Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Classical Gas

I cringe every time I hear the tired claim that "jazz is America's classical music." It sounds more like a publicist's slogan than an evidential artistic claim. Still, I couldn't help thinking about jazz as I attended two classical concerts last weekend.

The Harriman-Jewell Series gave away tickets to a "Discovery" concert featuring two musicians, both still in college, performing Beethoven, Prokofiev, Webern and Enescu. About 1,000 people- half of whom were under the age of fifty- took in the free concert. Both the quality of the performance and the size of the audience were impressive.

The jazz equivalent would feature a pair of promising students from the Berklee College of Music interpreting compositions by Ellington, Monk, Coleman and Zorn. Could a free concert of that nature fill the Folly Theater? And who would fund it?

The next day I caught the third of the Kansas City Symphony's three weekend performances. Their takes on Sibelius and Stravinsky were outstanding. It's too bad more weren't on hand to experience it. In spite of a massive media blitz that included billboards, print and radio advertising, a YouTube channel, Twitter messages and deeply discounted tickets (I paid $20 a ticket but should have held out for a buy-one-get-one-free promotion), the balcony where I sat was less than a third full. I couldn't see the entire floor of the Lyric Theater, but I spotted plenty of empty seats.

I don't envy the task of trying to sell a cumulative 4,000 or so tickets for each Symphony program. In spite of the excellence of the Kansas City Symphony (I'm a huge fan), demand for orchestral music in Kansas City seems severely limited. The symphony, however, can rely on the enormous sponsorship of many of Kansas City's moneyed elite. They're even financing a beautiful new venue.

What's it all mean for the jazz community?

There's clearly a young audience willing to take a flier on experimental music when the price is right. Additionally, there are hundreds of citizens who make significant financial contributions to the symphony. They don't, however, necessarily wish to attend the concerts. Is it possible that these same privileged people might have an affinity for jazz? And would the Kansas City Symphony benefit by beginning to incorporate jazz into its programming?

Jazz is, after all, "America's classical music."

(Original image by Plastic Sax.)


kcjazzlark said...

There are wealthy foundations and corporations which will support jazz in Kansas City...or at least there were when I was helping to stage jazz festivals. For instance, each year both Yellow Freight and the Powell Family Foundation (the family which founded Yellow Freight) separately donated financial support to the festival. I've been saddened reading about the difficulties YRC (today's name for Yellow Freight) has experienced recently, not only for its employees but for the civic causes they can probably no longer support at the levels they once did.

It's hard work ferreting out the foundations, companies and individuals sympathetic to your cause. I did it for a couple of years for the festival. It takes research through resources like the Kansas City Community Foundation. It takes time writing grant requests. It takes accepting many no's to uncover the few valuable yes's. And it takes representing a credible organization to be raising the funds on behalf of.

I don't know who jazz's sympathetic philanthropic friends are today. But I have no doubt they exist. The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra has such supporters. Hopefully, organizations like the American Jazz Museum and the Rhythm and Ribs Festival have staff dedicated to finding others. Because outside of a few select organizations like that, one area where the classical music community has an advantage over the jazz community, is in its credible organizations and the people available to do the time consuming but only occasionally satisfying fundraising work.

Anonymous said...

One of the reasons the Symphony is able to attract more yuppies and a younger crowd is the snob-appeal.

Its great to talk about attending a Symphony concert with your colleagues at work and your neighbors. It tells them you have class and you are educated and you have a certain level of refinement.

Whether you actually do have those qualities is beside the point.