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The Greater Madison Jazz Consortium brings new voices and fresh ideas to the local scene
A swingin' success story
on
Strollin' Monroe Street featured student ensembles and seasoned performers.
Credit:Lumen Naturale Photography

Pub crawls with multiple local jazz acts. Guest artists teaching jazz in schools and kids loving it. Town hall meetings, surveys, grant money, teamwork, ideas, excitement.... Who turned up the heat on jazz in Madison?

The Greater Madison Jazz Consortium is less than two years old but has already proven that jazz in Madison doesn't have to be stale or geriatric. America's great indigenous art form is still vibrant, enjoyable and commercially viable when skilled organizers, dedicated performers and fans work together to promote the music.

"We're in the demonstration phase," says Consortium chairman Howard Landsman. "We want to show how much more can be done, through reaching out and collaborating, to build on the good work that jazz organizations are already doing on their own."

The Consortium was officially launched in 2012, but it actually began in 2009. That's when a group of local jazz fans planned a celebration of the life of Mary Lou Williams, a little-known but influential jazz pianist, composer and educator who did a residency at the UW. By the end of 2010, more than 50 concerts and events had been staged in her honor. Local and national musicians, poets and spoken-word artists had performed. Plus, $130,000 had been raised. Enthusiastic audiences had turned out in droves.

The key was the organizing and fundraising skill of the "Mary Lou committee," which Landsman chaired. Retired from 12 years as grants and fund development coordinator for the Madison Metropolitan School District, he had raised nearly $40 million for Madison schools. If anyone could foster partnership among local jazz organizations, Landsman and his committee could. And they were only getting warmed up.

Playing in unison

The Greater Madison Jazz Consortium is a coalition of the nonprofit presenting organizations Madison Music Collective, Madison Jazz Society, Wisconsin Union Theater and Midwest Gypsy Swing Fest, plus educators from the UW School of Music and the Madison School District Fine Arts Division. Also involved are local media such as WORT-FM, Isthmus, Capital City Hues and Madison Times. Initial funding of $44,100 came from the John and Carolyn Peterson Charitable Foundation.

Goals include expanding and diversifying the local jazz fan base, bringing high-profile artists to town, getting more work opportunities and better pay for local performers, and cultivating the next generation of jazz musicians and listeners. Among the first planning steps was a survey.

"It was painful to read the responses, especially from musicians," Landsman says. "Pay is half what it used to be. Venues are abandoning jazz. Audiences are aging and less engaged. Young people and people of color don't attend. Shows aren't promoted. You can't get a gig that pays a respectable fee."

As for the fans, 65% said it "isn't easy" to get information about upcoming events, and 85% were dissatisfied with the number of performances by prominent touring artists. Pat Metheny, Gary Burton, Robert Glasper and Josh Redman had all come to the Midwest in recent years but didn't stop in Madison.

Landsman compiled the results and wrote a second grant proposal to the Peterson Foundation. By August 2013, the Consortium had another $60,000. It was ready to begin enacting their plans for change.

Picking up the tempo

The last year has seen the hiring of four part-time Consortium program coordinators: Nick Moran, Rob Lundberg, Susan Fox and Leotha Stanley. Their collective job is to spur partnership among organizations, musicians, venues, nonprofit groups and schools.

Moran, a bass player, began his job of jazz community organizing by holding town hall meetings at the Cardinal Bar, where his band the New Breed perform.

"My first few months were spent hearing and compiling ideas from jazz musicians," he says.

That act alone -- listening -- established a positive tone for the work that followed.

"It's really been mind-blowing to see how engaged and ready the musicians are to work together and get new initiatives off the ground," he says.

One of those initiatives was Strollin' Schenk's Corners on May 23. A pub crawl for jazz fans, the event had no cover charge and featured 10 local acts playing throughout the evening at Chocolaterian, Thorps, One Barrel Brewing and Alchemy. Combos from East and West high schools also entertained on an outdoor stage at Monona State Bank. Landsman calls the event a "huge success," citing packed houses, positive feedback from venues and requests to make the event an annual one. A similar event took place on Monroe Street on July 19, with live performances by Harmonious Wail, vocalist Gerri DiMaggio, saxophonist Clay Lyons and other local acts. The season's final event is planned for September, near King Street and East Wilson. Landsman thinks the Strollin' concept -- named for a Horace Silver tune -- could succeed in other local commercial districts.

"Creating a fun event with multiple choices seems to produce greater turnout," he explains. "It's the same music, but a more festive atmosphere."

Rob Lundberg, also a bassist, helped Moran put Strollin' together. His role is to develop new jazz venues, which could include sites like Central Library, the UW Memorial Union's new and improved Play Circle or the Bartell Theatre. House concerts, a growing trend, may be the most intriguing idea. Harmonious Wail and Typhanie Monique have played in Madison homes, to groups of 45 to 50 people, at $15-$18 per ticket. In other words, this model produces a well-paying gig for musicians and an intimate, appreciative audience.

Jazz: The next generation

To create an enduring fan base, the Consortium wants to get kids to learn about jazz from a young age. One avenue is to embed it in the cultural programs of nonprofit organizations. To that end, Susan Fox is on board to broker and coordinate partnerships.

With a wealth of experience in the nonprofit performing arts sector, Fox is involved with a pilot program at the Goodman Community Center, in which local musicians introduce middle and high schoolers to jazz through music lessons, ensembles and community performances. A music education program involving the Boys & Girls Club and Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra is in the works. Centro Hispano and the East Madison Community Center have also expressed interest.

"There's more demand than supply right now," Landsman says. "[Local nonprofits] know that music is a way to really get kids engaged in positive activity."

Leotha Stanley, an educator and longtime music director at Mt. Zion Baptist Church, is working as guest artist coordinator to create paid residencies for local musicians in K-8 schools, helping music teachers teach kids about jazz basics. Earlier this year, vocalist Lynette Margulies worked with kindergarteners and second-graders at Midvale Elementary, teaching them scat singing, call and response and improvisation. And Jamie Kember, jazz director at Madison College, helped bands at Whitehorse Middle School prepare for their spring concert.

To help build audiences at live shows, bassist and web designer John Christensen has been enlisted to create a "go to" Madison jazz website and calendar of local gigs. Christensen is working with local musicians to make the site as robust, up-to-date and easy-to-use as possible. Also advising is saxophonist and Madison Jazz Jam founder Bob Kerwin, who previously maintained a similar site.

The leader of the band

Clearly, the Consortium has taken on a lot. Can it really make a difference?

"It may be too early to tell, but I certainly hope so," says violinist Chris Wagoner, who performs in multiple bands, including the Stellanovas. He's also one of the organizers of the Jazz on a Sunday series at the Brink Lounge. "The big thing is, they got the conversation going."

Landsman credits his coordinators for Consortium progress thus far. He peppers his conversation with a long list of fellow volunteers and supporters, including Cathy Sullivan, former executive director of Jazz at Five, who provides administrative and program production help.

Still, one gets the impression the Consortium might not be what it is without him. Where does he get the motivation to do all that he does, unpaid, as a volunteer?

"I'm a jazz fan," he says. "Always was, even before I knew it was jazz."

He remembers listening to his mother's big-band music while growing up in New York City. One of his favorite songs was Ray Charles' 1961 jazz hit "One Mint Julep." After moving to Madison in the late '60s, he heard the Black Music Ensemble at Mills Hall, led by jazz trombonist Jimmy Cheatham, in 1973.

"I was just blown away by what I heard. I started going to the library, checked out LPs, picked out a record by Herbie Hancock with Wayne Shorter, started listening to Miles," Landsman says.

By 1977, he hardly missed a show in Madison, frequenting jazz clubs Merlyn's and Good Karma on the 300 block of State Street.

"This was about the time Richard Davis came to the university," he relates. "It was great to see Richard headlining this year's Isthmus Jazz Fest, which the Consortium helped support."

A note of caution

Keeping Madison jazz on the upswing is a daunting task. One challenge is connecting with other major players in town, like Jazz at Five and Overture Center.

"Overture leadership has had a healthy skepticism about the size of the jazz audience in Madison," Landsman says. "So we did a pilot marketing partnership with them around the Newport Jazz Festival concert in March. They were delighted with the turnout, and I'm hoping that will lead to additional collaboration."

Funding, likewise, remains a "huge challenge." The Consortium will look for individual and corporate donors, as well as new grant sources, in the near future.

"My biggest fear is that we wouldn't be able to continue," Landsman says. "But I hope as we can show the good things happening and the progress we've made and our vision for the future, so that jazz fans in town will see the value of what we're doing and support us."

"Vibrancy and sustainability," he summarizes. "Seeing not just what is, but what can be."

After all, a great concert can be the experience of a lifetime. Landsman points to Art Blakey, whom he saw at Merlyn's in 1980.

"It was just so special to see him. He was such a force, such a missionary for the music," Landsman says.

It takes one to know one.

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