The new Madison jazz series offers both musical variety and an interesting approach to paying for it.
In the new Strollin’ series, a group of Madison jazz musicians and supporters bring a varied night of jazz to a given neighborhood, partnering with small businesses to play off the feel of the area. The first Strollin’, in Schenk’s Corners on the near-east side on May 23, brought in a large and diverse crowd but deliberately didn’t feel like a street festival. There was one outdoor stage for two high-school bands early in the evening, but the rest of the performances took place inside the neighborhood’s businesses, including Alchemy and Thorps Salon. The series continues this Saturday with Strollin’ Monroe Street. A third Strollin’ is tentatively planned for September in the area around King Street and East Wilson Street downtown, but organizers aren’t sure what to call that one yet—the neighborhood is sometimes called First Settlement, though Nick Nice and other DJs have playfully dubbed it TriBeCa, for “Triangle behind the Capitol.”
Strollin’ is promising for two main reasons: It goes out of its way to be musically diverse, and it’s trying out a funding model that combines grant support with sponsorship from neighborhood businesses to ensure that the performers earn decent pay.
A non-profit called the Greater Madison Jazz Consortium puts on the events with the curatorial and organizational leadership of two bass players: Nick Moran, who plays in a variety of jazz groups including the New Breed and El Clan Destino, and Rob Lundberg, who has a more avant-garde background and sometimes plays in the postmodern electro-pop outfit Leverage Models. (Side note: When Leverage Models played the High Noon Saloon in March, Lundberg had a headless bass with a Green Bay Packers strap. It was awesome.)
Not surprisingly, this makes for a compelling range of sensibilities: Strollin’ Schenk’s Corners encompassed vocal jazz, Latin jazz, and two noisier free-jazz-leaning groups. Strollin’ Monroe Street will span from a bill of jazz-plus-spoken-word acts at the Madison Public Library’s Monroe Street branch to a raucous gypsy-swing conclusion at Brasserie V. Each venue gets a time slot centered around a certain genre (or at least two or three acts who are roughly in the same ballpark), which allows each part of the evening to have a distinct feel—again, the experience is really different from a street festival, and in a good way. (It’s always struck me as odd to “celebrate” a neighborhood by storming it with tents and stalls and having everybody hang out in the middle of the road.) This also gave Strollin’ Schenk’s Corners a much broader audience than you usually see at jazz events in Madison. “The main surprise was the amount of people that were interested,” Moran says. “There were way more young people than I thought.”
There were also more local businesses interested in helping out than Moran expected. In Schenk’s Corners, it didn’t occur to Moran to include the Ideal Bar (it’s an alright place but does have that go-away-the-oldsters-are-drinking atmosphere), but the bar’s owners reached out to him, and ended up providing power for the outdoor stage nearby. Business owners in Schenk’s Corners and on Monroe Street have also welcomed the “matching” funding model Moran proposed to pay bands: The consortium pays half the funds from a grant from the John and Carolyn Peterson Charitable Foundation, and the host businesses contribute the other half. In return, the venues get some exposure out of the event. It helps that Moran’s mother once ran a business, the now-closed Dardanalles Restaurant, on Monroe Street.
“It’s basically to kind of show a venue what the appropriate amount to pay a band should be,” Moran says. And he admits that that amount (for Strollin’ events $300 to $500 for a given band) still hasn’t anywhere near caught up to inflation—musicians are still trying to push the pay scale back to what it was before the recession. “Those are still late-’90s rates!” Moran says.
Now, $150 or $250 isn’t unheard-of largesse even for a small business, especially when approached for an event that supports a good cause and celebrates the neighborhood. But it works, and it’s generous in light of the fact that not all the venues involved host music as part of their regular business, and not all of them stand to benefit immediately from food or alcohol sales the night of the event (again, both Strollin’ events so far have included hair salons among their venues). I realize this model can’t be applied everywhere—the Greater Madison Jazz Consortium had the advantage of a $44,000 grant when it started in 2012, not to mention partnerships with organizations like the Wisconsin Union Theater, and the involvement of people who’ve been putting on music events in Madison for years. But Moran, Lundberg, and partners are actually *doing* something to address this question of how to improve our local arts economy. Their approach gives a diverse array of musicians, audience members, and business and community partners a stake in this question, and that’s progress that we shouldn’t take for granted.