Steven Libowitz   |   December 29, 2020

TEDxSantaBarbara founder and executive producer Mark Sylvester realized early on as COVID-19 crept into our consciousness that he’d probably have to cancel his annual convention that each fall brings together as many as 10 speakers with local spins on the TED trio of topics (technology, entertainment, and design). That’s when the disappointment set in.

“It was nagging at me that I have spent ten years building the community and this was going to be a big anniversary,” Sylvester said recently. “It felt weird to go radio silent.” 

Singer-songwriter Jackson Gillies is among a cast of local luminaries for TEDxSantaBarbara’s concert and conversations, Bittersweet Gratitude (Photo courtesy: Marjorie Luke Theatre)

So, performing a pandemic pivot that perhaps might have vexed the TED Talks folks during a typical year, Sylvester cooked up Making Waves, a new weekly series of conversations with regional disruptors and influencers every Wednesday to talk about the impact of dealing with lockdown and the disease. Then when George Floyd was murdered in late May, he expanded the format to include discussions about justice in all its forms and reached out into the national arena, booking such guests as the head of diversity from Johns Hopkins, the president and CEO of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and representatives from Boston University’s School of Public Health. 

With the end of the year fast approaching, Sylvester paused to take stock, and had a new insight. 

“I realized we hadn’t done any entertainment at all – the ‘E’ in TED Talks,” he recalled. “We’d been looking at racial justice, social justice, economic justice, biological justice, environmental justice – is there something called creative justice? I don’t know the answer to that, but it was worth bringing it up to artists and creators, those people who thrive off an audience, or people, consuming their art. Has anyone talked to them about that?”

With the last Wednesday of December falling a day shy of New Year’s Eve, the timing was perfect.

“It’s our tenth anniversary which is a big deal for us, and I really felt like celebrating. I wanted a big party.”

Thinking he could combine a selection of songs with a discussion with the artist, Sylvester checked in with Jackson Gillies, the young singer-songwriter who’d opened one of the TEDxSantaBarbara fall conferences a couple years back to see whether he’d be interested.

“I told him I wanted to do a concert, but I don’t live in that world of entertainment,” Sylvester said. “I wanted to ask artists how they’re doing, but not just from a serious place. Because even though there’s so much pain right now in every aspect of people’s lives and there isn’t anybody that hasn’t been touched in one way or another, I still have so much gratitude for what I have. Jackson said, ‘Oh, you have bittersweet gratitude.’ That’s when I knew what the event would be called.”

Bittersweet Gratitude: Concert and Conversations with Creators During COVID serves as a special holiday edition of Making Waves, welcoming half a dozen local musical luminaries to share a song or two and talk about their situations. Gillies, Kenny LogginsHana Aluna (Loggins’ daughter), Zach Gill (of ALO and Jack Johnson fame), Glen Phillips (the singer-songwriter who also fronts 1990s hitmaking pop band Toad the Wet Sprocket) and the spoken word act John Revelator & Holy Renaissance will be represented by brief pre-recorded performances – including existing filmed content as well as some songs and recordings created especially for the event – followed by a candid live conversation that focuses such questions as how they have remained creative during the coronavirus crisis, what they’ve been surprised by and how they learned to adapt to our “new normal.”

Where the conversation goes will depend on the moment.

“I’m an improviser, and we prepare, but we don’t plan, and I don’t want this to be a normal kind of interview,” Sylvester said. “I want this to be on a level around the challenges of creating during a crisis because this is part of the overall body of work for Making Waves centered around influencers and disruptors. These artists are all influencers. So I know I’ll start with looking at a line or two in the song lyrics that have informed me that might be new or old, but is still working right now (in our times).”

The 90-minute show will be available via Zoom, with the first 100 people who register (at able to ask questions via chat, while others can watch the livestream on Facebook ( Following the livestream, the edited package will also be available on TEDxSantaBarbara’s webpage.

“I don’t want things to be too heavy because my shows can get rather dark these days,” Sylvester said. “It’s a celebration, so I want it to be fun and light, and TEDx is about looking at ideas through the lens of hope and optimism. People are pretty excited about the vaccine. It’s been bad but it’s going to get better. So let’s listen to some thoughtful music and have interesting conversations with creative people who are figuring it out.”


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