Atlanta’s newest jazz promoters don’t work in clubs or other performing arts venues. Armed with a closetful of folding chairs and enough refreshments for five dozen friends, neighbors and strangers, these impresarios are on the cutting edge of presenting local jazz in the most intimate and personal setting — their homes.
The monthly concerts are the brainchild of the Southeastern Organization for Jazz Arts Events, which solicits hosts for each event and helps book the artists. The series kicks off 2011 this Sunday with a special performance at a house on West Roxboro Road. Singer Alvin Stone Maddox, bassist Moffett Morris and drummer Che Marhsall will join a mystery guest pianist at 5:30 p.m. Admission is $25. To get on the mailing list, click here.
SOJA founders Phil Clore and Mary Jo Strickland began holding concerts in 2007 at trumpeter Ken Gregory’s Atlanta studio. The quasi-monthly shows eventually moved to the residences of a few intrepid audience members who were curious about offering live jazz in their living rooms. House shows have been gathering momentum since early last year, presenting notable locals such as pianist Takana Miyamoto, bassist Neal Starkey and singer Audrey Shakir alongside a few international artists.
“At first it was month to month, trying to scramble to find someone to do it,” Clore told me. “It’s really taken off. Word’s gotten out that we take care of the musicians, and the people that open up their homes are glad to have us.” Musicians receive 75 percent of the ticket sales, with the remainder of the money reserved for future SOJA events. Clore points out that, with an audience of 40 to 60 people, a quartet of musicians can make as much as or more than they would in a club.
The concerts are booked up into the summer. Of all the upcoming events, Clore is most excited about a show this August — an ambitious, one-day jazz festival at a house on Lake Oconee. The lineup hasn’t been finalized, but it will most likely feature a huge helping of Atlanta artists and, quite possibly, a few surprises.
The venues have all become available through word of mouth. At performances, Clore gives an open call for prospective hosts, and a few interested people usually approach him afterward. The reasons for welcoming a jazz ensemble into one’s home are wide-ranging, he said, but he points out that location is usually a key factor.
“They don’t have to go to a club. They get an intimate, professional performance right in their home.” And because Sunday evening isn’t prime time for alcohol-fueled revelry, these concerts usually attract a respectful crowd. “People really give their attention to the musicians,” Clore said. “There isn’t that rattling of plates and glasses and talking and everything like that.”
But welcoming musicians, instruments and a small army of people into one’s residence can have its drawbacks. Ralph Rice hosted more than 60 people at his house last fall to hear vocalist Charly Valentine in a small-group setting. It was the second time he’s turned his home into a concert hall, and though he expects to do it again, putting on the shows, he said, is no cakewalk.
“Any event of this scale in a confined space is a logistic nightmare,” Rice said. His concerns included setting up seating with good sight lines and making sure there was enough room for guests to move in and out of the seating area.
Rice said he usually spends $200 to $300 to put on a concert at his house. Bill Morton, who recently hosted trumpeter Joe Gransden’s band, spent more than 10 times that amount to ensure that the evening was perfect. Morton’s expenses included a cleaning service, alcohol, food and the cost of moving his piano.
The host of each event is expected to provide light snacks, but any additional costs are at the host’s discretion. “They get a donation receipt to write off a portion of the costs,” Clore said. “But we don’t encourage excessive out-of-pocket expenses.”
Even with the financial commitment, both Rice and Morton look forward to hosting another event. The access to top-notch musicians and the atmosphere created by an appreciative audience are why they’ll keep SOJA patrons on the guest list. “Everyone was polite and courteous,” Morton said, “and didn’t seem to do any of the things I worried about: being dirty, breaking something, stealing.”
House concerts will never replace venues like Churchill Grounds or Twain’s Billiards & Tap, but that was never SOJA’s goal. By presenting jazz in a comfortable, informal setting, the organization has given Atlantans who usually don’t frequent clubs access to the best local musicians at a reasonable price.