Jazz Preview: The Rockport Jazz Festival (and Summer Gala) — Dedicated to Building an Audience for Jazz

The Shalin Liu Becomes a Jazz Destination: Wynton Marsalis Headlines the Rockport Music Summer Gala fundraiser.

Wynton Mar in action. Photo: Frank Stewart.

Wynton Marsalis in action. Photo: Frank Stewart.

By Glenn Rifkin

It didn’t matter to Rich Tennant, growing up in Chicago in the 1950s and ’60s, that his friends and classmates were infatuated with Elvis, the Beatles, and Motown. For Tennant, there was only one musical genre: jazz. The son of a jazz pianist with a brother who worked for Capitol Records, Tennant’s turntable featured Stan Kenton, Dave Brubeck, Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, and Ella Fitzgerald. It was all jazz, all the time.

“That was the music we played in our house,” he recalled. “I grew up with it all around me and I loved it. It was the sound of my youth.

For Tennant, a successful cartoonist who lives in Rockport on Cape Ann, a lifelong love of jazz has found a unique outlet. As a board member of Rockport Music and its Shalin Liu Performance Center, Tennant is “the jazz guy.” He has pushed a jazz agenda since the Shalin Liu opened in 2010 and since then he has collaborated with Rockport Music’s innovative executive staff in bringing a long list of jazz greats to the Shalin Liu; names like Chick Corea, Dianne Reeves, Dave Brubeck, Ahmad Jamal, Sean Jones, Joey Alexander, and others.

“I was on a mission,” Tennant said about joining the board. “I was bringing jazz into this. This was a place where I could demonstrate and express my love for jazz in a meaningful way.” An aspiring jazz pianist in his own right, Tennant gave up performing decades ago. “The fact that I’m not performing as a jazz pianist left a hole in me. This filled that in for me.”

To that end, Tennant has enjoyed the emergence of the Shalin Liu as a jazz destination for both performers and fans. The Rockport Jazz Festival is from August 11 to 14, and features such artists as Ravi Coltrane and Terence Blanchard. And the summer season culminates on Saturday, August 27 with the appearance of jazz legend Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra as part of the annual Rockport Music Gala fundraising event.

In truth, jazz has been an outlier since its halcyon days in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. Finding a devoted audience today has become an increasingly tough challenge, and the Shalin Liu has been a significant local force in jazz since it opened. For Tennant, the way to attract an enthusiastic jazz audience willing to drive to Rockport for an evening’s entertainment goes beyond marketing and social media.

“The way you attract an audience is by bringing in great jazz artists over and over,” he declared. “Jazz fans know they are in a minority. Jazz represents a tiny fraction of the broader music listening public. So when jazz fans hear that somebody good is playing nearby, they know it’s a rare occasion and they’ll get in their car and go.” The Shalin Liu has an obvious appeal on the North Shore but it has increasingly drawn audiences from Boston, the western suburbs, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and beyond.

“If we do it successfully, we become a jazz location on the same list as Scullers, the Regatta Bar, the Berklee Performance Center,” Tennant insisted.

Tennant credits the Rockport Music staff, including executive director Tony Beadle and communications director Karen Herlitz, for booking and promoting the talent. Given that the Shalin Liu is a 300-seat venue, it is often caught between a rock and a hard place. The biggest names are usually unaffordable and the inevitable question is: What are people willing to pay for a ticket for a top act and when do you cross the line and lose the audience?

Photo: Courtesy of Rockport Music

Rich Tennant (left) with jazz pianist Tamir Hendelman at the Shalin Liu Performance Center. Photo: Glenn Rifkin.

Tennant pointed out that jazz lovers are late ticket-buyers and wreak havoc with the nerves of the Shalin Liu front office. Days before a big show, tickets may be left which inevitably get sold, but it creates rising levels of anxiety.

A bigger hurdle is the eclectic nature of jazz. The genre is broad and diverse, yet many music lovers dismiss it with a flip “I don’t like jazz.” Given that there are so many kinds of jazz — from a-tonal hardbop to the melodic softer jazz — it is like saying “I don’t like food,” Tennant said.

Rockport Music, in its efforts to build an audience for jazz, is presenting a wide variety of contemporary jazz, eschewing the very esoteric, free-form style that puts off many listeners. This means diversity and a global attitude.

“Jazz is not just an American music anymore,” Tennant said. “It’s a world music. We try to bring in many ethnic flavors of jazz.”

One thing about jazz, he pointed out, is its remarkable lure for young musicians. The music conservatories continue to turn out countless young artists yearning to be jazz musicians. “I’m surprised and gratified at how many young people are passionate about playing this music form,” Tennant said. “It requires a good business plan to figure out how to make a living. You have to know how to build a fan base, a website, a sharing site to get your music to your fans.”

As Tennant prepares for nine-time Grammy winner Wynton Marsalis and the gala evening, he admits to feeling the same emotions today that he felt as a kid in Chicago. For him, jazz is medicine for his soul.

“It’s those flights of improvisation, the spontaneity of the musicians,” he explained. “It is losing yourself in the music, in the interplay between the musicians. When one stops and the other picks up; the flashes of genius that come out of those moments. The musicians don’t know what is going to happen and you’ll often hear grunts from the stage. Those grunts are moments of complete surprise and delight; they are so impactful they force musicians to close their eyes and groan in pleasure. That’s why this music will never die.”

The Rockport Music Summer Gala dinner and concert is sold out, but there are a limited number of concert only tickets still available for $150 and $185. Go here for more information or call Catherine Steinhoff at 978 546-7391 x106 or csteinhoff@rockportmusic.org

Glenn Rifkin is a veteran journalist and author who has covered business for many publications including The New York Times for more than 25 years. Among his books are Radical Marketing and The Ultimate Entrepreneur. His efforts as an arts critic and food writer represent a new and exciting direction.

1 Comment

  1. Glenn Rifkin on August 29, 2016 at 11:48 am

    The Rockport Music Gala was a big success and a highlight of the evening was when Wynton Marsalis called Rich Tennant up to the stage to perform with the orchestra. A thrill for Mr. Tennant.


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