Key Player

Sanda Schuldmann switches from playing classical piano to running the Tucson Jazz Society.

She's not a jazz musician, but you could not ask for a more ardent supporter of jazz, or of the Tucson Jazz Society, than its new executive director, Sanda Schuldmann. "I don't know how many people here know about the jazz society," she says, "but believe me, people will know."

Schuldmann's enthusiasm is the unabashed, contagious kind, and she's not shy about sharing her profound appreciation for jazz or her many reasons for embracing her job. For one, her husband, cellist Harry Clark, is an Arizona native and she said returning to their home in Connecticut after visits here used to make her cry. Now she can happily combine her passions for music, arts advocacy and Tucson.

An accomplished classical pianist, Schuldmann started Chamber Music PLUS in Connecticut, a group she likens to the Tucson Jazz Society. "Both jazz and chamber music are about people getting together and making music, listening to one another and playing off each other," she says. "The difference is that in classical music, you have to be very exact. In jazz it is up to you. Other than that, there is very little real difference that I can see."

She calls the Tucson Jazz Society "an unbelievable jewel," and rather than change it she wants to expand it, bring more people in, make the society more like the way she artfully characterizes classical vs. jazz: "mutually inclusive." In fact, being a classical musician does not dissuade her one bit from heading a jazz society. Although she knows jazz and has collaborated with prominent jazz musicians, she feels that not being a jazz musician helps avoid bringing "any particular bias to the table."

Another advantage Schuldmann believes she has in this job is her origin in the very unjazzy Balkan peninsula. "It takes an assimilated American to really cherish what it is to be an American," she says. "And you can't get closer to understanding what this country is all about than jazz--unless you understand baseball, which I don't."

Schuldmann's non-native understanding of what jazz is all about is not just political, or emotional, or intellectual; it's tactile, experiential, intimately connected to her instrument: "Jazz musicians finger according to the music-making. Classical pianists tend to finger according to hand position or scales. They don't tend to really connect how you finger to the music, or to how you breathe. I think much more like a jazz player. It's liberating."

Freedom is an aspect of one jazz society program that particularly impresses her: JazzWerx, which sponsors middle- and high-school jazz bands. "These kids are spectacular," she says, "and jazz is the perfect opportunity to offer freedom of expression. Organized freedom. They learn to be creative and at the same time to support each other, to be a team player. It's like a family, and it is really wonderful to nurture that."

At the International Association of Jazz Educators conference held last January in Long Beach, Percy Heath, accepting his National Endowment Award, stressed that jazz should be taught in kindergarten. Schuldmann's Hartford organization had a very strong primary education program, and it seems likely she will expand TJS educational outreach: "There is no age that is too early to start the process! As Americans we should be proud of our musical heritage. Jazz is our identity. We owe it to our children to make them aware of our music."

Even though jazz has a reputation as music for a small group of connoisseurs, Schuldmann is impressed by the size of the local society's membership. "There are many organizations that would love to boast 2,600 subscribers," she says, alluding to the Tucson Jazz Society's roster. "Maybe the Boston Symphony or the New York Philharmonic could talk about numbers like this. But I don't know too many that have such broad support. We don't have a huge staff, and all we have to do when we have a minor crisis is make a few phone calls and boom, three volunteers show up. There is a lot of love and loyalty to this organization. That really, really impressed me."

On the other hand, Schuldmann was concerned by, in her delicate phrasing, "how improvised the infrastructure of the running of the ... operation" was. She prides herself on having made the group more organized and businesslike.

In less than a year, Schuldmann has vastly expanded the society's grant support. "I have secured to date over $50,000 in committed funds (not including in-kind support) for the Tucson Jazz Society," she says. "This is roughly a 90-percent increase since last year's budget."

She has also secured new homes for the society's various event series. All indoor concerts, including Primavera--the spring women's jazz festival--and special events, are moving into the Tucson Convention Center's Leo Rich Theater. The spring concert series will be at St. Philip's Plaza, summer events will unfold on the rooftop of the Westward Look Resort's new ballroom, and the fall concert series is moving to La Placita, downtown. "So while we still come to the neighborhoods," Schuldmann says, "our appearances are fixed, so that our audiences know where to find us."

Schuldmann also intends to expand the society's concert offerings. "We are hoping to add a senior interest component to our programming, tour our JazzWerx bands and revive the Tucson Jazz Orchestra as well as the Tucson Latin Jazz Orchestra," she says. "I am looking to identify the right sponsors so that these two excellent ensembles could offer their own seasons and begin a touring program from them."

Needless to say, the job is more than a part-time distraction. "I start my day at 3 a.m. and still run out of enough hours," she says.

"I think my job is to make everyone here aware of this untapped, glorious resource, this diamond people have not uncovered. There is nothing worse that not being aware of a treasure and knowing that too late. And having to say, 'How could we let it pass?'"

No worries. Schuldmann's illuminating persona is not about to let that happen.