Trumpeter Arturo Sandoval performing on a Tribute to Tito Puente, part of a recent Jazz Roots series at the Adrienne Arsht Center, Miami. Photo courtesy Daniel Azoulay ©
A few years ago, discussing the beginnings of Jazz Roots, the jazz concert series at the Adrienne Arsht Center, in Miami, the late musician, producer, record label owner and entrepreneur Larry Rosen, a co-founder of the event, estimated that the opening season had “about 650 subscriptions — of which about 200 were from our neighbors in Fisher Island. And in most cases, it was not because they were great jazz fans. They just thought ‘These are our neighbors and we want to support them.’ That’s why they did it.” It was a modest beginning, especially for such a large hall, but Rosen was neither surprised nor intimidated.
He had moved to South Florida from New York in 2000 and in that conversation he shrugged as he noted how “anyone who’s in the jazz business knew that Miami was not a jazz market. […] I certainly knew what to expect. But you don’t really understand Miami unless you live here.”
Jazz remains a hard sell in South Florida. And yet, since its launching in 2008, Jazz Roots has not only found its audience but become one of the mainstays of Miami’s cultural landscape.
Jazz Roots opens its season on Friday with British Invasion – Latin Style, featuring singer and songwriter José Feliciano, trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, pianist and arranger Shelly Berg, saxophonist Tim Ries, singers Lucy Woodward, Kate Reid, and Fantine and the University of Miami’s Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra.
The series continues with concerts by Mavis Staples and Charlie Musselwhite; pianist and composer Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro- Latin Jazz Orchestra; singer Kurt Elling; pianist, arranger, and composer Dave Grusin (who co-founded with Rosen the all-digital GRP record label), and saxophonist Branford Marsalis.
But smart programming and marketing is only part of the story.
“An education program had to be a very important component because education is a way to reach out to a community in a much deeper way,” Rosen told me. The strategy became a win-win arrangement for the series and for students at Miami-Dade County Public Schools. By now, thousands of high school students have experienced concerts, sound checks, and Q&As with the artists. It’s the kind of educational initiative that is enriching for the students but also vital for the future of a demanding music genre that commands very limited exposure in the marketplace.
Rosen died in October 2015, but by then, the series had found its footing. Still, a year later the Arsht Center called on pianist, composer, arranger, and dean of Frost School of Music at the University of Miami Shelly Berg to join Jazz Roots as an artistic advisor. Berg recently spoke about the art and business of programming Jazz Roots; the uneasy relationship between jazz and entertainment; and the sink-or-swim lessons his University of Miami’s music students learn on stage.
The opening concert in the Jazz Roots series is curated for an only-in-Miami event. How did this British Invasion Latin Style theme come about?
Shelly Berg: Well, we used “British Invasion” in the title, but it’s not limited to British music from the 60s. The reason that we’re doing it is that we have new underwriters as presenting sponsors of Jazz Roots. It’s EFG Capital, a global private banking group. Their London office has been sponsoring the London Jazz Festival and their clients love it. They have Latin American clients of clients in Miami so they thought: “Well, our clients would love if we sponsor something in Miami and jazz.’ So I thought that for the first concert it would be fun to do a mash-up of music from Britain and Latin America.
In the program we will have songs by The Beatles, The Stones, Sting, Elton John, and Dusty Springfield, but not every piece of music will be done in some Latin American groove — although we will have things like “Crocodile Rock” as a [Dominican bolero-like] bachata, things that can be great fun. But some of it will be just the fact that it’s a Latin American artist playing British music.
After three years advising the programming for Jazz Roots, what have you learned about what works in jazz for audiences in South Florida?
Shelly Berg: That with South Florida audiences, it’s not so much about the music that you play but about the performer and how well they relate to the audience in a two thousand seat concert hall. I think that we can program just about any kind of music. Now, does the artist have a way of engaging an audience and making it feel part of the experience?
Dizzy Gillespie is a great example. Great artistry, even cutting-edge artistry, is not mutually exclusive with engaging and caring about the audience.
There’re some cities where maybe people want to be part of a cutting edge just because it’s the cutting edge. I don’t think the patrons in Miami are into that. I think the music patrons of Miami want to have a great experience at a concert and they’re open-minded to that.
The educational component in Jazz Roots is not limited to listening experiences for high school students but you also have college music students participating on stage, performing, for example, as members of the Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra. Can you talk about those two experiences and their goals?
Shelly Berg: Well, we continue to have the students from the various schools attend a master class, watch the soundcheck, then some of the artists speak with them after the soundcheck and do Q& A with them, and later they get to see the concert. Opportunities like that can light a spark in somebody. All of us who do this for a living had, at some point, an experience like that which got us excited.
As for our students [at the University of Miami], they are getting to participate in the most real-world kind of experiences that any student could participate in: Playing in a major performing arts center in front of major audiences with major artists. And they are doing it on the real-life time frame of the professional world: a couple of rehearsals and bang, you’re on.
Very often they’re sight-reading while the artist is right there in front of them. In this next concert, they may be looking at a chart they’ve never seen before and there is José Feliciano on stage, or Arturo Sandoval — and they don’t get a chance to sound like students.
An edited version of this story was posted on ArtburstMiami.com