I mentioned previously (Connecting) that I attended the Charlotte Jazz Festival earlier this year. It was a wonderful event with a number of highlights. The one most apropos of this blog was a concert by Sammy Miller and the Congregation. I had seen them perform at the Festival the previous year and they were good. This year, however, they had become a force of nature.
Let me begin with a bit of fanboy prose not directly related to this blog. They were awesome: immensely talented musicians, well-schooled in the history and techniques of jazz, and thoroughly, thoroughly entertaining. I was smiling throughout the concert. I think it may have been the most pure fun I’ve ever had at an evening of music.
That out of the way, what is related to this blog is their combination of high-end artistry and technical skill, musicianship, and knowledge of their discipline with total dedication to winning converts. The band even has a mission statement:
Sammy Miller and the Congregation are on a mission to put the generosity back into jazz and bring art back to the people. Playing joyful jazz—music that feels good—the band shares the power of community through music in a style that entertains, enriches, and most of all uplifts.
The concert itself was dangerously high energy from start to finish. They played to, with, and in (!) the audience. They were theatrical, even flamboyant at times. But just when I was ready to check out saying the schtick was going over the top they would launch into a fascinating, sensitive contemporary take on a jazz standard. They sometimes flirted with “too much” but in the end this was a group of artists dedicated to their art attempting–and succeeding in spades–to help people love jazz.
Everyone who I heard perform at the Festival this year was a stunning musician knowledgeable about and dedicated to jazz. What sets the Congregation apart is the addition of an almost maniacal dedication to connecting with their audience. They love performing and they really love making others love jazz.
I have written before about a performer who appears to completely enjoy connecting with the people at his concerts: Jimmy Buffett (Lessons from a Pirate: I; Lessons from a Pirate: II). He works in a much different corner of the musical universe but he is also dedicated to connecting with his fans.
The difference between the two is that JB is not worried about winning the hearts and minds of the public. His incredible commercial success proves that but he keeps at it. Sammy Miller and the Congregation do have that concern for the art of jazz and for its future.
It is the dedication to connecting that I would most highlight here. We in the nonprofit arts are every bit as committed to our art as this group is–but not more so. The question is whether we are willing to do what it takes to allow people to come to love our work as much as we do–not by “dumbing down” that work but by expending the energy required to make what we do irresistible . . . and keeping at it until we succeed.
I had a very difficult time finding a video or a recording that did justice to the live experience, but rather than leave you hanging, this is a pretty good representation of a part of the appeal of Sammy Miller and the Congregation: Li’l Liza Jane.
And, for a straight-ahead classical music example of the same ideas, see Joe Patti’s blog post on the pianist Alpin Hong.