Jazz Club went from fascination to institution | arts and entertainment

If only Hal Davis could see the Sarasota Jazz Club now.

Jazz, one of America’s original art forms, was once an undernourished passion in Sarasota, but over the decades it has become one of the city’s most ubiquitous calling cards.

The club that Davis started with listening parties in his house has grown into a regional institution with hundreds of members and partnership agreements with several local venues. And it might be ready to expand into an even larger footprint.

“There is an identified need to explore and evolve the group into a more professionally run organization,” said Ed Linehan, president of the Sarasota Jazz Club. “That’s where we are in the development and maturity of this group… We need professional management and we need people because there’s a lot of work to do. Or we have to do a lot less.

Crowds gathered on the grounds of Benderson Park to take part in the Sarasota Jazz Festival in March. (File photo)

Nobody wants that. If there’s anything the decades have shown, it’s that there’s an appetite for more jazz.

When Davis, a former advertising executive and member of Benny Goodman’s management team, moved to Sarasota, he quickly found many like-minded people. Her small band of music lovers soon outgrew her living room, her condominium meeting room, and even a third location in a bank community hall.

Davis has established a roster of performers, a concert series as well as the Sarasota Jazz Festival, which held its latest incarnation at Nathan Benderson Park in March.

But Davis, who died in 1990, may not recognize the club he founded.

“It was a social group, then it became a membership group. It grew incredibly, but without a master plan,” says Linehan. “It was not a decision to create an opera, theater or ballet company. They were people who just appreciate the genre of music and recognize that there was a lot of local talent, some of whom had retired here after professional careers. And it grew to a point where things like the festival and other events also brought in talent from outside the region every year.

Now, the band isn’t just building audiences; it helps to develop artists.

It raises over $20,000 annually in graduate scholarships for young artists and helps organize events several nights a week during its respective seasons. The Jazz Club has its Monday Night Jazz Cabaret series, hosted by the Florida Studio Theater, in addition to its Friday Jazz at Two performance series at the Unitarian Universalist Church.

Between these two series, we are talking about more than 40 performances per year. The club’s new offering, Jazz Thursdays at the Sarasota Museum of Art, has also attracted a dedicated following. Linehan says the jazz club now has over 800 members, but the Thursday series is notable for tapping into a different set of subscribers.

“We believe that beyond another jazz venue, what is good for the club in this partnership is exposure to people in their audience who are not members of the jazz club,” said Linehan of Jazz Thursdays.

Nancy Roucher, chair of the club’s music committee, has been deeply involved in the maturing of the club for decades. She calls Davis “a genius posing as a publicist,” and she says she’s lucky to have known him. Her husband, Jerry Roucher, took over from Davis and ran the Sarasota Jazz Club for a decade.

Over time, the club began to not only foster jazz appreciation but also enrich the community from within, and its expanded performance schedule gave regional artists the opportunity to showcase their skills to an audience. wider. Some of these artists are teachers and some of them are local scholars who have taken their careers to the next level.

Roucher singles out cellist Isaac Mingus, who recently performed in Knoxville, and pianist Liston Gregory III.

“He was at our first cabaret this year,” she said of Gregory. “He grew up in the community and went to the University of North Florida which is known for its jazz program. He’s now on tour with a nationally acclaimed band, and he’s been to Singapore and all over the world. He’s a fantastic pianist, and he’s probably one of our best scholars. But some of them are in groups, and others have become teachers. It is a very beautiful energy.

Adversity appeared on the horizon a few years ago for the Jazz Club, like every other industry in America.

Linehan says the club’s membership was at 960 in March 2020, nearly doubling following a 15-month campaign to attract new faces. Then came the COVID-related performance slowdown and shutdown, and memberships dwindled. Recovery came slowly; Linehan says many people returned once performances resumed, but he estimates there are at least a few hundred subscribers who never returned after the pandemic.

What’s next on the horizon? The club’s five-year plan says it hopes to add more subscribers and increase its operating revenue over the next few years, which will help it develop and maintain a full-time staff.

The club has added a full-time office manager, but many of the essential tasks are currently carried out by contractors.

There is also another potential big step for the club in the years and decades to come.

Will the Sarasota Jazz Club be looking to build its own facility? It’s not feasible at this point unless there’s a major build campaign, but Linehan wanted to at least put it on the agenda for the members to consider.

“That’s a valid question to ask and explore what it takes,” Linehan says. “Are there virtues? Are there any disadvantages? Right now, in a sense, we have the advantage of total flexibility. We are not locked in a building that really belongs to us.

“On the other hand, if we have the idea of ​​doing something more spontaneous, the first question is: ‘Where can we do this?’ And then you’re dealing with set times and availability, as well as price and size. But we enjoy the flexibility of not being locked into our own premises; we get the flexibility to enjoy many, many different places.

The very idea of ​​building his own facility was so remote when Davis started the club that it makes for an interesting footnote. Davis was building the Sarasota Jazz Club in a city whose appetites could not yet be satisfied; but if you look at the environment it was born into, you can begin to see why there is still unlimited potential for growth.

“They had the Asolo,” Roucher said. Opera was still in its infancy. They had the orchestra. And they had the Ringling Museum. But they didn’t have jazz, and that’s what he liked to listen to. So he and his wife started inviting people over to listen to records in their living room. And that’s how the jazz club started.

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