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The non-profit “We Always Swing” Jazz Series will kick off its 25th season this fall in Columbia, Missouri, with 14 concerts scheduled to run from Sept. 8 through next spring, concluding on May 31. The popular annual event will present more than 50 world-class musicians performing in seven different venues around the city.
According to Jon Poses, founder and executive director of “We Always Swing,” the series came very close to folding after its first concert in 1995.
“For the first official concert in the series, I booked a project called ‘Big Band Bird’ that featured Slide Hampton and a great 13-piece band paying tribute to Charlie Parker on the 75th anniversary of Bird’s birth,” Poses recalled during an interview at his office in downtown Columbia. “We held the concert in Jesse Hall, a 1,700-seat venue on the University of Missouri campus.
“I sold 78 tickets in advance, and a total of 242 people paid. It was a great concert, but it lost over $11,000. At that point, I thought seriously about canceling the rest of the series. But I decided to go through with the rest of the season, then decide about continuing.”
Over the course of that inaugural season, larger audiences began showing up. Additional support came from a season sponsor, contributions from area jazz fans and focused efforts by Poses to fortify the series’ bottom line. In the end, first-season losses totaled approximately $6,000.
“I decided to continue the series,” Poses said. “But I also made up my mind that I wouldn’t do it again without additional sponsorships in place.”
Poses’ decision was bolstered by his decade of experience in booking bands at Murry’s, a Columbia restaurant and performance space that opened in 1985. Poses—who earned a master’s degree from University of Missouri’s journalism program in 1980 and had been writing about jazz and baseball for several years—was asked to book jazz at the venue. He quickly moved to build larger tours around the Murry’s dates.
“When I started booking national acts, I quickly realized the only way it made sense was to create a larger tour rather than a one-hit performance,” he said. “That’s how I moved from writing into the booking and touring business.”
Under the name National Pastimes Productions, Poses booked Midwestern tours that included Murry’s dates for James Williams, Bobby Watson, Joanne Brackeen, John Abercrombie, Tommy Flanagan, John Hicks and others from 1985 to 1994.
“Through those 20-plus-date tours, I built up a lot of great relationships with musicians and presenters,” he explained. “Those connections gave me the confidence to try a Columbia-based jazz series.”
The “We Always Swing” Jazz Series gradually began to gain traction—and sponsorships—through the 1996–’97 and ’97–’98 seasons, with performances held at University of Missouri and downtown venues. When Missouri’s state liquor laws were revised in 1998, Murry’s began opening for Sunday afternoon concerts tied into the series.
“They agreed to do a limited menu for afternoon concerts,” Poses said. “For the ’98 season, we booked Brad Mehldau, Nnenna Freelon, Danilo Pérez and Benny Green. They sold out quickly, and we added a second evening performance. Those sold very well, and Murry’s concerts have been a major component of the series ever since.”
Over the years, the series has added a growing number of educational events through the James Williams Jazz Series Education Program, as well as creating the Von Freeman Memorial Lending Library, which now includes more than 8,300 recordings that are available to the public.
For the 25th anniversary season, Poses devised a retrospective approach, booking musicians who had appeared before: Matt Wilson, Karrin Allyson, Catherine Russell, Orrin Evans, Branford Marsalis, Christian McBride, Benny Green and Bobby Watson, who will be part of a tribute to Art Blakey featuring a band of Jazz Messengers alumni celebrating the centennial of the drummer-bandleader’s birth.
Anat Cohen, Bruce Barth, Steve Wilson will wrap up the series with a special house concert on May 31, 2020.
“Although we’re bringing back musicians who have played before, we wanted to create unique collaborations for them,” Poses said. “Matt Wilson is reuniting a version of his Arts & Crafts band. Anat Cohen, Bruce Barth and Steve Wilson—to the best of our knowledge—have never performed together as a trio. It’s been a very long time since Benny Green and Christian McBride have played as a duo. And having Bobby Watson and the other ex-Messengers reunite is very special.”
Watson, speaking from his home in Kansas City, emphasized that the success of the “We Always Swing” series is based on the quality and consistency of the programming, and Poses’ commitment to making the performance experience the best it can be for the artist and the audience.
“The series always features the top cats on the scene,” Watson said. “Jon loves the musicians and genuinely cares about them having a great experience. He’s developed deep relationships, which in my case has become a friendship. And to think he’s done all this in Columbia, Missouri, is amazing. He’s made the series—and jazz—part of the fabric of the community.”
The series launches with Sept. 8 shows at Murry’s featuring pianist Peter Martin and guitarist Romero Lubambo, who will perform at 3:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. A special 25th anniversary double bill on March 1 will feature organist Joey Francesco’s trio and trumpeter Etienne Charles’ band Creole Soul. For more information on the series, visit its website. DB
Apr 26, 2022 1:31 PM
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