When Kenny Drew Jr. came into town as a guest soloist with the Columbus Jazz Orchestra, he couldn't believe he'd be performing six shows. He wondered who exactly the audience would be.
In a similar fashion, when Byron Stripling took over as artistic director for the CJO, many people asked him which university had hired him. "They didn't understand that we weren't affiliated with a school, he said. Apparently most people can't seem to get their minds around the concept of a professional jazz orchestra that isn't affiliated with a university and plays 40 shows a year.
This confusion isn't surprising; after all, Columbus, Ohio, isn't exactly seen as a Mecca of jazz. However, the truth is that one of the nation's foremost professional jazz bands calls Columbus home, a town known more for cows and college football than Coltrane fans. Even more surprising may be that in these lean times, when arts organizations are forced to slash budgets and pinch pennies, the CJO stays in the black and continues to draw bigger crowds every year.
The CJO started out modestly in the '70s with a few Sunday night performances to accommodate band members who had regular Friday and Saturday night gigs. Their concerts slowly came to be known amongst the cognoscenti in Columbus as a place to see great jazz, and the band was forced to abandon its old digs and slowly add more shows. The CJO now boasts over 2,400 season ticket holders, more than any other jazz orchestra in the country, and calls the stately and intimate Southern Theater its home.
So how exactly does a jazz band in Ohio get to be so popular? By treating jazz not as an artifact, but as entertainment. "The music of Ellington and Basie always communicated a 'tap your foot' feeling to the audience, said Stripling. "Within whatever artistic complexity the music offered, there was still that feeling of playfulness, humor, fun and above all swing. Bob Breithaupt, executive director and drummer for the CJO, added, "a key to the long-term success of this medium is accessibility for the audience. We don't want to just appeal to the hard-core jazz fan.
Instead of building a show around a nationally known performer like John Pizzarelli, Stripling and the band begin with a concept that will bring people to the show. Ellington and Basie are recognizable to the general public and draw a crowd, but most jazz performers aren't exactly household names. Shows like "The Great Gershwin and "The Jazz Hit Parade present the classics leavened with a sense of humor, and the guest musicians join right in on the fun. At one concert, guest pianist Dave Powers played a song with his nose; at another guest clarinetist Ken Peplowski interrupted the concert to sweep off the stage, asking Stripling to lock up after he was done.
The CJO also joins forces with other local arts organizations for concerts throughout the year. A joint venture with the local ballet company is in the works for next season; a concert this season featured artists from the Columbus College of Art and Design producing live paintings in response to the band's music. Every year the Orchestra joins forces with the Columbus Symphony to perform a Fourth of July show. A concert entitled "Seven Steps To Heaven, which featured a gospel choir, was an artistic success and an audience favorite.
While this approach may not sit well with the moldy figs who think that jazz should be presented as serious music without distractions, it certainly keeps the majority of people coming back. But the music is what really counts, and the band is filled with talented musicians who enjoy the enthusiastic audiences Columbus provides. Many of them have outside work as music teachers at local universities and play around town with their own groups.
"Our musicians have gone to the best music schools and gone out on the road with the major big bands, said Stripling, once lead trumpet for the Basie Orchestra. "They become attracted to the CJO because it offers them the opportunity to play music from the finest composers and arrangers alongside the best musicians in the area. Also, the low cost of living in Columbus offers jazz musicians a lifestyle they couldn't enjoy in Chicago or New York.
Naturally, the CJO also attracts top-notch jazz talent as featured performers. Breithaupt remembers the early days when Zoot Sims and Clark Terry sat in, to more recent top-flight players like Russell Malone and Benny Green. But Stripling isn't afraid to bring in riskier choices; one of his favorite guest performers was Nelson Rangell. "Many audience members and critics had made up their mind that a smooth jazz artist did not belong on the stage with us. That night we did 'Take the "A Train,' 'Giant Steps' and 'Birdland.' After two standing ovations, many people told them it was one of the best concerts they'd ever heard.