Cole Porter, born on June 9, 1891 in Peru, IN was one of the most prolific songwriters of the past century and many of his songs have become standard jazz repertoire. His unique gift of combining his witty lyrics with beautiful melodies and just the right amount of musical twists that keep the listeners on their toes make him stand out. Just think of the countless picturesque verses to “Let’s Do It” and the haunting moment with the switch “from major to minor” in “Every Time We Say Goodbye” or the seventh jump of the melody at the beginning of “I Love You” and so many more clever compositional moments. His life story is well-documented in the PBS Documentary “You’re the Top” and the cinematic release “It’s Delovely”. I certainly enjoy his melodies and have recorded several of his tunes in new arrangements – here are my versions of Night and Day and What Is This Thing Called Love. Hence – I suggested to my friend Robert Hay-Smith who runs the Harlequin Theater in Columbus, IN to throw a Cole Porter birthday party this year and he liked the idea. We decided to make it a fun event with music, some trivia, and cupcakes to celebrate the birthday. Little did I realize what a popular idea this was! When we started the show the theater was sold out and some people even had to be turned away – this usually only happens when the Beach Boys tribute band performs. Everyone had an amazing time and the compliments at the end of the night kept pouring in. With the continued discussion on the dwindling audiences for jazz, I did some reflecting on what made this specific show so successful in a non-jazz venue in a conservative Indiana town. Here are my thoughts so far and I’m glad to add to the list and initiate discussions!
1. The historical connection – Cole Porter was from Peru, IN, just a few hours north – creates a sense of pride in the cultural legacy of Indiana. We often forget to celebrate our local heritage and set our eyes on the “stars”.
2. The performers were the perfect match to the concept: Musician/ Historian Tom Roznowski is not only an expert performer of the Great American Songbook but has vast knowledge about the historical background of the songs and presented unique stories with each selection. Violinist Carolyn Dutton is an Indiana native with a 30-year music career in New York city, one of the leading string improvisers. Drummer Josh Roberts just completed his degree at Indiana University and is a rising star on the horizon eager to learn about historical connections. Robert Hay-Smith is a veteran vaudeville artist from London, swinging bassist, and of course the owner of the theater. On strong recommendations, we also added one of the local High School vocal stars Meredith Hardy who did a fantastic job and of course brought her friends and family along. And of course I’m a local history nerd and always enjoy digging deep into the legacy.
3.The evening was presented not as a concert only but as an interactive experience. The audience participated by guessing song titles, answering trivia questions, singing along to “Don’t Fence Me In”, and toasting and sharing birthday cupcakes.
4. There were no musical compromises as an attempt to be more popular or audience-friendly. The music was selected and performed with the highest musical standards and plenty of jazz improvisation. Rather than giving in to the temptation of presenting the concept in cabaret style for the sake of pleasing audiences, the music was presented with contemporary jazz flavor true to the performers styles with honesty and enthusiasm.
5. The theater has a solid sound system and professional stage lighting and the seating includes small tables with no bad seat in the house. Robert Hay-Smith leads with expertise and a great sense of humor.
Of course, there are many successful jazz venues and presenters who do all of the items above and much more with impact on a much larger scale than our concert in Columbus, IN. But far too often there are performances and venues who do not pay attention to some of these details and become part of the dwindling jazz audiences problem. Here is my suggested check list as a simple method for achieving maximum impact for performers, venues, and audiences alike and building our jazz audiences for the future:
A. What is the concept/ purpose of the performance and how can it be communicated?
B. Do we have the best performer combinations/ repertoire/ rehearsal options for the concept/ purpose?
C. What can be done to make it an ‘experience’ for the audience?
D. Are we honest and true to our artistic philosophy?
E. What can be done for optimal sound/ light/visual/ venue presentation?
And don’t forget to honor your local history and future legacy – here is a taste of the performance!