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Meet BlueStem Jazz's Dave Stone & Thomas Ferrella

Meet BlueStem Jazz's Dave Stone & Thomas Ferrella

Courtesy John Trimble


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Since 2016, and even through the pandemic of 2020, Madison Wisconsin has hosted a steady stream of improvisational music concerts. The majority of these are thanks to the organization named after Wisconsin's native grass, BlueStem Jazz. Founded by two retired professionals and melophiles this non-profit, award-winning establishment is dedicated to promoting and hosting a wide range of creative musicians, broadly falling into the categories of experimental, progressive or avant-garde. David Stone, a retired mechanical engineer, and Thomas Ferrella, a retired physician, visual artist (painter, photographer, sculptor) and amateur musician, are the two gentleman behind this venture.

All About Jazz: Tell us a little bit about BlueStem Jazz. What kind of organization it is and how does it function?

Dave Stone: BlueStem Jazz is a 501(c)(3) non-profit run by Thomas Ferrella and myself. We are jazz promoters with profit taken out of the picture. BlueStem Jazz never takes any of the performance proceeds, they go entirely to the venues and performers. And we have aligned ourselves with over six venues in town—from quiet listening rooms, an outside patio, larger club settings and a full-on high-end recording studio.

Thomas Ferrella: BlueStem Jazz is specifically dedicated to presenting any music art form we deem amazing and beautiful. Of course, we are serious jazz freaks so that really makes up most of our programming, though we have strayed into experimental electronica and classical... our guiding light is the music has to be honest, presented with passion and be progressive; we strongly believe jazz is all about moving forward.

AAJ: What gave you the idea to start BlueStem Jazz?

DS: Thomas and I have traveled a fair bit to hear great music and were often frustrated by not having great jazz that aligned with our tastes here in Madison, so we started asking musicians to come to Madison, and connecting them with our partner venues.

TF: On a trip back from Milwaukee after hearing The Bad Plus in a tiny little cinderblock listening room at the west end conservatory to an audience of 35, we started ruminating on the idea of doing our own thing in Madison. Serendipitously, a buddy of mine was doing some floor work on Roscoe Mitchell's home here in Madison and he called me from the basement with a whisper, " Hey Ferrella... you know a guy named Roscoe Mitchell?... well, I'm in his basement and all these guys are coming over and making the weirdest sounds upstairs...." Of course, I know Roscoe and that is music my friend, so I asked my bud if/when he got the chance would he ask Mitchell if he would be willing to play a gig in Madison. The next day I get a call from Mitchell—friggin lightning bolt moment, so my first show was to a sold-out standing-room audience of 80 folks with Mitchell, Junius Paul on bass and Vincent Davis on drums. More lightning—my next show was Ken Vandermark and frankly we have been in the zone ever since.

AAJ: Since 2016 BlueStem Jazz has presented several artists, particularly in the creative/improvised music genre. Was it difficult to build audiences for this style of music?

DS: Sort of. Many of our gigs are at small venues tailored to smaller audiences. Some of the best gigs I have attended have been at our small intimate venues.

TF: Great question, and Dave and I talk about this. Before all of our shows one of us gives a couple-minute talk about the band, BlueStem Jazz news, jazz news in general... but a topic that we sort of bend folks' ears on is "butts in the seats"—for BlueStem Jazz to be sustainable we need an audience which is the foundation of any program. We understand the value of this art but conveying that information has not been easy, even in Madison which is a very savvy music city. I often tell my pals that Austin has nothing on us here in regards to the sheer amount of amazing progressive music—in all music genres—that Madison hosts. Just our free music festivals that occur here in the warmer months is extreme. I think I counted summer of 2019 over 22 days of outside free music events hosted by a variety of promoters—and this is not schlocky programming; it is absolutely crazy what happens here musically. I can walk a block or two and see the likes of Fareed Haque, Trombone Shorty, Alejandro Escovedo, John Dee Graham, Marcia Ball, Olu Dara... it is nuts here.

Pre-covid, of course, you could go out every night of the week 365 and hear original music in a variety of settings, and remember we are a smallish city. The music scene here is hot, but jazz is another animal and it is difficult to build an audience with any new music venture, but in a competitive music town like Madison and jazz to boot???... hmm... yeah, more difficult. Most people when they think of jazz they think of Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington or Miles Davis... they think of what jazz was, they are not thinking about what jazz is, and this is so true of our institutional jazz entities and what I call the "jazz illuminati"—they have lost themselves to the past and they have forgotten that when Duke or (Dizzy Gillespie) or Miles were playing they were mining new territory, they were not stuck in the past but forever moving forward, so yeah, very difficult on several fronts. I will also say that our last 14 shows have sold out so hopefully we are trending, so to speak... finger's crossed.

AAJ: Do the managers of venues with whom you work share your enthusiasm for the "avant-garde"?

DS: They appreciate what we are doing and love our business model. They see the value and share our enthusiasm for great live music in Madison.

TF: Yes absolutely! they are music nuts too... and open minded woke folks! I always love running into people that get this music, they are just more aware... they walk a different path, and I personally love the company.

AAJ: With which musicians have you had some of your most memorable encounters?

DS: I don't know where to start—they are all memorable, but if we are dropping names, Dave King, Julian Lage, Jenny Scheinman, Allison Miller, Caroline Davis, Charlie Ballantine, Vincent Davis, Paul Wertico, Eddie Gomez, Tomeka Reid, Andrew Cyrille, Makaya McCraven, Chris Speed, Tim Berne, Isaiah Collier... come to mind... oh my god... this is not fair—everyone who has played in our series has been memorable.

TF: I have many fond memories, especially since I allow the musicians to stay with me if they need a place to crash. I encourage them to be independent here in my home... eat and drink whatever and just be good roommates. What I will say is I have had the absolute best experiences with jazz musicians; these people are thinking! They are processing the world in a very personal way. There are no white bread, vanilla conversations,; there is an awareness in their spirit and it is magnetic. It is exactly how I live my life as an artist; we are kindred.

AAJ: What are your plans for the post-pandemic world? Do you plan to host virtual concerts?

DS: Probably not. We worked out outdoor, safe gigs last summer at Garver Feed Mill and will continue that beginning mid-May this year.

TF: Dave and I really tried to figure out how to support the musicians during these times, especially our local jazz musicians; we considered grants, honorariums, streaming, fees for master classes.... and nothing really resonated. We also talked with multiple local jazz musicians on what BlueStem Jazz could do and we decided to focus on real live programming. Right about then I stumbled into Bethany Jurewicz from the Garver Feed Mill who, by the way, loves progressive jazz and happens to be the events coordinator at Garver—more lightning. We were invited to program outside on their patio, so late summer 2020 Dave and I were given 14 dates to fill and we did it in four days! We followed all of the county health department and city of Madison guidelines and we had a very successful, healthy outdoor summer series that was just beautiful. Even though it was on a patio we booked what we loved and it was not "patio jazz," it was a real BlueStem Jazz program—challenging, beautiful, eclectic and weird... and we have been invited back for 2021 to book from May through October. All I can say about that is stay tuned—once again there will be hot music on the patio!

AAJ: [A question for Thomas Ferrella] You are also a photographer, painter and sculptor. Tell us a bit about your work in the visual arts.

TF: Well, let's say I am a bit scattered, illogical and curious when it comes to my art and music ventures. I am not a trained artist or musician and maybe because of that and the influence of my mom who is also an artist, I have no hesitation involving myself in any mediums. I have a visual/auditory clue about a piece then I just figure out everything I need to learn to bring it to fruition. I have no interest in doing the same thing over and over, I can't, that would be like living in a straight line—just simply boring. There might be a contiguous aesthetic throughout my work though I do not know what that may be and for sure there is no "Ferrella brand." This winter, for example, I have been focused on a sculpture series of painted burnt-wood kinetic pieces. I have also been commissioned by the city of Madison for a film addressing environmental issues for Madison's Winter Is Alive festival; the title of that piece is called "Shadowlands," for which my band, You Of All People, will be doing a live stream presentation on February 27th. I am also deep into a collage series titled The Corona Chronicles..

AAJ: [A question for Thomas Ferrella] You had a busy career as an Emergency Room Physician for many years. How did you "marry" medicine and art?

TF: I was blessed—or cursed—with an overactive corpus callosum?! [laughs]... that is the neuronal superhighway between the two cerebral hemispheres... seriously I was always into photography on some level, everywhere I ever lived, even in college. I had a darkroom but about twenty years ago things really changed for me. I loved my first career in emergency medicine, I loved the immediacy of making decisions—changing people's lives over minutes is a very powerful muse and I happened to be good at science and math, so that my 30-year career was very rewarding and for the most part fun. I know that sounds crazy putting "emergency" and "fun" into the same thought/sentence, right? But when you follow your passion it really just doesn't seem like work. I have been fully retired from medicine for seven plus years now and this passion still exists, but it is now focused as an artist. I am fortunate to have two passionate professions in one lifetime and adding BlueStem Jazz makes a third.

AAJ: Anything else you want our readers to know about you and BlueStem Jazz?

DS: If you are not at our gigs, you are missing some incredible music.

TF: Jazz is not a static art form as I mentioned earlier; BlueStem Jazz stands for respecting the music that came before us while embracing and showcasing the new, so please help BlueStem Jazz keep this beautiful art form alive—go to shows, buy music, talk with the musicians, stand up at the end of a show and clap heartily... jazz musicians are our spiritual guides, they are interpreting the world for us, the truth sayers! They give their souls to this music and all we need to do is be present and listen—really listen!

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