Friday, March 4, 2011

The Northrop Jazz Series is postponed

For those who have been wondering about the status of the Northrop Jazz Series at the University of Minnesota, this letter, which went out to series patrons on Wednesday (mine arrived today), brings unpleasant but not entirely unexpected news: The series has been postponed. 

Sent by Ben Johnson, Director, Northrop Concerts and Lectures, it links the series’ deferment to the closing of Northrop for much-needed renovations.

Here is the letter in its entirety:
March 2, 2011

Dear Northrop Jazz Patrons,

Thank you for your generous support of the Northrop Jazz Series in previous seasons. Northrop Concerts and Lectures is the University of Minnesota’s official presenting organization offering world-class performing arts for the past 92 years.

Since the 1940s, we have presented important jazz artists and ensembles, and for the past 34 years, the Northrop Jazz Series has been an integral part of jazz tradition in the Twin Cities. With presentations in Northrop Auditorium, Ted Mann Concert Hall, the Campus Club, Walker Art Center, Summer at Northrop, and other venues, we’ve remained committed [to] the presentation of this art form.

With the closing of Northrop for revitalization in Winter 2011, Northrop Concerts and lectures will be postponing its jazz series in the near term until plans for the new building have been finalized and additional funding has been secured for this programmatic initiative.

Northrop will continue to engage with the jazz community, both locally and nationally. We will proactively aspire to implement a new jazz program in tandem with the new building vision. This vision will sustain the University’s commitment to creativity and innovation—also hallmarks of jazz—and our long history and legacy of presenting jazz.

Thank you again for your commitment to Northrop and world-class jazz performances. Please feel free to contact me directly if you have any questions regarding this letter at:

Sincerely yours,

Ben Johnson
Director, Northrop Concerts and Lectures
University of Minnesota
It’s no secret that the series has been struggling. With the death of series founder Dale Schatzlein in August 2006, it seemed to lose its focus. When Johnson came to the U in mid-2008, after 13 years as the Director of Education and Audience Development at the University Musical Society in Michigan (for which he won a prestigious Guvvy Award for Arts and Culture), he stepped into a schedule that had been arranged by someone else. Audiences were shrinking, and the number of “friends of Northrop”—people who supported the series with additional donations—had sharply declined.

As a series subscriber, I saw firsthand the shockingly small houses for world-class artists like Kurt Elling, Regina Carter, and Danilo Perez, whose all-star band (including David Sanchez and Rudresh Mahanthappa) should have filled the Ted Mann.

I give Johnson credit for trying to shake things up. He experimented with other venues—the Whole Music Club at Coffman, the Campus Club at Coffman Memorial Union. He threw parties at the Clown Lounge and the Nomad. He broadened his definition of what the series would include, booking world music acts like Somi and the Swedish Radio Choir. He showcased area artists; Thomasina Petrus shared the bill with Somi on October 22, 2010.

The Somi/Thomasina show was a test. Would a new approach in a new venue (the Campus Club) attract a large enough audience? Technically, Somi/Thomasina was the first show of the 2010-11 season. Tickets to that show only went on sale August 9. The plan was to announce the rest of the series (three more concerts) on October 22, with subscription tickets available soon after.

But the series was not announced at that show, and no more tickets were offered. From then until the letter that went out this week, no official statement about the series was made. Admittedly, Johnson and his staff had other things on their plate; the dance series (which continues), and the uncertainly about the future of Northrop Auditorium. (The "revitalization" was approved by the University's Board of Regents on February 11 of this year. Northrop closed on Monday, February 14; the re-opening is scheduled for Fall 2013.)

At least now we know where things stand—sort of. I know what “postponing its jazz series in the near term” means; for now, there’s no jazz series. But I’m not sure what “proactively aspire to implement a new jazz program” is all about. I plan to talk with Johnson in the next couple of weeks, and when I do, I’ll ask him.

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