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Published: Thursday, 1/22/2009

Attendance decline closes curtain on Jazz Society series

BY ROD LOCKWOOD
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Toledoan Jon Hendricks, a pioneer in the jazz form vocalese, performs at the Valentine Theatre. He says a weak economy and an apathetic public make it difficult for jazz to survive. Toledoan Jon Hendricks, a pioneer in the jazz form vocalese, performs at the Valentine Theatre. He says a weak economy and an apathetic public make it difficult for jazz to survive.
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Tough economic times and dwindling attendance at its concerts forced the Toledo Jazz Society yesterday to cancel the remainder of its concert series to give the group time to reinvent itself.

The goal is to come back strong next year for the organization's 30th anniversary, said Society president Dick Greenblatt, a retired accountant.

"Our season subscription numbers are down, our walk-in numbers are down, and rather than take a real financial beating, we're just going to suspend the season," he said. "We fully intend to come back with another season next year."

The problem was manifested in sharp declines in attendance at shows, including the concert featuring Pete Barbutti in December. The popular "jazz comedian" was expected to do well, but only 262 tickets were sold for the show at the Franciscan Theatre & Conference Center of Lourdes College, which has a capacity of 850.

"The ticket sales have been awful this year," said Kim Buehler, the society's executive director. "I think that people are just hanging onto their discretionary income if they can."

Canceled are the Feb. 7, March 14, and April 11 concerts by the 18-piece Jazz Orchestra. Ticket holders can either donate the cost of their tickets to the society or receive refunds by calling 419-241-5299.

The society, which has a budget of about $370,000, still plans to present the Art Tatum Jazz Heritage Festival in International Park this summer, but has to wait to see how corporate sponsor Chrysler's financial situation shakes out, Mr. Greenblatt said. The organization also will continue its Jazz in the Schools program and its Jazz in the Garden effort at the Toledo Botanical Garden, which generally involves local musicians.

The short-term goal is to look at its programs and try to determine why attendance is down and what can be done to improve it. The society has almost 600 dues-paying members, Ms. Buehler said.

One issue is the age of the audience for TJO shows, which tends to skew toward an older demographic who may not be eager to go out on a cold winter night for a concert, she said.

"It's time to take a good hard look at all of our programs and see what's working, what isn't working," Ms. Buehler said. "I think a lot of our audience is older; they don't go outside if it even threatens to snow," adding that many also go to warmer climates for the winter.

Mr. Greenblatt said the board has seven members and they plan to survey Society members and others in the community on their level of interest in the various forms of jazz. But he is convinced that the music in all its forms, from big band orchestras to small trios, is still relevant and popular.

"I think the public's attitude on jazz is excellent. I think the economy is causing problems for some people," he said.

Representatives for the Toledo Symphony Orchestra and the Toledo Opera said they've suffered some ill effects from the country's economic woes, but their budgets remain relatively strong.

"At this moment we're pretty positive about the situation," said Bob Bell, president and CEO of the symphony. "We had a great weekend with Bobby McFerrin and for all practical purposes are meeting all our goals. At this point, I'd say our over-the-counter sales are within 10 percent of the budget and we have the rest of the season to go to meet 100 percent and all of our objectives."

Toledo Opera Artistic Director Renay Conlin said her organization also is holding its own financially. She attributed its success to a wide range of ticket prices that allow everyone from people who can only pay $10 to those who can pay $90 to attend the opera.

Meanwhile, she said she hopes the Jazz Society and other arts organizations can get through the tough times.

"The current situation will at some point pass - we just don't know when - and what we don't want to find is that at the very end of it we lose the very things that make Toledo unique," Ms. Conlin said.

Jon Hendricks, a pioneer in the jazz form vocalese who has performed with the TJO and is a distinguished professor at the University of Toledo, offered the kind of perspective that only someone who is 87 can provide.

Noting that the country has long had a problem accepting some of its cultural uniqueness, especially with African-American art forms like jazz, he said the combination of breakdowns in the financial industry - he called them "bank heists" - with a sometimes apathetic public attitude toward the arts can make it tough for jazz to survive.

"It's inevitable that some of our businesses and cultural organizations show some result of that, and I think this is one of them," he said. "I'm sure it's going to be temporary because everything is temporary."

For his part, Mr. Greenblatt promised the society would come back stronger than ever for next year's season.

"There is an absolute agreement among the board that the next season will be interesting, energetic, and well-subscribed and we can only expect that we will get better and better," he said.

Contact Rod Lockwood at:

rlockwood@theblade.com

or 419-724-6159.



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