Still celebrating record-breaking attendance figures for its triumphant 2013 "Baby Grand Jazz" concert series, The Hartford Public Library has received a grant of some $11,000 from the Charles H. Kaman Foundation that will fund the 2014 season for the admission-free, Sunday matinees. Sixteen weekly performances will be held in the downtown library's atrium, running from the opener on Jan. 5 to the grand finale on April 27.
Marking its eleventh season, "Baby Grand Jazz" opens with a performance by virtuoso violinist, composer and player of the erhu (a two-stringed bowed instrument), Meg Okura, a recording and performance artist whose Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble weaves together jazz, classical and world music to create a blend of world chamber jazz. A Juilliard-trained classical violinist who's at home in the jazz world, she has toured with such artists as Lee Konitz and Dianne Reeves and performed from Carnegie Hall to the Hollywood Bowl.
Other headliners in the series will be announced as contracts are signed, says spokeswoman Donna Haghighat. All performances are one-hour and begin at 3 p.m. Some more dedicated concert-goers arrive as early as 1 p.m., when the library opens its doors on Sunday, so they'll be sure to get prime seats as close as possible to the performers.
The Kaman Foundation anonymously funded the 2012 and 2013 seasons, historic turning points for the series in which attendance skyrocketed. "Baby Grand Jazz" caught fire, making the downtown library a hot destination on Sunday afternoons for jazz fans from both the city and the suburbs. Flocking to the atrium were both jazz aficionados and novices to the music, as well as perhaps even newcomers to the library. In good news for "Baby Grand Jazz," the Foundation's third nurturing grant for the 2014 season was enhanced by some 30 percent over the previous year's.
Packed houses in the library's cozy, intimate atrium became a weekly Sunday ritual during the 2013 season, with the series often drawing crowds of nearly 400 or more, far beyond previous expectations. Attendance soared to an unheard of level of nearly 500 for the season finale, a robust solo piano performance by Emery Austin Smith. One of city's grand jazz patriarchs, Smith, a Hartford native, has, with unabashed joy, played a number of times at his hometown library, an institution that the octogenarian pianist first began using as a friendly source of knowledge when he was a kid growing up in the city's North End.
Breaking all previous records, the 2013 series drew nearly 5,000 concert-goers with its weekly lineups that ranged from the internationally celebrated pianist Larry Willis to such top Connecticut-based talents as percussionist/composer/bandleader Ed Fast, vocalist Nicki Mathis, who, like Smith, is a venerable Hartford institution; pianist Earl MacDonald, the prominent UConn educator and noted jazz composer; and guitarist Sinan Bakir, the Turkish-born recording artist who has adopted Hartford as his home.
With its wide-sweeping, populist appeal, "Baby Grand Jazz" has been called "the soundtrack" for the library's visionary CEO, Matt Poland, and the innovative programs he's initiated to bring the venerable institution into the 21st century, expanding its relevance to the entire community and opening wide its electronic portals to the brave, new world of digital knowledge.
"We're delighted with the grant from the Kaman Foundation," Poland says of the upcoming season's enhanced funding that helps the library pay for everything from the technical aspects of the presentation in the atrium to fees for participating artists.
"By far, the dramatic shift in the last couple of years since the foundation began its funding has been in the quality and in the attendance and in the incredible diversity that you see at the concerts. You get many different cultures gathered here, and it varies from week-to-week in what is clearly the most well-attended, ongoing program the library has, for sure," Poland says.
"And the beauty of this for us, as I look at what we're trying to do here in the city, is that it gives us an opportunity to demonstrate the power of learning, and the opportunity to dream through entertainment, qualities a library can bring to a community. And it does it in a way that you're getting the kind of quality entertainment and quality performers that other people have to pay to see. And we're able to bring this to a larger community where we bring together people of all economic levels to enjoy this American art form. It's just a remarkable way to demonstrate that literacy and learning and opportunity are possible in so many different ways, and 'Baby Grand Jazz' is certainly one of them," he says.
Among Poland's favorite moments at "Baby Grand Jazz":
"I think when you watch youngsters dancing to the music and having a moment in their lives that touches the interior of their minds, which is what this music does. That's a very powerful moment."
As a complement to the music series, the library will exhibit music-inspired works by prominent Hartford artists. Past artists have included photographer Maurice Robertson, the noted jazz advocate and esteemed WWUH-FM radio music host, and painter Andres Chaparro, both longtime champions of jazz in Hartford through their art and actions.
Perhaps Chaparro, who's also a local jazz concert producer, gave the best and most succinct summation of "Baby Grand Jazz" and the revitalized, expanding communal role of the library itself:
"It's one of the hippest joints in town," the jazz painter/producer says.
The downtown library is at 500 Main St. Information: www.hplct.org.
Crump's String Trio
Celebrating his new release, "Thwirl" (Sunnyside), bassist/composer Stephan Crump leads his all-string trio, Rosetta, at 8:30 and 10 p.m. Friday, Nov. 1, at Firehouse 12, 45 Crown St., New Haven. Crump's colleagues are guitarist Jamie Fox and Liberty Ellman on electric and acoustic guitars respectively. A long-standing member of the superb Vijay Iyer Trio, Crump has collaborated with a wide-range of artists including Mary Halvorson and Dave Liebman. Tickets: $18, first set; $12, second set. Information: www.firehouse12.com and 203-785-0468.
Le Jazz Hot
La Petite France Bakery Café's latest serving in its monthly "Jazz Night Saturdays" series features hot jazz at 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 2, confected by vocalist Sue Lopes, drummer Louie DeLorso, upright bassist Jim Daggs and pianist Jerry Aiyathurai. The bakery café is at 967 Farmington Ave., West Hartford. Admission only, $5; admission, sandwich, dessert and drink, $23. Upcoming performances: Mike Casey Trio, Dec. 7 and Steve Clarke Trio, Jan. 4. Information: www.lpfcafe.com and 860-231-9255.
First Friday Jazz
Avant-garde percussionist/composer William Hooker leads his trio as part of "First Friday" festivities at 5:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 1, at the New Britain Museum of American Art, 56 Lexington St., New Britain. Hooker's dramatically, free-flowing threads of thought and cutting-edge textures are featured along with an opening reception for "STAGECRAFT: 50 Years of Design at Hartford Stage"; Asian-inspired food tasting and beverages, as well as works by two trunk show artists, one specializing in crafting new age vintage chic jewelry, the other in fashioning eye-catching handmade purses. Admission: $10, members; $15, non-members. Information: www.nbmaa.org.