How we used jazz to complete the performing arts spectrum in the Heartland

By Steven Libman
President, the Libman Group

Sometimes in the performing arts world you have to fill a gap in the musical spectrum from the ground up. That’s the realization I faced when I arrived in Carmel, Indiana as President/CEO of its new $175 million, three-venue Center for the Performing Arts. Two years later, my staff and I showed those gaps can be filled. In this case, we filled it with jazz.
Carmel is a fast-growing city in the heart of the Midwest with a lot going for it. Household income is high, the schools are excellent and population has grown tremendously in the last decade to about 80,000. Carmel is part of the Indianapolis-Carmel Metropolitan Statistical Area, which had a population of 1.75 million in 2010, ranked 34th in the United States.
CNN Money magazine rated Carmel as the 14th-best place to live in the United States in 2010. Not long ago, Carmel was known as a suburb of Indianapolis, just to the south. Now it has its own special identity.
The city’s goal – and mine – was to create “The Lincoln Center of the Midwest” at the new center. It had no staff when I arrived, no programming and no plans for the future. I spent almost every minute of every day dealing with the details of design and construction for the 1,600-seat concert hall (The Palladium), the 500-seat proscenium theater (The Tarkington) and the 200-seat flexible space (The Studio Theatre).
At the same time, I knew that even the most beautiful theaters and concert halls are useless if they are not filled with great art performed by professionals who reflect the ethnically and culturally diverse world in which we live. So I set about to develop a season for all three venues that would meet this criteria.
Fortunately, The Center had a great asset as the home of the Great American Songbook project of Michael Feinstein, the artistic director. The Songbook project made it easier to attract top-flight Pops and Broadway performers. We also had relationships with very strong Classical performers, such as the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.
Jazz was a different matter. While Indianapolis to the south had an illustrious jazz heritage, Carmel was a much newer and less diverse city. I believed that a jazz series at the Center was imperative, along with series dedicated to Country and Dance.
Jazz had always been important to me. When I ran the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, we produced an acclaimed jazz ballet set to the music of Stanley Turrentine and Ray Brown (they both performed live for us!), a tribute to Billy Strayhorn, and a dance set to the sweet sounds of Lena Horne. I also had the privilege to work with my good friends Bill Strickland and Marty Ashby at the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild. They taught me much about jazz and I remain very grateful.
My goal was for our jazz series at The Center to be world-class and ethnically diverse. I contacted Larry Rosen, jazz producer and legendary jazz entrepreneur, and asked him for his help. Larry proposed involving his new JAZZ ROOTS program and agreed to help curate the series and more.
The “more” Larry wanted was to go far beyond routine performances. Accordingly, we formed a local jazz committee comprised of artists, owners of jazz clubs, college professors and DJs from jazz radio stations. We created an arts education program to go along with each jazz performance, giving local high school students opportunities to attend sound checks and talk to the artists.
We took the artists to high schools in the area to meet with students. And as the final touch, we invited some of the students to perform on stage with the artists. Finally, all the students who attended the sound checks also were given opportunities to see the live performances.
By involving young people, we hoped to build a long-term audience for jazz. Jeffrey Swensson, Superintendent of the Carmel-Clay School district, one of the most highly acclaimed school districts in the nation, said we also added to their educational product. “What Steven Libman and his team at The Center created is clearly one of the finest arts education programs I have worked with. The jazz series in particular is designed to interact directly with our students and faculty, and the results have been phenomenal.”
He added that the interaction between students and performers made a huge difference. “Our students benefit from meeting and performing with the jazz artists, and they have the benefit of attending some of the finest jazz concerts in America, here in their home town. ”
Our first season consisted of Take 6; Yolanda Adam; Dianne Reeves; Jane Monheit; Nikki Yanofsky; Wallace Rooney; David Sanborn and Candy Dulfer. We sold out all of the performances and had more than 700 series subscribers. We even exceeded the subscriptions of our partners at the Arsht Center in Miami and the AT&T Center in Dallas. Imagine: In the heart of the Midwest, in Carmel, Indiana, we created a world-class jazz program.
Performers noticed. Quincy Jones said, “Larry Rosen’s JAZZ ROOTS“ is the most important new concert and educational jazz series in America. This series is simply imperative!”
Larry Rosen said the experience of building the program in Carmel was rewarding. ”Steven and his marketing team, led by David Anderson, knew they had to establish not only the brand of the new performing arts center, but develop excitement about a new jazz series,” he said. “And they succeeded brilliantly.”
With a strong start, we made sure we built standards for the second year even higher. During the 2011/12 season, the Center is presenting an incredible lineup of jazz artists that comprise one of the finest jazz programs in America outside of New York City or Los Angeles. It includes the following four stellar programs:
• “Vocalese” with Manhattan Transfer, New York Voices and special guest Jon Hendricks
• “Tribute to Ella and Basie” with Patti Austin and the Count Basie Orchestra
• Guitar Virtuosos with Al Di Meola and Lee Ritenour
• “Generation Next: Piano” with Hiromi and Eldar.
The heart and soul of the Center’s jazz series remains the Larry Rosen Jazz Roots Series. The 2011/12 series at the Center includes jazz performances by Wynton Marsalis; the SF Jazz Collective; Spyro Gyra; Chris Botti; Kevin Eubanks; and Herbie Hancock. Larry has the creativity, connections and respect within the jazz community to put together these outstanding programs. Audiences love it!
My vision continues to be to develop the finest talent in the world and present it in Carmel, Indiana, a place where ethnic and cultural diversity, especially among African Americans, is in short supply. I am happy to say that we have succeeded. We sold out our performances. We had more subscribers than our colleagues in Miami or Dallas. Audiences have come from every corner of the State of Indiana, from Columbus and Cincinnati, Ohio, Louisville, Detroit and Chicago to bear witness to this amazing Center and the phenomenal jazz program we are presenting there.
Larry and I started something very special in the Midwest, a jazz series that has the potential to positively affect thousands of lives each year. I am proud of what we created. When the audience and artist are in sync, we create magic; we nurture and cultivate; we build bridges between communities instead of walls; we create an experience between the audience and the artist that entertains, educates, illumines, and inspires. We create memories that will last a lifetime.

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Steven Libman