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Lonnie Davis on Planting the Seeds for 'America’s Classical Music… Jazz'

President and CEO of the Jazz Arts Initiative Lonnie Davis performing at the piano.
Logan Cyrus
President and CEO of the Jazz Arts Initiative Lonnie Davis performing at the piano.

Some may recognize jazz as being the lifeblood of New Orleans, but what of Charlotte? President and CEO of the Jazz Arts Initiative Lonnie Davis shares what it takes to sustain (and evolve) "America's Classical Music" in the Queen City.

"'Jazz is life.' That was a quote from one of our students. And I think that says a lot. Because if a student can define jazz as being life, I think we have a bright future for jazz music."
– Lonnie Davis, President and CEO of Jazz Arts Initiative

Interview Highlights:

On the role of Jazz Arts Initiative in Charlotte:

The Jazz Arts Initiative’s mission is to connect the community and develop a jazz audience here in Charlotte through three different focus areas: education, performance and musician support. All of the programs that we do through the organization will touch on at least one of those three focus areas, with education being our primary focus.

And of course, there can’t be jazz without performance, so we are a presenting organization and do monthly concerts. In doing both education and performance, we are supporting both local and regional musicians.

On the cultural importance of jazz in America (and the Jazz Arts Initiative’s role in preserving it in Charlotte):

I think all major cities should have a major organization that focuses on America’s classical music: jazz. When we (Lonnie and husband/musician Ocie Davis) initially moved to Charlotte, we just assumed that it already existed. And we were quite surprised to realize that an organization like Jazz Arts — with a focus on preserving jazz, presenting jazz and educating the public on jazz — didn’t exist.

I think the Jazz Arts Initiative is important because this is our music as Americans. This music would not have been possible anywhere else in the world. It’s such a unique art form, our gift to the world, so it should be preserved. And so it’s our mission to continue this music into the future — to certainly pay tribute to the work that has been done in the past, but also plant seeds to continue this music into the future through our educational programs, and also supporting local and regional artists in the process.

On moving to Charlotte from New Orleans:

We assumed that there would be a [jazz music] scene [in Charlotte]. That there would be a nucleus where the music happened with a couple of clubs that supported jazz musicians and some educational component that fed young musicians and acted as a pipeline to move that talent forward. Because that’s what it’s like in a place like New Orleans and other major cities. And so, when we moved to Charlotte, we assumed that would be the case.

After three months of searching, we realized, “Wait a minute… this just doesn’t exist.” Which was a little scary, to be honest, because we had committed ourselves to living here in Charlotte. So we had a decision to make… are we going to stay, or are we going to move to another city that has a vibrant music scene that we can fall into? But Charlotte had other great assets, and we saw the beauty in Charlotte. We didn’t want to go anywhere.

After being here in Charlotte for a couple months, we realized, “Wow, wait a minute. There are quite a few opportunities here. And there is a lot that can be done.” So, we pooled our resources and experiences and started pondering the ideas that developed into what is now the Jazz Arts Initiative.

On the Jazz Arts Initiative’s Jazz Room performance series:

This is a true listening room experience. This is a place where conversations are not encouraged. And no one wants to have a conversation when these musicians are up there [on stage] because they’ve been working really hard [on their performances].

We did an audience analysis and found that — we were told — we have the most diverse audience in Charlotte. That our audience looks just like America. And I’m very proud of that because one of the goals has been to make sure that we provide high-quality music to everyone.

Music featured in this #WFAEAmplifier chat:

Ellis Marsalis - “Homecoming”
Ashlin Park - Clifford Brown medley (Live from the Jazz Room)
Phillip Whack - John Coltrane medley (Live from the Jazz Room)
Preservation Hall Jazz Band - “Happy Holiday”
Duke Ellington - “Sugar Rum Cherry”
Preservation Hall Jazz Band - “Sugar Plum”

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Joni Deutsch was the manager for on-demand content and audience engagement, at WFAE, where also hosted the Amplified podcast and helped produce such podcasts as FAQ City, SouthBound, Inside Politics, Work It and the Apple Podcast chart-topping series She Says. Joni also led WFAE's and Charlotte's first podcast festival.