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Arts & Culture

Ziad Rabie Talks About Jazz At The Bechtler And Music He Loves

Bechtler Museum of Modern Art

If you search online for the phrase “don’t like jazz,” you’ll come away with more than 55 million search results. Quiet as it’s kept, despite its uniquely American roots, jazz continues to confound a large segment of the American music audience.

Ziad Rabie, who for nearly five years has been the featured musician at the popular Jazz at the Bechtler series, knows this well. He has seen it firsthand, even among some of his friends and close associates.

His advice to those who have not caught the jazz bug or might be intimidated by the improvisational nature of the music: “I tell them to come out and try it, give it an honest experience and see what they come away with and whether they are interested in it going forward,” he says. “I think it’s a nice journey to go on.”

On Friday, Ziad and his jazz quartet and several other local artists will be on stage at Knight Theater when the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art throws a special birthday bash to celebrate the museum’s fifth anniversary. (The Bechtler opened on Jan. 2, 2010.)

Qcitymetro spoke with Ziad about the poplar jazz series (which sells out every first Friday in the museum’s lobby) and his personal mission to introduce jazz to a new audience. The Q&A below was edited for brevity and clarity.

Q. Why do you think the Jazz at the Bechtler series has been so popular?

It was presented in a concert format in an art environment, where all this wonderful modern art is on display. It was the perfect thing. I think the combination of the venue, the music and the musicians and the way things materialized brought that audience out. It drew them to the series and drew them to the music.

Q. Are you surprised by the popularity?

Yeah. It’s been sold out since the third month. I can honestly say I was surprised. At the beginning I really didn’t know that there was an audience for this type of jazz music in Charlotte. It made me realize there was, and it made me realize why they’ve been dormant. I think it’s because the club scene in Charlotte never really presented the music in a way that was really that respectable. People who would want to come and see this type of music, if they were going to go to a club to see it, it would have to be presented as it is at Blue Note or Blues Alley, either in Georgetown (Washington, D.C) or New York City, and it never was.

Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance

Q. For someone who has never attended Jazz at the Bechtler, how would you describe it?

I would start by saying, I’ve had a lot of friends and professional people I have known who never really liked jazz. I would tell them about the concert, and they would come out and give it a try, and then they would become affinity members and buy preferred seating and come to every show. They would get sold on it, which is the highest compliment they could give me or any of us on stage. So I would say it’s a very organic experience, and the music is what captivates people, seeing the communication between the musicians and experiencing the electricity that happens from that communication. It’s spontaneous, and it’s being created right in front of their ears and eyes. I think until you experience that, a lot of people don’t understand whether they would like it or not. Hearing it on a record is not really as representative as seeing it live and understanding what the music is all about.

Q. Has Jazz at the Bechtler changed in the four and a half years you’ve been doing it?

I would say not very much. We’ve done a lot of new things in terms of trying to keep the bar at a high level. It’s always challenging to try to top what you did before, and we have a different theme every month. We consistently try to put on great shows and keep people interested and make sure they have a good time and feel like they got their money’s worth when they leave.

Q. What can people expect at the special Bechtler birthday bash?

We’re going to have a concert with a lot of guest artists who have joined us in the past, and we’re going to reprieve some of their most popular songs they’ve performed, and we’re going to have a few surprises in store as well. It’s going to be a two-hour presentation with some speeches in the middle. It ought to be a lot of fun. It’s going to be geared toward making a lot of music, having a lot of fun and enjoying the moment.”

Q. How did you end up doing the series?

I was playing with a commercial group that uses a booking agency in Charlotte. We were hired through the agency to perform at the New Year’s Even gala right before the opening of the museum. That was my first experience at the Bechtler. My current girlfriend at the time was a docent there, and she was talking to the vice president, Christopher Lawing, about having… a music series. And she goes, “You should have a jazz series.” He said, “That would be great, but I don’t know anybody.” And she goes, “I know the perfect person,” and she mentioned me… We started talking, and the rest is history.

Q. When you’re not at the Bechtler, what are you doing?

I do a club thing on Mondays at the Double Door Inn, which just celebrated its 41st anniversary. I’ve been playing with this group called the Monday Night Allstars for a couple of years. They’re all a bunch of friends who I never get to see, so the opportunity arose for me to perform with them. We have a lot of fun playing an eclectic mix of R&B songs and rock songs and Reggae songs and all kinds of stuff. Then on Tuesdays I play at the same club with my first jazz teacher, Bill Hanna. It’s really kind of a give-back jam session where a lot of young players get to come out and perform and work on their craft. And then the rest of the time I’m freelancing, and I still have a group that does private events.

Q. What’s the most gratifying part of your work?

I think a lot of the people who attend…I was shocked early on that so many of them knew the music, and they were very astute about the history of the music, had heard it before, seen a lot of the artists and were jazz fans to start with. The ones who were not…the gratification for me is being able to spread this amazing art form to new people and get people excited about it and listening to it. I think we need to keep the music alive, and the only way to do that is for new people to become aware of it and enjoy it and support it. That’s the most gratifying thing about this concert series…the opportunity to do that, and in some small way make more people aware of this great American music that we all love so much.

This story was produced as part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance, with support from the Wells Fargo Foundation.