The Tools of Engagement: Attracting New Audiences

Band director and educator Dan Bilawsky on how school jazz ensembles can attract new fans and keep them interested

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The Edmonds-Woodway High School band (photo by Harper Thomas)

If you poll a cross-section of jazz-band directors about what they’re working on at any given moment, you’re almost certain to receive some similar responses. Many will likely cite specific charts, composers and arrangers, noting the levels and styles of music that their ensembles are exploring in preparation for a concert or competition. Others might reference harmonic progressions or scalar concepts—blues-based exercises, “Rhythm” changes, modes, ii-V-I turnarounds—pointing toward grist for the improvisational mill. And another subset may expound on foundational nitty-gritty, discussing technique, tone quality, articulation, rhythmic language and various other matters of prime importance.

Few, however, are likely to note that they’re focusing on jazz outreach, cultivating an audience for the future of the music and building a fan base in the present moment. Don’t misunderstand; these forms of jazz advocacy are taking place out there. But the art of engagement remains an underserved area in need of greater discussion and focus.

Building Bridges To New Audiences

On the broadest of levels, you won’t find too many educators who disagree with the need for bridge building. It’s arguably the most important unspoken responsibility we’re tasked with as jazz-band directors. The “why” of the conversation is simple for us to grasp, but it’s the “how” aspects of the matter that really hang us up the most. How do we locate the right tools to expand our reach? How do we go about fostering a greater appreciation for the music? How do we create access and exposure for the rich history of jazz to serve as a lure? There’s no single answer to properly address each of those questions, and even many of the most respected jazz educators out there admit that audience development is a struggle. Yet a number of channels—social media, community appearances, programming with a curatorial eye, the dangling carrot of a guest artist—hold the keys to potential success.

The majority of music educators, jazz-focused or otherwise, leave the halls of higher education with excellent performance skills and a strong grounding in pedagogy, theory and history. But the nature of what we do in the classroom requires that we develop another skill set entirely. In mirroring what many jazz artists are faced with, there’s a need for us to adopt a DIY mindset and take on the roles of booking agent, public-relations specialist, A&R expert and concert producer. Some music programs may have booster clubs that assist with the heavy lifting in those departments, and many schools have internal and external mechanisms to help spread the word about various goings-on, but we essentially remain the captains of our own ships. “Ultimately, I’m the one who cares most about my program’s success,” notes Earl MacDonald, Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Connecticut. “If I want to see it flourish, I must take the bull by the horns.”

Using Social Media

One of the simplest and most effective ways of controlling the content surrounding your program is to dive headlong into social media. The three leading platforms in this realm—Facebook, Instagram and Twitter—can offer exponential reach and myriad opportunities to share information related to your ensembles. Facebook, as of spring 2017, stakes claim to approximately 1.3 billion daily users; 700 million people are currently sharing their stories on Instagram; and more than 325 million people use Twitter. Each avenue provides the opportunity for audience growth and development, with a different spin and emphasis. Twitter, for example, is the most conversational, offering the opportunity to work in succinct fashion. Instagram centers on the sharing of photos and videos, serving as the perfect outlet for posting clips of your bands in action and disseminating show advertisements or fundraising fliers. Facebook, in many ways, acts as the best of both worlds, providing the opportunity to post YouTube videos and SoundCloud links to recordings, share information about an event, and interact with individuals, all without any significant space limitations.

There are benefits and drawbacks to each of these tools, and directors will need to learn what works best for their program. For David Lown, Director of Jazz Bands at Carroll Senior High School, the answer is Twitter. He leans toward that line of communication to control his own news network. Preston Pierce, Jazz Band Director at Plano West Senior High School, utilizes Twitter in a similar fashion, but he supplements with Facebook when it comes to promoting performances and fundraisers. Both of those Texas-based programs have garnered a good deal of attention, making a name for themselves in their regions and sending bands to the Essentially Ellington competition at Jazz at Lincoln Center, so spreading the word is of paramount importance.

Going Straight to the Community

Another commonly employed method of garnering attention for school jazz-band programs is to simply take the program straight to the community. Traditional in-house concert models that place jazz groups alongside other school ensembles for a 25-minute, here-and-done performance two or three times a year serve a critical purpose, letting students shine and allowing parents to see what hard work and discipline can produce. But they don’t always help to expand a band’s reach. We can’t assume that new audience members will find us in a school auditorium, so we often need to go find them by seeking out new avenues and creating symbiotic relationships within our communities.

Jake Bergevin, Director of Bands at Edmonds-Woodway High School in Washington, does just that. While he’s taken his groups to great heights on the national stage at the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival and the Essentially Ellington finals, it’s the surrounding Seattle scene that nurtures his program year-round. Bergevin’s bands have had the opportunity to perform for new audiences at the Starbucks-sponsored Hot Java Cool Jazz event and the Earshot Jazz Festival; they’ve been spotlighted at a Rotary Club-run fest; and they’ve cultivated a relationship with their local NPR affiliate. John Wojciechowski, a renowned saxophonist and the jazz-band director at St. Charles North High School, near Chicago, sees a comparable benefit in exploring a broader stage. His groups have been invited to perform at the Jazz Education Network (JEN) Conference and other high-profile events, but he’s also branched out in his local community by putting on a free Veterans Day concert and creating a special swing-centric show. Both of those directors serve their communities and demonstrate that an expanded outlook on performance opportunities is necessary to make an impact.

Many have already discovered that social media and community-based outreach aid tremendously in the exposure department, yet the quality of material we present may be of even greater significance when it comes to establishing a following. Or, to put it another way, advertising an event on Facebook and taking your bands outside the school walls can bring fresh faces into the audience, but the music those audience members hear once they’re in their seats will determine whether or not they’ll stick around. There’s no uniform process to address repertoire selection, but finding balance in the art-entertainment divide, developing a thematic scope and utilizing historical elements all tend to be important.

Pedagogical concerns, of course, will always rank ahead of those matters when it comes to how jazz educators make their decisions, but there’s no reason that a director can’t also consider how things will be received from a listener’s standpoint. Shelly Berg, Dean at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music and a world-renowned pianist and arranger, said it best when he noted that entertainment need not be viewed as a dirty word. “It is not a synonym for pandering,” he explains. “When a program features song after song with a boatload of soloists, or a lack of thought as to the ‘arc’ of the selections, the audience gets bored. Often the players and conductor look disengaged. It is a ‘show,’ folks, and that’s OK!”

As Berg points out, it’s about making a performance a meaningful experience for the musicians and the audience. That can often come down to programming. Many groups set certain special events apart by using a theme—MacDonald produces a Yule Be Swingin’ holiday program that targets families, and Pierce puts on a Glenn Miller Night Dinner and Dance that tends to bring in new blood—but creating a through line in your garden-variety school concert can be just as helpful. With an incredible range of materials readily available, it’s easier than ever to develop a mini-set bound by common threads.

An evening devoted solely to the music of Ellington, Miles Davis, Oliver Nelson, Thad Jones, John Coltrane or Count Basie is easily achievable for bands of varying abilities. Honoring the great trumpeters of this music could bring about an attractively diverse program that moves from Louis Armstrong to Dizzy Gillespie and Freddie Hubbard to Woody Shaw. A trip down the rabbit hole with some of Sierra Music Publications’ Radiohead Jazz Project charts might be just the thing to serve as a gateway for the non-jazzers in a high school or college environment. And something as different as musings on a color scheme—“The Red Door,” “Orange Colored Sky,” “Purple Gazelle,” “Blue Monk” and “On Green Dolphin Street,” for example—could pique some interest and bring about artful results.

Through directing the Harborfields High School Jazz Band in New York, I’ve found that in place of strict themes, a mixture of timely music and timeless selections can also work well. One recent concert program emphasizing that point included tributes to Ella Fitzgerald and Buddy Rich—2017 marks the centennial celebration for both figures—and a pair of pieces from Duke Ellington’s New Orleans Suite from 1970, reflective of our band’s then-recent trip to the Crescent City. There’s such a rich history associated with this music, so it’s simply a matter of knowing it or doing your homework.

The Value of the Guest Artist

Presenting a guest artist or bringing in a touring outfit is another strategy that often helps draw an audience. It’s a tactic that, while potentially expensive, yields tremendous dividends with regards to both pedagogy and fan base. Mark Stuckey saw that firsthand. During his days as a band director in the Hampton Bays Public Schools in New York, Stuckey brought baritone saxophonist Lauren Sevian in as a clinician and coordinated a visit from the U.S. Army’s Jazz Ambassadors. In his new role as a music and arts administrator in the Patchogue-Medford School District, he’s already been able to help bring in tenor saxophonist Joel Frahm.

Such appearances are a win-win, as these real-deal practitioners are able to share their knowledge with students and entice potential audience members into showing up. “We always have the artist come and play on a tune or two with each ensemble, from the elementary district-wide band through the high school,” Stuckey says. “It’s one of the special highlights of the school year and, since we don’t bring guest clinicians out to perform at every concert, everyone knows it’s a real treat.”

In the end, it all basically comes down to the art of branding. In working with social media, getting out into the community, leveraging history and repertoire and presenting notable guests, you’re sending a message about your jazz program’s core values and image. Stephen Guerra, Managing Director of the Henry Mancini Institute at the Frost School of Music, wholeheartedly agrees. “You have to approach your ensemble as a brand nowadays, and you need to shout about that brand from the top of every mountain,” he says. “There’s so much noise out there and it takes something special to break through, make an impact and build a following.”