Jazz Society faces financial uncertainty, seeks support
Chances are good that if you’ve ever been to a live jazz show at a local bar or restaurant, the performance was arranged by the Jazz Society of Santa Cruz County. Since forming in 2000, the nonprofit has served as the heart of the local jazz scene and as a hub for musicians of all ages searching for paying gigs, bandmates and lessons.
In a jazz-friendly town, the Jazz Society fills an important niche. While Kuumbwa Jazz presents well-known acts who tour nationally, the purpose of the Jazz Society is to serve the needs of local musicians. “It’s contributed a lot to there being a presence of live jazz in the area,” says Steve Newman, one the group’s directors.
For 12 years, the Jazz Society has hosted a weekly Sunday jam session, in the spirit of the music once played at the old Cooper House in the 1980s. The Sunday sessions take place at Bocci’s Cellar in Santa Cruz, where there is also a Friday night swing-dance featuring live, big band music. Most of the songs are played in the “straight-ahead” jazz style made popular by mid-20th century jazz greats, such as Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington.
“Jazz—the kind of straight-ahead, mainstream jazz that we’re playing—it's going to be around forever. It’s going to be like Bach's music, people playing it 300 years from now,” says Newman. “It’s not going to go away. So we've just got to make sure there [are] places where people can go out and play it with other people, rather than just having to play in their living rooms.”
In April, Newman notified members that the Jazz Society could be broke by the end of this year. In the past, it has been supported by grants, but those have run dry. Without ongoing funding, the group won’t be able to pay the house band members at its jam sessions, which cost $220 per week to host (just under $900 per month).
The organization gets most of its revenue from member dues, one-time and recurring online donations, and the tip jar at its jam sessions—the latter of which brings in roughly $50 each Sunday. Between the three, the Jazz Society currently has a steady monthly income of about $600, but is also losing $300 per month, according to Newman.
“Early on, we had some individuals who gave some sizable donations and that’s kind of stopped. Now we depend on small donations from a lot of people,” says Newman. “The donations are not matching (the expenses) and so that's why we're trying to encourage people to become sustaining members.”
In addition to reaching out to local musicians, the Jazz Society is also looking to local businesses that can commit to at least $25 per month in exchange for publicity in the nonprofit’s newsletter, which is sent to more than 1,750 area residents. While the Jazz Society has attempted to hold fundraisers and secure grants in the past, Newman says “the effort is enormous, the results uncertain, and the amounts raised too small.”
It could be a rough road to financial stability, but Newman is optimistic and assures jazz enthusiasts, “We are in it for the long haul. We’ve been doing this for 13 years and plan to keep going.”
He proudly points out that several young Jazz Society regulars have moved on to study at prestigious jazz schools. Though often featuring music from 50 years ago or more—and with the genre of jazz itself being close to 100 years old—the Jazz Society’s performances remain popular with musicians and fans of all ages.
“One of the encouraging things is that there [are] so many young people, in high school right now … playing at the level of professionals from bygone years. They're starting now where others left off,” says Newman. “Bocci's provides a showcase for them—any young band can sign up and get a half-hour at our Sunday session.”
Barney Greer, who first took up the saxophone as a sixth grader at Branciforte Middle School, recently completed his first year as a jazz studies student at the University of North Texas, which he chose for its focus on big band music. He first went to a jam session at Bocci’s at the suggestion of his father and estimates he’s participated in more than a hundred of the sessions. He credits the Jazz Society as a positive musical influence. “It's a good thing that they're doing there,” says Greer.
John Bouwsma, who just completed his second year as a jazz performance major at Loyola University New Orleans, began playing at Jazz Society jam sessions while attending Santa Cruz High School. Bouwsma cites the non-judgmental atmosphere he found at the jam sessions and the opportunities to learn from more experienced musicians as being positive influences on his music career.
“It's created a community for people who play jazz, who want to learn to play jazz, and who want to listen to jazz and have a good time. It puts them all together in one place,” says Bouwsma. “It was a good early experience for me for sure.”
The Jazz Society hosts jam sessions every Sunday from 3:30-7:30 p.m. and swing dancing every Friday from 5:30-7:30 p.m. at Bocci’s Cellar, 140 Encinal St., Santa Cruz. Visit santacruzjazz.org to find more events, purchase a compilation CD, to donate and/or become a member.
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