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Larry Rosen’s Jazz Roots Series Goes International

Music industry entrepreneur partners with IMG Artists and Sony Masterworks to bring jazz concert series to wider audience

Ramsey Lewis and Larry Rosen

Larry Rosen likes to think big. Back in the late ’70s, he founded the GRP record label with Dave Grusin and made the label one of the music industry’s early adopters of the CD format, as well as a brand synonymous with contemporary jazz. He later sold the label to MCA/Universal. He went on to create N2K, a company that developed one of the first major jazz websites, Jazz Central Station. Later he co-created a successful public television series hosted by Ramsey Lewis called Legends of Jazz.

Rosen’s latest enterprise is Jazz Roots, a concert series that he created in Miami three years ago and that he is now planning to take all over the world, with the help of a new partnership with IMG Artists, a high-powered talent management and presenting organization. In addition, Sony Masterworks will be releasing a 2-CD set based on the program’s concept of tracing the roots of the music from Africa all the way to its contemporary form. Rosen has also developed an educational outreach component that he hopes will be embraced by school programs all over the country.

As he explained to JT in an earlier piece about the upcoming season in Miami, Rosen originally created the series in partnership with the Adrienne Arsht Center. His goal was to attract new audiences to jazz by creating thematic shows based on the story of how jazz evolved from its earliest roots in Africa. Among the concerts in previous seasons in Miami 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.

Recently, Rosen had expanded the series to two other cities. Jazz Roots is also being presented at the Winspear Opera House, located in the AT&T Performing Arts Center in Dallas, Texas and the Palladium at the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel, Indiana. Rosen says that because of the success of Jazz Roots in those markets, IMG Artists approached him about taking the program to performing arts center all over the U.S. and the world. “Right now we’re in three different cities, but the idea is with IMG presenting concerts all over the world and their strong relationships with performing arts centers, that they could take Jazz Roots to other performing arts centers,” says Rosen. “That’s why I went with them to do this. They approached me and said, ‘We see what you’re doing with Jazz Roots and maybe we could helpful here.’ And the pieces just fit together perfectly. They’re primarily in the classical business, with people like Itzhak Perlman, Renee Fleming, Joshua Bell and James Galway. In addition to that, they do festivals around the world. They do festivals in Singapore, Italy and other countries. They would love to bring Jazz Roots to all those festivals, as well as present our one-off shows, like when we do those shows with themes.”

The partnership with the Sony Masterworks record label will begin with a 2-CD Jazz Roots package that Rosen personally curated. “It’s a history of jazz type of CD thing. I utilized the Sony archives to put it all together. It starts with African roots through very early Jelly Roll Morton all the way through the swing era with Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington and then the vocalists from Bessie Smith to Aretha Franklin, with Ella, Billie, Sarah. And then all the Miles and the fusion era with Weather Report, Return to Forever and Herbie Hancock and keeping all the way to Wynton Marsalis and the music of today. It covers the complete spectrum in their catalog.” That set is targeted for release in April 2011.

The CD compilation will also include a booklet with detailed background information about the artists and the various genres of jazz. “Not only do you get the music, but there’s a historical perspective as well,” says Rosen. “Sony is going to sell it as regular frontline CD release, but the idea is to bring it to all the cities I’m involved with and to use these products not only by selling them at the performing arts centers, but also to utilize them in the schools in each of those cities, because part of the whole Jazz Roots series is our committee in each city, which includes someone from the Board of Education. Any way we can tie together with the schools and have a combination of concerts and education programs, and providing CDs and musical history to young people, is really pretty compelling.”

Indeed, educational outreach has always been a big part of the Jazz Roots series in Miami and Rosen says that a partnership with Quincy Jones’ American Popular Music Curriculum will be a key part of that outreach as the program moves beyond Miami. “The plan is to use Quincy’s curriculum. Our connection to the community is through the performing arts center. These are all the tools we bring to the table. It’s really up to the schools to decide if they want to utilize those tools. We’re bringing those pieces to the table and it’s up to them to be able to customize it for their own personal use.”

Again, Rosen sees his entire program as much more than the sum of its parts. “If I had to step back and look at the whole concept of the Jazz Roots series, we’re curating shows and we’re bringing educational components, but it’s really like a relationship with the city through performing arts center. Each one is organic to its own community.”

Rosen also has created modular radio programs in which he interviews the various artists appearing in the series and he plans to utilize them in the marketing of the concerts. “I do these NPR shows that emanated from WLRN. We’ll carry that same thing through to each city. When we bring the concerts to each of the cities, we also bring these pre-recorded modules that run about 7-8 minutes long. They’re inserted locally into shows like a Morning Edition and All Things Considered. We use it not only to present the story to the community but it also serves as marketing for the shows coming up. They can announce these modules with the local performance, the date, the time and the venue.”

Although Rosen has had plenty of experience with television and video production, he says that for now, there are no concrete plans to turn Jazz Roots into a broadcast series. “I’m trying to shoot as many shows as I possibly can, but in order for me realistically, from a business point of view to produce a show, you’ve got to have some kind of outlet for it in some way or other.” Nevertheless, Rosen goes on to say that he does have a few cards up his sleeve that he plans to play in the coming year.

For his part, Rosen sees programs like this one as important in changing the way the general public perceives jazz. “There’s not a problem with the music,” he explains. “It’s a problem with the perception of what people think when you say jazz-that they’re really not familiar enough with the artist to know that this would be an entertaining show to go see. But we’re proved when we established this jazz roots brand that we could get people in the door. The way we’re doing that is by thematically branding the shows and tying it to a big umbrella.”

But even a marketing guru like Rosen recognizes that branding efforts with jazz must be backed up by the music itself. “The fact of the matter is when you get people in the door, they love the show. They love the music – so the music speaks for itself – that’s the easy part here. The hard part is getting the person – bringing the horse to the trough to drink. Once you get them there, there’s not a problem, which gives me a sense of so much excitement and encouragement about this stuff. This could happen on television, it could happen on radio, it could happen everywhere. It just has to be presented properly. There’s nothing wrong with the music.”

For more information about the series and all its extensions, you can visit the Jazz Roots website.

Originally Published