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How the DIG concert series and the non-profits behind it are adapting

The renamed local jazz series returns in live-streamed form on September 25.

Photo: The Tim Whalen Nonet playing the DIG jazz series in November 2016 at the Memorial Union’s Play Circle Theater.

Madison’s jazz community has felt especially energetic over the past six years, and a non-profit called the Greater Madison Jazz Consortium has played a central role in making it that way. Our city’s rich variety of locally based players and composers deserve the real credit, and it has also taken the efforts of a bunch of different venues and bookers, including the North Street Cabaret, Arts + Literature Laboratory, BlueStem Jazz, and Café Coda. 

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A promotional graphic for the Mad Lit events series shows the series' logo and text stating (8 p.m. until 11 p.m., Every other Friday, 100 block of state St. July 1st-October 7th. A collage of performers and audience members is visible to the right, and the logos of event sponsors are visible along the bottom.

Still, the GMJC—formed in 2012 as an umbrella organization for several music-centered non-profits—has stood out for its refreshing and accessible live events, and for grants that directly support artists, all of it placing emphasis on helping Madison-based jazz musicians create and showcase original compositions.

One of the organization’s signature events, Strollin’, turned various Madison neighborhoods into one-night jazz festivals, partnering with local businesses to pay the musicians. The GMJC has also been hosting a concert series called Indigenous, which usually takes place in spring at the Central Library and in fall at the Memorial Union’s Play Circle theater. The groups’ years of ambitious efforts have also included educational partnerships with public schools, and online resources including a Madison jazz calendar and directory of local jazz musicians. The GMJC also worked with Isthmus and the Wisconsin Union Theater to come up with a totally new format for the Isthmus jazz festival in 2018 and 2019, expanding to new venues and incorporating more talks and even film screenings. 

During the pandemic, jazz has maintained a more active presence than many other corners of Madison’s music community, thanks in part to Café Coda’s frequent livestreams and, for those who want to chance the world of outdoor concerts right now, BlueStem’s shows on the Garver Feed Mill patio. But even before the lockdown hit in March, the Jazz Consortium was going through some big changes. Over the past couple of years, GMJC has effectively been absorbed into non-profit venue and arts incubator Arts + Literature Laboratory, changing up its structure as its behind-the-scenes workhorse, Howard Landsman, prepared to retire last year. The two organizations also teamed up in 2018 to launch a whole new jazz festival. GMJC member organization Madison Music Collective, co-founded in 1985 by the inventive and daring pianist Joan Wildman, took up the mantle of GMJC’s live event series. (Full disclosure: I am part of a music programming committee at ALL, but haven’t worked directly on GMJC programming.) 

This spring, the Madison Music Collective planned to host a season of concerts and change the name of its concert series from Indigenous to simply DIG. The series’ head organizer, borderline-omnipresent jazz bassist Nick Moran, has taken time to regroup and figure out an approach to live-streaming. The DIG series will return this fall, streaming at Arts + Literature Laboratory’s YouTube channel and Facebook page. Saxophonist Tony Barba and the excellent quartet that plays on his recently released album Blood Moon—guitarist Matt Gold, drummer Devin Drobka, and bassist John Christensen—will kick it off on Friday, September 25. Vocalist Megan Moran and her new project Passarae will combine vocal jazz with adventurous improvisation on October 9, and ever-versatile pianist and composer Johannes Wallmann debuts his “New Quintet” on October 23. More concerts will be announced soon as the series extends toward the end of the year, Nick Moran says, and a winter leg of the series is in the works.    

In the fall, the series usually teams up with the Wisconsin Union Theater to stage shows in the intimate black box of the Play Circle. But the three concerts announced so far will actually be streamed from the Union Theater itself, harnessing the production value of a big venue. Plenty of musicians and venues have rushed into livestreaming during the pandemic, and the audio and video quality is all over the map. Taking the time to fuzz over the gear and infrastructure can mean the difference between an engaging livestream and a tinny, blurry fiasco.

“Even some of the big jazz clubs that are doing live-streams, it kind of looks like this weird security-camera, these bird’s-eye shots of things,” Moran says. “I was concerned about, if we were to do these series coming up in the future and be stuck in this live-streamed format, making sure that it looks and sounds good.”

Moran and the Madison Music Collective did some work to refine its live-streaming setup this August, reviving its Jazz on a Sunday series with performances that were streamed from the North Street Cabaret. Last week’s performance from The New Breed featured rapper and spoken-word artist Rob Dz, who took audience suggestions, via the Facebook comments, for words and ideas to incorporate into a freestyle. “We tried to capitalize on the interactive element that livestreams have, being that people can comment or even ask questions to the artist in semi-real-time, and also just to show some love, but there’s a little more engagement that happens,” Moran says. Moran is especially happy that the shows are streaming via YouTube, which has noticeably better audio quality. The streams from North Street sound balanced and warm, thanks to engineer Greg White of Madison Pro Audio. That bodes well for the Union Theater streams, even though that’s a much larger space without North Street’s homey warmth.

The Jazz on a Sunday livestreams also gave Moran an opportunity to remind musicians that they’re more than welcome to use their stage time to tell the audience more about their music, or to discuss politics. Trombone player Darren Sterud, for instance, took some time during his August 16 performance to talk about the need for more music and arts teachers of color in Madison’s public schools. 

“With that platform and because of what’s been going on socially, I wanted to make sure that the artists had an opportunity to talk about whatever topic they wanted to and just know that it’s an open forum,” Moran says. “That’s always been the case with our series, but a lot of musicians would just focus on the music, and rightfully so. But I wanted to make sure that they understood that this is their platform to say and to comment and to get feedback from the audience.”

The GMJC also had to apply that attitude to the DIG series’ initial name, Indigenous. Moran says there’s been some discussion and blowback over the years from audience members and musicians alike. It never exploded into a controversy on the scale of last fall’s name fiasco at east-side venue The Winnebago, which has since rolled out a new name, The Bur Oak. It wasn’t as wholly embarrassing as the brief life of Jazzcat. Still, Moran realized that it needed to change. In a dictionary sense, the word was a good fit for a series showcasing the original music people are creating in a specific place. In a social and political sense, it was far more hairy. Madison’s jazz scene includes prominent musicians of color like Sterud and Café Coda owner Hanah Jon Taylor, but it’s still overwhelmingly white both on stage and in the seats. Moran, who comes from a Peruvian-American family and is steeped in Latin jazz, also understands just how much actual Indigenous people in the Americas have contributed to the musical vocabulary of jazz. To keep some continuity, the GMJC decided to first emphasize the “DIG” part of “Indigenous” for a season or two in graphics advertising the series, then eventually cut it down to just DIG. 

“It’s really important for arts organizations not to get super defensive and shy away from things like this,” Moran says. “We’re artists—everything should be on the table, and we should be able to discuss it and figure it out.”

Moran tries to avoid booking his own bands in his role with MMC/CMJC/Arts + Literature Laboratory, but still ends up playing a lot of the events because he’s just in so many projects and so in-demand. He’s not in any of the three upcoming DIG concerts announced so far. In something of a funny twist, another incredibly busy Madison jazz bassist and composer, John Christensen, is slated to play in all three of them. “John’s an amazing bass player, but it’s also a testament to how open he is, as an artist, for creating with other artists,” Moran says. “The fact that he’s kind of a go-to bass player for all these projects is a testament to his amount of creativity.”

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Moran knows that arts funding is headed toward a cliff, as private philanthropists scale back their giving and already slim public arts budgets get cut amid massive tax revenue shortfalls. The GMJC’s grant program has kept going in 2020 and should have enough funding to do another round of awards next year. Most recently, it funded pianist Chris Rottmayer’s Nocturnes Project and trumpeter Paul Dietrich‘s in-the-works “Synthesis,” which will bring together Madison jazz players and classical musicians from the Willy Street Chamber Players. 

“Whether we can do it in two years, I don’t know,” Moran says. “But it’s nice to know that we have a little bit of [funding], at least going into this next year when we know things are going to be messed up, and we can still support the artists in the same capacity we did before.”

In our conversation last week, Moran didn’t mince words about the urgency of the matter. “We’re living on borrowed time,” Moran says. “To quote MF Doom, ‘Living off borrowed time, the clock tick faster.’ We need this stuff done now. It’s not like we can wait til the next board meeting or anything. We need to start making moves. I think it’s time for private donors to step up. People who have the means right now, this is the time to put your money where your mouth is.” Moran credits Dane County’s arts-funding agency, Dane Arts, for giving artists emergency grants during the pandemic, and notes that the audiences for the Jazz on a Sunday livestreams tipped generously via PayPal and Venmo. The Middleton Community Development Authority, of all things, contributed funding for this October’s planned edition of Strollin’ Middleton, which will consist of videos of jazz artists performing at various Middleton locations, including of course the National Mustard Museum. But Moran calls on the City of Madison, private donors, and local businesses to step up and help the arts community survive the crisis.

City of Madison officials, Moran says, “talk a big game about doing stuff for the arts but, as an artist, especially as someone who’s producing live events, I haven’t heard anything from the city as far as ways that they can help, and help fund these types of things.”

He continues: “We need that support, and we can’t wait. We needed it three months ago. It’s almost too late at this point, but I guess it’s better late than never. I’d give a call to action to our arts administrators out there that we need serious funding. I think the business community could help us in that as well—Downtown Madison Inc., those kinds of organizations that collect dues from businesses. It’s time to parlay those funds into helping the arts and those businesses as well.”

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