The prestigious Spoleto Festival USA, has announced its programming for the 2010 event and included in the eclectic lineup of progressive classical, opera and theater offerings will be the Wachovia Jazz Series. Appearing this year at Spoleto will be singers Lizz Wright, Norma Winstone and Fabiana Cozza, as well as instrumentalists Julian Lage, Leszek Możdżer and Nailor “Proveta” Azevedo. In addition, jazz cellist Erik Friedlander will present his one-man show about family road trips-“Block Ice & Propane.” The jazz performances will take place at various venues throughout downtown Charleston, South Carolina. Now in its 34th year, the festival runs from May 28 through June 13.
The man responsible for booking the talent for the jazz segment of the festival, Michael Grofsorean, makes no apologies for booking artists who may be neither household names nor pure jazz artists. “I know that much of the music we present falls between categories, but categories are clumsy, as they should be. I’ve found that the artists don’t have much regard for categories. It’s all just music to them.”
Grofsorean has been booking the jazz portion of the festival since 1980. This year’s event marks his 30th year as programmer of the jazz series. He started working with the festival just as it was resolving a creative conflict of sorts between the previous jazz booker and the festival’s founder Gian Carlo Menotti. Stepping into the programming breech, the first show Grofsorean booked was a double bill with Sarah Vaughan and Mary Lou Williams. Quite an auspicious start for his association with the festival. Grofsorean laughed. “To be truthful, I don’t think I appreciated at the time just how great a booking that was.”
He remembered being a bit nervous about Vaughan’s purported diva tendencies. “You do the soundchecks in reverse order so that the headliner is done first and then the opening act. Well, Vaughan was not there on time for her soundcheck and we’re waiting around. I’m getting anxious and worried. It’s my first big show with the festival. And Mary Lou says calmly, ‘Let’s just go ahead.’ And the sound guys go, ‘Yea, we can wing it. No problem.’ Then sure enough, just as Mary Lou is playing for her soundcheck, Vaughan walks into the hall. She doesn’t say a word and I’m getting worried, expecting an explosion or something. Then she sits down and listens quietly to Mary Lou play. I didn’t know that when Sarah was young, she would go to Mary Lou’s apartment to hear Monk and other legends. I had booked Mary Lou as an opening act because I thought she would be great. I didn’t know their history.”
The jazz series was off to a fast start. Over time, the number of jazz artists within the festival grew along with the audience. “We found that with the jazz programming, the more choices you can give the audience, the more opportunities there were to bring people in. So though it used to be just four jazz artists, it’s grown to way more than that.”
Grofsorean came to the festival as someone who had booked jazz in his hometown of Ann Arbor during the ’70s. “I worked with a jazz series called Eclipse Jazz, presenting artists that the school [University of Michigan] wasn’t. What I brought to Spoleto was the idea to bring in musical geniuses who weren’t being presented, but who were in the peak of their powers. It worked.”
Grofsorean said that he was, and still is inspired, by a passage by writer Albert Murray. from several of the pieces published in the book From the Briarpatch File — On Context, Procedure, and American Identity. Grofsorean cited this passage specifically: “The universally appealing in art, which is to say aesthetic statement, is always achieved through the extension, elaboration, and refinement of the local details and idiomatic particulars that impinge most intimately on one’s everyday existence.” Grofsorean explained that, “This theme occurs and recurs though the many pieces in this book, with constant meaning but in slightly different contexts that ensured that I understood what he meant. One valuable aspect to this thought, for me, is the link it draws between the local of a musician’s life, and the universality of that same musician’s statement. We feel and hear both, and it is miraculous for me. And it clarifies why you won’t hear a pianist like Tord Gustavsen in Brazil, or one like André Mehmari in Norway, but can be deeply in love with them both. I think the musicians feel this clearly.”
Grofsorean said that he looks for three basic things when he’s booking talent for the festival. “First, I have to hear lyricism. I need to hear the music to sing to me. Second, depth. I want the music to take me deep inside. Third, and I know it’s not always going to happen, but I look for those moments of transcendence.” If those criteria sound highly subjective, Grofsorean pleads guilty. “It’s completely subjective. I want to know that this music will make sense to our audience. The audience trusts the festival and me to present music that will take them to new places.”
Interestingly, Grofsorean said that he relies to a large degree on the musicians themselves for the talent choices. “About half of my ideas for programming come from the musicians. I keep a notebook with me and I ask the musicians whom they think I should bring to the festival. I even give them the notebook to write in.” Grofsorean then recounted an incredible chain of artists whom he booked in successive years, with the chain being started originally by Enrico Pieranunzi, though Grofsorean then recalled that someone else, he couldn’t remember who, recommended Pieranunzi. So it went and still goes. It turns out that the guitarist Julian Lage, who is appearing at Spoleto this year, was recommended by noted mandolinist Chris Thile (of Nickel Creek) who had performed last year with the Punch Brothers. “Chris wrote in my notebook in big letters – ‘Julian Lage!’ He knew that Julian would be a great fit. After hearing him, I agreed.”
In talking with Grofsorean, it became clear that he is incredibly passionate about the artists he presents and he is justifiably proud of the discoveries he has made. He has particularly enjoyed bringing artists from Europe, Scandinavia and Brazil to the festival. One such artist is the saxophonist Nailor “Proveta” Azevedo, recognized as one of Brazil’s finest saxophonists and clarinetists; Azevedo had appeared at the festival as a bandmember in various ensembles. This year he will appear at Spoleto with a choro group, plus pianist and composer André Mehmari.
Lest it seem that Grofsorean is one of those crazy match-making curators, in fact he is careful to stay away from telling artists what to play and whom to play with. “I stay out of the creative kitchen,” noted Grofsorean. “I don’t tell them what to do.”
Yet it’s also clear that he enjoys bringing in artists who stretch the boundaries of jazz. The jazz audience can be fairly judgmental. I asked Grofsorean if this was ever an issue. “I think jazz fans enjoy what we present, but I don’t program for jazz purists. Listen, I’ll give you an example. I have a close friend who has something like 50,000 records and has an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz. But I don’t program the festival for him. I program it for his wife, who enjoys music of all kinds. She’s open to whatever moves her. When I played them Renaud Garcia-Fons [a bassist who blends flamenco and jazz], he wasn’t that high on it, but she loved it. He performed at the festival and people responded to him. I program the festival to an audience that loves interesting music.”
Because the festival is known more its more traditional cultural programming, I wondered how jazz fit next to all that theater, opera, dance and classical music. “Oh, it fits well. And the artists really appreciate it. They like being part of the mix. It makes sense to them.” Occasionally when time and travel schedule permit, the jazz artists get to mingle with the other genres. Grofsorean remembered going with Jim Hall to see a chamber music concert and of course Hall knew the material intimately. “The whole thing is very healthy – the mixing of different styles and music,” added Grofsorean.
Charleston, South Carolina is not necessarily known for its cultural offerings at least to those outside the state, but Grofsorean said that the city and its inhabitants love the festival and have supported it for many years. “We get some people from out of town, but for the most part the audience for the jazz series is a regional audience.” During the 17-day period, the city of Charleston is transformed into a virtual Chautauqua of the arts. Grofsorean explained that Charleston is a great match for the festival. “I’ve always felt that a festival is only a festival if it takes over the town it’s in. The town has to be big enough to support it, but small enough to be engaged by it. Around Memorial Day every year, this town is consumed by the festival.”
In a review of the 2008 festival, JT contributor (and longtime performing arts reviewer) Perry Tannenbaum said that Spoleto USA “has grown, in fact, to be the largest performing arts festival in the Americas, dwarfing its Old World parent, established by Menotti in Spoleto, Italy, in 1958.called Spoleto.” In 2009, Tannenbaum also reviewed a performance by the theatric vocalist Rene Marie. Reading these reviews, you soon appreciate the unique programming touch of the jazz series’ curator, who developed this series with remarkable dedication and yet without any of the customary self-aggrandizement. It must be a Midwest thing.
For those wanting to sample Grofsorean’s creative programming in this scenic Southern city, tickets can be purchased online at Spoletto’s web site or by phone at 843.579.3100. Beginning April 19, tickets may be purchased in person at the Spoleto Festival USA box office at the Gaillard Municipal Auditorium, 77 Calhoun Street in Charleston.