GMT: REALX (an unintended case study in developing a jazz scene)

(originally posted to website: June 2017)

JazzSoiree Augusta SUMMER2017: The Stretch

Where to begin? I have nothing but extreme gratitude for what Gray Mayfield has brought to the JazzSoiree event over the past several months, the effect that this has had on the performances, the series, and even the physical space.

BACK STORY: I set up the 4th Saturday Jazz Soiree event in 2014 as a listening room — a space where local jazz musicians could perform (& enthusiasts could appreciate) the music that we all know and love — as the sponsors of Candlelight Jazz were moving toward an old school R&B format. For the first two years, we rotated local and regional musicians. In 2016, we incorporated a house band with themed performances and added an open jam to engage musicians of all ages and skill levels, to provide opportunities for gigging musicians and educators to connect.

Gray began coming out to the jam sessions and inviting a few of the players to get together to work on music. Several musicians accepted, a handful of students stuck with it, and several months later, GMT:RealX was born. The concept was unorthodox, and the method was unconventional. By July 30, 2016, the time the band started gigging, the only place where one could “listen” to live jazz was the JazzSoiree. Since that time, venues that hadn’t presented jazz in decades are doing so again. GMT:RealX jumpstarted the Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting at the Soul Bar, and lit the spark at The Bee’s Knees. And to some degree, Metro Coffeehouse.

In February of 2017, I asked Gray to provide artistic direction for JazzSoiree, and from there, it’s been an adventure.

METHOD: Gray refined the concept of audience engagement beyond a jam session. The previous open jam format was a great way to help young people to feel comfortable in front of an audience of their peers. That was replaced in favor of a new approach — one which required planning and provided structure. Gray chose specific tunes to be performed, based upon technical skills that the students needed to improve. This approach engages the student, music teacher, and parents in a more wholistic, modern approach to music education.

We decided to remain in the Ann & Ellis Johnson Gallery of Art, to increase exposure for the professional and student artists who display works in the space, and to shine a light on the Johnsons, who have supported the art and culture for 40+ years. Skepple Mayfield Dance Academy’s performances with GMT:RealX engaged an entirely new demographic and allowed the audience to see non-traditional education methods and pre-professional training in action, presented as a modern dance troupe accompanied by live jazz band…. Performing at such a high level, one would not fathom the performers to be high school students.

An unintended consequence of moving in this bold direction was that it helped (read: forced) Jessye Norman School leadership define rental policies and promotional best practices for the Ann & Ellis Johnson Gallery of Art & The Knox Auditorium, taking the next steps toward welcoming more community events and partners in the space.

MADNESS: This, wonderful people, has been no easy feat. But truth is — nothing worth doing is easy. Countless hours have been invested into this effort. Planning meetings, rehearsals, arguments, come to Jesus meetings, blood, Pizza Joint, hour-long phone conversations, sweat, road trips, dinners, networking meetings, cuss words, tears, iron sharpening, more rehearsals. More iron. Repeat.

Gray, Sharon, myself, musicians, dancers, volunteers, donors, our families; even the guests. We’ve all stretched our limitations and broadened our expectations. All, in the spirit of collaboration.

Augusta (Community AND University): This has been going on right under your noses. Right here in Augusta. Where our City and University leadership is placing all its eggs into a cyber-basket. Where our arts leadership is placing its eggs in golf carts/traffic signal boxes. And where our public education system is wedged in the middle. What are we doing?

GMT:RealX’s unorthodox and unconventional approach has yielded undeniable results. For the JazzSoiree event, the music is on point, attendance has consistently increased, and the planets line up just right. The young artists… THIS generation. They receive some of the best mentoring and instruction available, with no pretense and no end game. No standardized tests and no grant forms to submit. Gray & Sharon do this because they want to. And my belief is, that because of their training… they HAVE to. I, personally, get the satisfaction of mentoring vicariously through them by supporting their efforts.

And this community … we could benefit greatly by encouraging all artists to strive to be their best selves. And continue to push. And to create. To earn. To grow. To move. To make some really cool shit happen. Forward, of course. But… in the meantime, though. What’s lies ahead for JazzSoiree as Gray & GMT:RealX move on to the next chapter?

Who knows? … But, ask yourself… #FYD?