During the coronavirus pandemic, the Jazz Arts Group helped audiences stay in touch with their inner Duke Ellington, Count Basie or Dave Brubeck.
Thanks to limited-capacity concerts, a surprise visit by jazz great Wynton Marsalis, numerous Facebook livestreams and a robust virtual presence at its online performance hub, JAG TV, the group — the parent organization of the Columbus Jazz Orchestra — reached countless central Ohioans.
Yet Jazz Arts Group leaders say there’s no substitute for full-capacity live performances — the sort set to return this fall for the organization’s 49th season.
“It’s like going to church,” said Columbus Jazz Orchestra Artistic Director Byron Stripling. “You fill up your gas tank and you get inspired.”
Returning to 'the church of jazz'
For its 2021-22 season, the Jazz Arts Group will resume regular performances in the Southern Theatre and Lincoln Theatre. The hope is that pandemic-era restrictions will be a thing of the past and that audience members — or should we call them jazz parishioners? — will return in droves.
“We’re hoping that people will want to ‘come to church’ — the church of jazz,” Stripling said.
The Columbus Jazz Orchestra will give five concerts in the Southern Theatre, three of which test the limits of what is considered jazz, traditional or otherwise.
“We’re progressive in terms of genre, more probably than any jazz group,” Stripling said. “Jazz is my core — that’s my being, that’s who I am — but I’m always interested in how we can organically fuse things together.”
To that end, on Oct. 14-17, the orchestra will welcome saxophonist Patrick Bartley Jr. and vocalist Lena Seikaly to perform works from the Great American Songbook by Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and other composers.
Then, on March 10-13, musicians who perform in backup capacities with the Rolling Stones — vocalist Bernard Fowler and saxophonist Tim Ries — will add authenticity to “The Rolling Stones Project,” featuring jazz arrangements of classic Stones tunes.
And, for April 14-17, the season will wrap up with “Sinatra! With Tony DeSare,” in which the vocalist and pianist will summon the spirit of Ol’ Blue Eyes.
“Our audience just likes good music,” Stripling said of the eclectic concerts this season. “If we put something up there and it’s really good, they leave and they’re happy.”
Other orchestra offerings include the annual “Home for the Holidays” concert featuring vocalist Vanessa Campagna (Dec. 1-5); and a program of love duets with vocalists Carly Thomas Smith and Bruce Wermuth, “Valentine Romance” (Feb. 10-13).
Out-of-town guest artists will be on hand for concerts in the Lincoln Theatre: saxophonist Chris Coles (Oct. 28), the Pharez Whitted Quartet (Jan. 22), pianist Benny Green and saxophonist Joel Frahm (March 24) and vocalist Ashley Pezzotti (April 28).
On the heels of the introduction JAG TV last season, the organization will livestream one performance per program at www.jag.tv; leaders hope that some concerts, or portions thereof, might be available for on-demand viewing, too.
“It really did broaden our audience,” said Jazz Arts Group CEO Press Southworth III. “There was some benefit in terms of donors because it had a multi-state reach. There are a number of people who either retired or moved away from Columbus who are big fans, and now they’re able to participate.”
Yet virtual viewing is not yet a replacement, economically or otherwise, for in-person experiences.
“It did generate some cash flow,” Southworth said. “But ... we were over $800,000 down in terms of earned revenue.”
He added: “A single concert would bring in more money than all of this livestreaming.”
And, for Stripling and his fellow musicians, the appeal of live versus virtual programming is even more fundamental.
“For us, this is what we do,” Stripling said. “You’re always questioning yourself: ‘Is what I do relevant to the culture and the society?’ We get a big ‘yes’ when we know that there’s a concert season, and we know have devoted followers who will buy those tickets.”
At a glance
The Jazz Arts Group will present its 2021-22 season in the Southern Theatre, 21 E. Main St., and the Lincoln Theatre, 769 E. Long St. Single tickets — $10 to $68 for Columbus Jazz Orchestra concerts in the Southern Theatre; $20 for Lincoln Theatre concerts — will go on sale Aug. 15. Subscriptions are on sale now. Select performances will be livestreamed at www.jag.tv. For more information, visit www.jazzartsgroup.org.