You've probably wondered to yourself after hearing the pitch: If jazz is America's gift to the world, how come other countries seem to like it so much more than we do? Jazz musicians are treated like royalty in Japan, and it's hard to swing a saxophone in Europe during the summer without hitting a jazz festival. But in the U.S., jazz recordings only account for 2 to 3 percent of total annual record sales, according to the Record Industry Association of America. And why is it that St. Louis' premier jazz series, Jazz at the Bistro, operates as a nonprofit, depending on grants and memberships to cover a large portion of the cost of presenting its concerts at the Backstage Bistro? Has jazz -- America's classical music -- become similar to traditional classical music in its need to be supported rather than paying its own way in the marketplace?
According to Gene Bradford, director of the Jazz at the Bistro series, these facts are the flip side of what he sees as a turnaround in the popularity of jazz -- and one that he believes is on the immediate horizon. During an extended conversation amid the refurbishing of the Backstage Bistro in preparation for the opening of the Jazz at the Bistro season -- and the debut of the top-notch restaurant ownership team of Ces & Judy -- Bradford takes a look back at his tenure with JAB, as well as explaining his positive perspective on the improvement of the jazz scene here in St. Louis.
"A year-and-a-half ago, when I said I worked for Jazz at the Bistro, there were a lot of people who said, 'What's that?' says Bradford. "Now there's a change in perception. More and more people are finding out what we're all about."
What the Jazz at the Bistro series is about for the 2000-01 season can be summed up in two words -- diversity and expansion. Musicians like George Coleman, Dianne Reeves, Andy Bey, Brad Mehldau, Stefon Harris and Russell Gunn are making their debuts as leaders this year. Familiar names like Ahmad Jamal, Ray Brown, Steve Turre and Nicholas Payton return as well. And in addition to the regular biweekly series of Wednesday-Saturday concerts that extends from September-May, alternate weekends are fully booked through the end of the year with artists such as Eric Alexander, Eric Person, Mark Elf and Peter Martin.
"I did all the booking last season, but I think this year represents an aging of my thought process in trying to get artists who have never played here before," says Bradford. "For example, I'm really excited about Russell Gunn coming. He's from the area and has come back to play here before, doing concerts for the Crusaders for Jazz, who do a great job in pairing musicians like Gunn with local players. But here at the Bistro he'll be bringing in his own band, and over the course of four nights he'll have the chance to exhibit the full range of his skills."
In addition to bringing back musicians such as Gunn, Martin, Person and Jeremy Davenport to perform at the Bistro, Bradford plans to book local acts on alternate weekends from January-May. "It's important to give talented local musicians a proper framework to present them as artists," explains Bradford. "This is a place where people come to listen, and I think that helps the musicians develop. And we certainly have a lot of talented players here in St. Louis. Don't get me wrong -- this is just one style to present jazz. But it's important that it's available." But what about the nonprofit status of the Bistro and the need to attract grants and donations in order to present these artists in concert? Can presenting jazz concerts on a regular basis become profitable outside cities such as New York?
"It's difficult," says Bradford, "but we're making progress. Subscription sales are up again this year. But what we're doing is not a concert situation where you can get a higher ticket price. We're presenting these world-class musicians in an intimate club setting with limited seating. To me, it's the best way to experience jazz, but it's not the easiest way to make a profit." Jon Poses, who directs the nonprofit We Always Swing jazz series in Columbia, Mo., offers another perspective on nonprofit jazz presentations -- one that puts a large portion of the difficulty on jazz-record labels.
"We're now in our sixth season of presenting jazz," says Poses, "and our audience has grown fourfold, but we're still talking small numbers. And making a profit on a jazz concert is hurt by the public perception of what jazz is about, and part of that problem is due to the fact that jazz-record companies and divisions just don't have an understanding of how to market jazz. The whole thing that happens with promotion of rock acts -- from co-op ads to the availability of promo CDs and other market-specific activities -- just doesn't happen often with jazz acts."
One positive trend that has helped organizations such as Jazz at the Bistro and We Always Swing is cooperative booking. For example, Joey DeFrancesco, Marcus Roberts, Russell Gunn, Russell Malone and Stefon Harris are all playing in both series. (For more info on the We Always Swing series, check www.nationalpastimes.com.)
Bradford sees other signs of cooperation among various jazz organizations here in St. Louis: "It seems there are a lot of barriers breaking down. For a long time, it seemed there were different jazz scenes with not much interaction, but now I'm seeing more groups working together -- especially major events like the upcoming Clayton Jazz Festival and the Miles Davis celebration. Add the Ken Burns PBS series on jazz, which is set to air in January, and I think we're on the verge of a major breakthrough in awareness of jazz. It's funny -- some jazz fans want to keep the music from becoming too popular. I can't abide by that. I want everyone to appreciate it. And I want Jazz at the Bistro to be part of making that happen."
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