[reflections on jazz from the heartland]

ground rules:

– i am not a jazz professor or jazz musician, nor do i hold myself out as an expert or a jazz illuminato, i have never taken a class in jazz or it’s history and honestly i do my best to avoid the intellectual side of jazz – i am simply a fan and i know what i like

– through osmosis, i am aware of the politics of the word ‘jazz’ and how its meaning is ever evolving with so many different personal interpretations, but i define it very simply and will be using the word here with this definition in mind, ‘jazz’ – is a musical artform that is always moving forward

– madison, wisconsin sits in a magical cultural triangle between minneapolis, milwaukee and chicago – this is important

– our problems are not unique

the skinny: frustrated that madison’s jazz scene was so lean, and not for a lack of certain folks trying over the years, it just never sustained, even with very prominent jazz musicians living in our community, they did nothing to nurture a local scene, it was a cultural wasteland so to speak and oh so magically located… let me be clear, madison is a vibrant music city, jazz just never fit in, in defense of previous attempts it was probably because of economics that it never succeeded, but honestly our local jazz community is fractured, lots of sharp elbows defending scant territories and political tribalism, and now the current corporate music overlords are dominating our city’s programming, all counterintuitive to the essence of jazz and my personal mission

…7 years ago i made an unforeseen serendipitous connection with roscoe mitchell and boldy invited him to play in a small gallery space on the near-east side, with vincent davis and junius paul rounding out the trio, it was needless to say – stunning, feeling empowered, i followed that up with a soft connection i had made with ken vandermark through a photography exhibit i did in chicago, and another hit performance ensued! wow, back-to-back iconic jazz figures, i definitely felt i was on to something…so i just plodded forward, somewhere in these 7 years i became an impresario, my email/phone contact list became surreal, i never imagined having andrew cyrille’s phone number and the fact that he actually will take my calls

eventually my buddy dave stone signed up for the cause and we subsequently formed our non-profit – bluestem jazz, named after the local formidable native tall-grass prairie plant – big bluestem, as we like to say “home-grown_cage-free_all-organic_non-gmo_gluten-free_pasture-raised_ all-natural jazz for the soul”, what the heck – we are from the heartland

we developed a philosophy: treat everyone with respect, value the integrity of the artform and be as generous as possible, this simple formula has been our north star and our musicians have been our ambassadors, the word spread quickly that there were a couple guys of a certain age in madison, that dig and respect the music, our shows have since flourished with talent from around the globe of course, being in this magical triangle with rob szocik’s imso gigs in milwaukee, the icehouse in minneapolis and of course chicago’s – hungry brain, constellation, elastic arts… has had a great deal to do with access to the talent, this triangle thrives through symbiosis

todd nicholson from arts for art said bluestem jazz is running one of the most vibrant jazz scenes in the country, william parker said “new york city doesn’t have anything like this”, comments that i cannot verify or refute, we just do what we do and we do it with love and passion, damn the politics! plus we might very well have the most grateful passionate jazz fans in the world, no one here takes our scene for granted and our patrons have been extremely generous

7+ years – 400+ shows – 1400+ musicians — here is what i have learned – the good and bad

  • jazz is a reflection of life – a reflection of humanity, vastly good, but there is an extremely small negative vocal minority, we interpret their voices as a healthy reminder of our good fortune and success
  • jazz musicians are driven by passion, as most artists, they are thinkers, they are interpreting the world and sharing their innermost feelings, they bare their souls to our benefit, they want to be heard, they are considerate and interesting people, and when you reflect on the dismal economics encompassing jazz – they are saints, it is miraculous they persevere and sadly many do not, i am blessed to be walking the planet with them
  • i wager the talent side of the jazz equation has never been this deep
  • the interconnectedness of jazz musician collaboration is unheralded in any artform, it is a life lesson in and of itself
  • local musicians just do not support each other, a sad truth that is not exclusive to madison
  • jazz has never been a stagnant art form until the educators and critics got a hold of it and codified and commodified, at a recent performance here, nduduzo makhathini said “curriculum chokes the music”, i find it to be more of a double-edged sword, a lot of good things come out of jazz education, but many programs are doing the artform more harm than good, nicole mitchell said in the new york times [9.3.2020], “the music is about community, so if a student graduates and doesn’t have any connection to community, that’s a real rip-off for that student in terms of what they’re supposed to be gaining, and it’s also a rip-off for the future of the music.” – our efforts to remedy this locally have been unsuccessful
  • it is unsettling how the contemporary jazz musician that is moving the artform forward has to use adjectives like ‘progressive’, ‘avant-garde’, ‘contemporary’, ‘experimental’… to describe their music, this is inane tautology
  • the word jazz has also become a trigger word for many, everyone has a preconceived notion, and frequently interpretations are negative, we have had bands ask us not to use ‘jazz’ in their promotional materials
  • where are the culturally-curious young people? is this human sub-species extinct by way of the microchip?
  • have african americans abandoned jazz as audience members? in my experience, this is not unique to madison, i have noticed this for the past 50 years on a national and international level

our non-profit is lean with passionate volunteers, who like our musicians, do the work with love, i sometimes joke that it takes a village to support jazz just like with children, but unlike children this art form is fully grown, why in this country are people threatened by original creative work? it is almost a badge of honor that good work suffers from lack of an audience, and acceptance is a long twisted fucked up road filled with heartache, i almost think this comes from the same place where racism resides, different is inherently threatening – hence the human condition, personally, i blame our educational system, we do not teach our children the essence of what makes us human, we do not teach aesthetics, graduating seniors cannot name 10 american architects, 10 landscape designers, blues and jazz musicians, novelists, oil painters, playwrights, poets… they learn nothing of color or composition… talk about being ripped off, we do not formally pass this information on, in fact, we squash the creative spirit with rigid curriculum and we dummy down our children to what it really means to be human – our very life blood – our air — and that is art! yes, with an !

to all of the musicians that have played and will play in our series – i am forever grateful, to our partner venues and their staff, to our volunteers and the peeps who promote and network – a big hearty grazie, and to the folks outside of madison who keep this music alive – hats off

….you see…it takes a village


i leave you with a poem

BlueStem Jazz

love still wears a smile on the motion of bodies singing of bluestems
with a sway - a honk - and a bleet ---- ‘chill that vibe, cause baby it comin home’

are you ready?
       for the deep dive
               the random access memories
                       life in the realm of shades – the intimation of the unknown

and can you let go?... can you seriously let go…and

                                                                                     sway with the bluestems

Jazz Genesis

rick cambell, david stone, thomas ferrella interview with jonathan zarov WORT 89.9fm 2/21/2020
anders svanoe/thomas ferrella interview with jonathan zarov, WORT 89.9 fm, 2/23/18


is often the harbinger of great things, maybe it’s a sense of awareness that things are possible, living an open life, allowing worlds to collide…well that is exactly the formula that allowed for the genesis of this jazz series

on a non-descript spring day in 2016 i get a whisper phone call from a fellow cigar-smoking frame-building buddy, kevin metz, “hey…ferrella…you know a guy named roscoe mitchell?… “yes”, a lil thought bubble emerges – who the hell doesn’t?… ” well, i’m in his basement installing new floors and he is upstairs with all of these guys making the craziest noise, you’d love it”, second thought bubble – that’s music, for f*ck’s sake!

now the light-bulb moment…just maybe…mr mitchell would like to perform while he is back in town – as a sidebar mr mitchell used to live here in madison, but took off for a more welcoming california environment where he is a professor in jazz studies at mills college; this wackadoodle idea was floated to kevin who in turn floated it to roscoe and the next day i get a phone call

“is this thomas?… this is roscoe mitchell” …gulp… and that particular collision led to my jazz series

i simply book what i like, so pick an adjective – avant-garde – free jazz – improvisational jazz – experimental … does it really matter? i personally don’t pigeon-hole anything and semantics are not important here, but what is important is that this just happens to be the type of music that moves the jazz art form forward, these are the musicians that don’t hesitate in allowing worlds to collide, in fact they embrace it – my kinda folks! – to name drop some of the musicians i have hosted: ken vandermark, tomeika reid, andrew cyrille, tim daisy, makaya mccraven, eddie gomez, dave king, chris speed, tim berne, jeb bishop, hamid drake, paul wertico, mars williams, caroline davis, larry ochs, nate wooley, fareed haque, reid anderson, paal nilssen-love…oh hell yea!… and our beloved local musicians have stepped up to the plate and have held their own with consistent home runs… michael brenneis, john christensen, brennan connors, matt blair, russ johnson, paul dietrich, dave cooper, tom gullion…, these folks have blessed us humble midwesterners with the anointment of sonic love – thank you!

caroline davis called my series “a national icon” – you have to love her on many levels, first she floats that alto… is that getz?, then she writes, arranges and plays these personal poignant melodies piercing the limbic with integrity grit and love, yes that makes you flip and oh yea…btw she does the same thing with her voice! that’s a trifecta my friend, a hat trick…lucky cherries…but national icon? …hhhmmm… the remark was reiterated about a month later by trumpeter, russ johnson and then ken vandermark said “ferrella is working at the highest level to produce concerts for an important audience in america, and for one of the most significant groups of musicians in the world – those who belong to the avant-garde”, william parker said “it is amazing what you people have done here, frankly we don’t even have this vibrant of a scene in new york city” WHAT?! …so…that got me a thinkin…

i simply opened a door, offered a small quiet listening room, no contracts, enthusiastic respectful listeners showed up, a diy culture where everyone shares in the same vision, respect and love become the constant, the musicians get it…and that is where those comments come from, fans are digging – musicians are digging, it is simply beautiful

and of course as with all great things, nothing happens in a vacuum, i am fortunate to surround myself with respectful, mildly-touched individuals like dave stone, ed ahrens, plus several mr anonymouses who have helped us financially and me personally as cultural senseis, mike at ALCHEMY and rajan at DOBHAN – where our musicians eat for free! …and more worlds collide…

will the revolution start with music? – i am hopeful

thomas ferrella

since these humble beginnings, i have officially partnered with dave stone in 2019 and have launched our new non-profit venture, BlueStem Jazz, and we will continue presenting progressive jazz in madison, however we have now partnered with multiple local venues as a means of expanding our services and increasing exposure for this valuable art form, these venues range from a quiet recording studio to listening rooms to full-on killer clubs…all dedicated to the progressive, avant-garde, experimental musician, and as always we do this simply as volunteers and do not take a penny, what we get in return is much more valuable – beautiful, beautiful music in our own town – which btw is making a couple old guys really happy!

for the full skinny, tune in to the 
showbiz roundup podcast and read our all about jazz and forward never straight articles.

always forward!

thomas ferrella