The Tucson Jazz Society Celebrates 20 Years with Jazz Sundae XX
By Lisa Weeks
THIS WEEK TUCSON Jazz Society continues its celebration of 20 years of dedication to the Tucson jazz community by hosting Jazz Sundae XX, a free, open-air festival on October 12 at the DeMeester Outdoor Performance Center in Reid Park.
Since its humble beginnings at the Jazz Showcase in 1977, TJS has grown from weekly jam sessions into the jazz bastion it is today, and in the process effected enormous changes in our local music scene. One of the society's most recent triumphs is last July's grand opening of permanent offices at 721 N. Fourth Ave., a move that finally allowed Executive Director Yvonne Ervin to reclaim the part of her house that's served as TJS command central for the past eight years.
Tucson Jazz Society really is jazz in Tucson, producing nearly 40 concerts a year, as well as supporting the Tucson Jazz Orchestra, now in its 15th year, and the 14-piece Tucson Latin Jazz Orchestra, not to mention contributing to and co-sponsoring numerous other events. Despite its enormous success and dynamic growth over the past two decades, TJS has witnessed a recent decline in its audience and its membership and is considering options to remedy both.
Long-term plans intended to bolster the sagging numbers include educational outreach like assuming sponsorship of the now-defunct Southwest School of Music's Middle-School Honor Band. Jazz festivals are in the works for both middle-school and high-school honor bands, as well as the addition of a jazz camp. Some corporate reorganization is in the works, as is the possible addition of more "hand-holding plans"--events planned in conjunction with other music organizations like the Tucson Blues Society. TJS also intends to further expand its sphere of influence outside the city limits.
"We're trying to start a chapter in Oro Valley," explains Ervin, based on the success of "a very active Green Valley Chapter that puts on nine concerts a year, as well as a Dixieland Festival."
The line-up for Jazz Sundae XX itself heralds important adjustments in priorities from previous years, marking TJS' attempt to increase participation and court an audience outside of its general membership. Ervin comments, "I thought we might mix it up this year and try some blues. Usually we do Latin jazz as a headliner, but this year another Latin jazz concert was scheduled for the same day," creating the opportunity to try something a little different.
The list of performers scheduled for this year's event includes headliner Maria Muldaur, Sam Taylor with the In Yo' Face Horns (heralding the former Tucsonan his first performance since returning to New York), the Tucson Jazz Orchestra directed by Jeff Haskell, straight-ahead jazz by the Jae Sinnett Trio with Allen Farnham, and the Tucson Latin Jazz Orchestra, with guest conductor John Santos.
The choice of cross-over jazz/blues artist Muldaur as headliner is an example of the Jazz Society's effort to reach out to a larger audience by capitalizing on the popularity of blues in Tucson.
"We wanted to get somebody who does jazz and blues and has a name so that people will come out," explains Ervin. "The Blues Society gets 10,000 people (at its annual festival) and the Jazz society gets around 3,000 or 4,000."
The reasons the for the disparity and flagging attendance are complex, due not only the idiosyncrasies of the Tucson scene but also general trends in jazz audiences across the nation.
"Quite frankly, the audience has been dwindling for the last several years," says Ervin. "I'm not really sure what that's all about, except that our demographics have changed a great deal in the last several years, in terms of TJS members. We have a lot more (members) located outside of the city in the foothills area, especially because of the concert series in St. Philip's Plaza, but a lot of those members are not going to come down to Reid Park. It's just not in their milieu...so I wanted to try to mix it up and bring in some new people."
The situation, however, is far from dire. Tucson Jazz Society counts nearly 2,000 members, boasting one of the three healthiest rosters in the nation. According to Ervin, of the nearly 250 jazz societies in the country, perhaps only a dozen are professionally managed. The success of the Jazz Society in Tucson is largely due to the hard work of its staff and volunteers to create a scene where, according to Ervin, there otherwise might not be one.
Also, Ervin admits, "The one thing that makes the Jazz Society so popular is that there isn't that much jazz in town anymore, other than what TJS produces."
Jazz lacks the power to consistently draw large Tucson audiences, and finds steady, hearty support only in outdoor functions like the Plaza Suite Series. Ervin believes this lack of popular interest is behind the steady decline of jazz in clubs and lounges around town: "The Westward Look used to have a jazz series--they're not doing that any more; and the Doubletree used to have a series and bring in big names six nights a week--they don't do that anymore. So really there's not much else going on except for what the Jazz Society does, and people realize that and are willing to support it."
Ervin observes, "The Jazz Society in Cleveland doesn't have half the members we do, but there's so much jazz happening on a grassroots level, the club scene is so terrific that people don't need the society to bring in shows."
In order to increase membership as well as concert attendance, TJS must support music that will appeal to wider audiences, and in so doing is unable to create much of a forum for or access to the genre's more experimental forms.
Alternative music has seen an increase in the popularity of certain jazz hybrids, including jazzcore, which is essentially a fusion of jazz with various rock and roll genres like punk and hardcore. Despite the recent fad popularity of cocktail culture, swing dancing and other retro trends among twentysomethings, jazz is not typically the music of choice among young people. Jazz's avant garde and other feral cousins might find limited appeal with younger audiences, but are not considered safe box office bets.
"We try to support some of the more cutting-edge stuff in town," Ervin says. "There's a new organization called Zeitgeist (which produced the recent Malaby/Sellers and Berne/Formanek performances). We promote them in our newsletter, give our members discounts and do everything we can to help them. I don't know that it will bolster our membership. They're doing something we'd like to do, we just can't do it all the time, although we do bring in an avant garde group once or twice a year.
"I'd love to see a better scene, because we can't possibly bring in every performer we'd like to. There isn't a club out there to do it, so people realize they have to support the Jazz Society." Other than occasional performances at places like the Club Congress, which picks up a show here and there--for example the Charlie Hunter Quartet--there are no venues available to lesser-known touring acts."
It would seem the next logical step would be to open just such a club, but Ervin is skeptical about the potential success of that prospect, quoting an old jazz saying: "You know how you make a million dollars in the jazz business? You start out with two."
Jazz Sundae XX, featuring Maria Muldaur, The Tucson Jazz Orchestra directed by Jeff Haskell, the Jae Sinnett Trio with Allen Farnham, The Tucson Latin Jazz Orchestra directed by John Santos, and Sam Taylor with the In Yo' Face Horns, runs from 1 to 7 p.m. Sunday, October 12, at DeMeester Outdoor Performance Center in Reid Park. Admission is free. For more information, call the TJS Hotline at 743-3399.
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