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Jazz Roots Concert Series Kicks Off in Miami

Series organized by Larry Rosen and Adrienne Arsht Center features jazz vocals, Latin jazz, Miles Davis tribute and more

Michael Feinstein taping show for PBS
M. John Richard, president and CEO of Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami

Now entering its third season, the 2010-2011 edition of Jazz Roots: A Larry Rosen Jazz Series opens on Friday, November 5 with American Songbook, featuring performances by Michael Feinstein and Ann Hampton Callaway at the Adrienne Arsht Center’s Knight Concert Hall in Miami. Other shows in this season’s series include: Descarga! Latin Jazz Jam, with Poncho Sanchez and Tiempo Libre (December 3); An Evening with Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette (January 21, 2011); Celebrating Miles, with Wallace Roney, Ron Carter and Marcus Miller (February 25); Three Generations of Divas, with Dianne Reeves, Jane Monheit and Nikki Yanofsky (March 18); and Guitar Virtuosos (April 1).

The series was co-created in conjunction with the Adrienne Arsht Center by longtime jazz impresario Larry Rosen, who founded GRP Records, as well as N2K/N-Coded Music and also produced the Legends of Jazz television series with Ramsey Lewis. M. John Richard, president and CEO of the Adrienne Arsht Center, says that Rosen acted as an important catalyst for the series. “Larry’s longstanding understanding and appreciation of the jazz community has enabled us to shape and form a series that is unlike most,” says Richard. “He’s a thought leader. He’s also committed to the educational component and his relationship with artists have helped us to shape really strong series. As a consulting advisor and co-producer, Larry is a fantastic partner who cares very much about the art form and you feel it every time he talks about the series.”

For his part, Rosen says that when Richard called him about helping with the series, he knew that jazz festivals and concerts had not always done well in Miami and so it would require a new and different approach. “I told him, ‘I’ve been living in Miami seven years, and I know this market,'” recalls Rosen. “I knew that if we’re going to do jazz here, we’ve got to do it a completely different way.”

For Rosen, a man known in the jazz world for creating GRP, one of the world’s most distinctive record labels, that meant creating a brand. “I created this entity called Jazz Roots,” he explains. “It’s a story. It’s about the drums that came from Africa to become the music of the Americas. It’s the roots of Brazilian music, the roots of Cuban music, the roots of calypso, the roots of blues, jazz and rock. That’s the overall umbrella.”

Beneath that broad umbrella Rosen decided to organize the series so that each show has its own thematic idea. “You need the theme, because people will recognize the theme potentially when they don’t even recognize the artist,” says Rosen. “In New York, you say Sonny Rollins and people know what you’re talking about. But in Miami, you say Sonny Rollins and you’re not going to sell 2,000 tickets, because there aren’t enough people that are familiar with who the heck Sonny Rollins is.” Among the concerts in the previous seasons have been: Legends of Jazz; a tribute to Ella and Basie; a tribute to Machito and Tito Puente; the roots of fusion music with Chick Corea and John McLaughlin. This season’s schedule includes a concert celebrating Miles Davis with performances by Wallace Roney, Ron Carter and Marcus Miller, as well as Three Generations of Divas, featuring Dianne Reeves, Jane Monheit and Nikki Yanofsky.

As a former major label executive and bigtime player in the jazz industry, Rosen is able to leverage that lifetime of experience to benefit the series. “I look at producing an event like I’m producing a record. I try to put together the right group of artists and I talk to the artists about how they can perform together at the end. We rehearse. There’s an experience where even if there are just two acts on the show around some theme, one person will open and another will finish the show and they come together at the end. I create these unique packages like the vocalese show last year, with the New York Voices, Manhattan Transfer and Jon Hendricks. They had never been on the same stage together. It’s about creative presentation here. My experience of knowing all these artists makes it a lot easier because I call them up directly and tell them what I want to do and they say, ‘I’m down for it.'”

The Miami area has always been known for its rich diversity as well as active nightlife. “Miami is a city comprised of diverse population of all events,” adds Richard. “Miami is a town that sizzles. Folks are here for the life experience. Events are really popular here and important. As we program music that travels around the country, remember that this music wasn’t traveling to Miami. It’s coming here now for the first time.”

Rosen feels that the unique diversity of the Miami market presents both benefits and challenges. “First of all is a lot younger than you can imagine. It’s a very mixed ethnic city, because of the Cubans, Brazilians and Latin Americans and then there are the people from the North and there are Europeans that come there for the winter season. It’s a real diverse audience.”

Rosen adds that because in the past performing arts centers were usually built from the wealthier and older segments of the community, it usually meant programs with an emphasis on classical music, opera, ballet and other traditional performing arts genres. “The question with performing arts centers in today’s cities with a changing demographic is: How do you attract a multi-ethnic population to come to a performing arts center?” says Rosen. “The Jazz Roots program does that, because it reaches out to the African-American community, the Latin community, the Brazilian community. My shows are jazz-based, but they can go in different directions to reach various aspects of the community. When people come from one show to the next, they never know what they’re going to get. Last year we started out with the blues with Buddy Guy and Dr. John. The second show was with Dave Grusin with the symphony orchestra and he played his music from his movies and Leonard Bernstein, with Patti Austin, Arturo Sandoval, Nestor Torres and Sammy Figuerova as guests. So you go from a down-home blues show and the next is a big symphony orchestra and the next one is a straight-ahead show.”

Rosen doesn’t worry about the what is or isn’t jazz question that sometimes plagues jazz festival presenters who have to deal with whether or not to include blues, R&B and other related genres in their programming. “I’m stressing the wide palette of colors that are related to jazz. When you say the word ‘jazz’ to people, somebody thinks it’s Louis Armstrong, somebody thinks it’s Benny Goodman, somebody thinks it’s Kenny G. In fact, when I called the program Jazz Roots, I spent a lot of time thinking about whether I should even use the word jazz in it, because in some ways it’s a negative if you want to try to sell this. You have to change the perception of what this means to the general public.”

Richard believes that the series is also reaching a underserved local jazz community. “There are tried and true jazz aficionados our community who didn’t have this type of series. There’s a built in interest. There is a built in radio that supports jazz programming. There is an artistic community of jazz performers that have household name recognition in and of themselves. There’s this confluence of energy, musicians, community that loves the art form and the music.”

Rosen himself is not counting on the jazz audience alone to make the series successful. “If I had to depend on jazz fans, we couldn’t sell as many tickets. So the idea is that if 2% of the population are jazz fans, how do you sell to the other 98%? That’s what my focus is. How do you stay true to the music and bring it to much larger audiences? And those larger audiences are not going to jazz clubs. How do you create an entertaining night for people? The bottom line is that if you get the people in and you program the show properly, the music speaks for itself. When the people come in to a show like the 50th Anniversary of the Bossa Nova with Ivan Lins, Eliane Elias and Oscar Castro-Neves, the show sold out. People came to me at intermission and asked me, ‘Do these people make records?’ The people don’t even know in many cases who the artists are, but once they’re exposed to the music, they love the music. The idea that we have to appeal to people who know jazz is probably the downfall of the whole thing.”

Both Rosen and Richard acknowledge that an educational program is a key factor in the success of this series. “If we weren’t doing that, shame on us,” says Richard. “There is an educational component. There are over 900 students that have a close up experience and that are invited to participate in rehearsals before the performance, an opportunity to do Q&As with the artists, and we’re also now promoting a concept that we’ve done for the first time. We are creating an all-star jazz band among high school students.” Rosen adds that it’s important that the program is embedded in the community. “This has to be organic to the community itself,” he explains. “We set up a Jazz Roots committee, we went out to the schools, we raised money from donors, we created a jazz education system.”

The site of the series is a beautiful new performing arts center, built about five years ago. Richard feels strongly that the particular venue within the center is perfect for presenting jazz concerts. “The Knight Concert Hall is a pure concert hall,” he says. “It was designed for non-amplified sound, but also acoustically treated for amplification. There are acoustic treatments and canopies that enable us to treat acoustical presentation in a customized way. We can treat the concert hall as if it’s an instrument. That enables us to provide a listening experience for the audience that is uncompromising. The sightlines are beautiful. It’s only 2200 seats. It enables the musicians on stage literally to feel as if they’re in the audience when performing.”

Rosen laughs when asked if jazz loses something in the concert hall presentation. “In a concert hall, with the proper lighting and sound system and people are quiet and can really concentrate on what’s happening, in many ways it’s a more compelling experience than in a club, where the waiters are walking past and people are making noise all over the place, the sound system is bad, the acoustics are not good, the room is cockeyed, you’re jammed in, it’s uncomfortable… Back in the bebop era, I grew up in those places, but when it comes to audiences and what a general audience wants to see, it speaks for itself. How many jazz clubs are there that are doing great business across the country? If this music is going to continue and get out to audiences on a national basis, you have to present it in a different way.” Rosen is also in the process of taking the Jazz Roots concept to the rest of the country, with dates set up for the Dallas/Ft. Worth and Indianapolis areas.

Clearly the two are onto something because every show of the first two seasons of Jazz Roots has sold out. “It’s a signature series of the Center and it sits perfectly in our Knight Concert Hall as a wonderful listening experience in what is the last great concert hall built in the United States,” says Richard. “In the swim lanes of the Center with its different series, this is an enriching experience. It has been a successful genre in bringing different audiences from greater Miami to the Center. The music and the presentation and the quality of the presentation are terrific. We’ve distinguished jazz in the Miami community as an art form that has broad and deep support from a very diverse audience.”

For more information about the upcoming shows in the Jazz Roots series, you can contact the Center at 305-949-6722 or visit their website. The Adrienne Arsht Center is located at 1300 Biscayne Boulevard in Miami, Fla.

Originally Published