Jazz Digs Hartford Library’s Smart, Contemporary Downtown Setting

Jan 1, 2014

A public library is probably not the first location that leaps to mind when you think about an ideal venue for jazz. What you want is a  cozy, intimate refuge where you can hear every note played; aren’t seated a dehumanizing, football field length away from far distant performers; and are surrounded by a genuinely attentive, appreciative audience of kindred souls who are at least as much into the music as you are.

That Platonic ideal of the jazz haven is exactly what the Hartford Public Library, of all places, has become in the past couple of years with its astonishingly popular Baby Grand Jazz Series.

The downtown Hartford Public Library is at 500 Main Street.
Credit John Phelan / Creative Commons

In 2013, the library’s winter/spring series of 16 free, weekly Sunday concerts smashed all previous attendance records with a remarkable turnout (certainly remarkable by jazz standards) of nearly 5,000 people drawn to the downtown library.

Crowds of more than 400 and even close to 500 routinely packed the library’s atrium, the scenic site for the series.     

More ardent concert-goers religiously show up every Sunday as soon as the library opens its doors at 1:00 pm, two hours before showtime, just so they can reserve the best spot in the house for themselves by leaving a coat on a chair.  While waiting for downbeat time at 3:00, they can chat with their fellow jazz co-religionists. Or, with their seats safely staked out, they can explore the wonders of an ultra-modern, plugged-in library, or check-out the latest exhibition at the library’s stunning, state-of-the-art gallery, ArtWalk.

ArtWalk on the third floor of the downtown Hartford Public Library.
Credit Library as Incubator Project

The point is to get there early so that you can get as close as possible to the iconic baby grand, the namesake for the series, and centerpiece and musical altar at the atrium’s Sunday jazz concerts.    

Why is this turnout remarkable for Hartford?

Well, just take a stroll in that Main Street area on a Sunday afternoon when there isn’t a Baby Grand Jazz concert in the library. Often when the series is silent, this prime piece of downtown can at times seem a bit like a deserted village with its mostly empty, cold pavement, and relatively few pedestrians in sight. Baby Grand Jazz, however, literally puts winter boots on the ground, bringing a welcome surge of activity.   

And on those Sundays when the Wadsworth, the library’s close Main Street neighbor and cultural sibling, offers a Sunday jazz brunch on the same day, you can see brunch patrons promenading from the museum to the library, delighted to take advantage of a Sunday jazz doubleheader. At least for one brief, shining moment, that piece of downtown bustles with street activity, generating a kind of vital urban poetry as museum patrons  amble the short distance to the library’s jazz matinee.

"The fact that there were nearly 5,000 people here last year was just unbelievable," said library CEO Matt Poland, with a mix of amazement and delight. "We even had lines forming before the performance. It's pretty remarkable." Poland, who grew up in a neighborhood not far from the library’s main branch at 500 Main Street, is also chairman of the Hartford Board of Education, and is a longtime advocate of revitalizing the city by using education, culture and a sense of community and civic responsibility as tools to bring it about.

While the series has been funded with life-nourishing grants for three consecutive seasons by the Charles H. Kaman Foundation, it can’t and, barring divine intervention, will never be able to afford superstar performers. No, there’ll be no Pat Metheny, no Wayne Shorter wailing away in the atrium. That’s for sure. 

But what the series does offer, in abundance, is a rich sampler of Hartford’s very wide and deep jazz talent pool. Mixed with that artistic asset are concerts featuring emerging stars from the Big Apple who you might not have even heard of yet. 

Among the examples of future jazz idols brought to town from New York City, for example, is the splendid pianist Helen Sung, yet unsung but on the verge of bursting into fame. For domestically grown talent, there’s the prime example of Hartford native and increasingly renowned bassist Dezron Douglas, who regularly tours the world with big name players. No matter how up-tempo his career may get, Douglas always manages to come back full-circle to play once again in the hometown that he loves.

Dezron Douglas.
Credit Dezron Douglas

Warren Byrd.
Credit Warren Byrd

With its traditional stress on Hartford and regionally-based talent, the series this season presents such headliners as the noted pianist/singer and native son, Warren Byrd, who’s back for a most welcome encore performance on March 16. Just like Douglas, no matter how far Byrd soars on his world-tours, he always makes it back to play in Hartford, quite regularly at Baby Grand Jazz.  

And in homage to one of the city’s venerable piano kingpins, Baby Grand Jazz once again showcases piano patriarch Emery Austin Smith, whose solo performance marks the series grand finale on April 27. 

Emery Austin Smith performing at Baby Grand Jazz.
Credit Hartford Public Library

Appropriately enough for a library series—particularly a historically conscious institution like the HPL—Smith is one of the last living links with the city’s Golden Age of Jazz in the post-World War II era. As gregarious verbally as he is fluent on the keyboard, Smith is a one-man oral history repository of local jazz lore since post-World War II. It was a time when Smith, whose teenage imagination was already on fire with the revolutionary bebop teachings of Bird and Diz, was learning his jazz craft first-hand from the city’s sage elder practitioners of the day. 

Historically, it was a time when Hartford’s legendary North End clubs were exploding with city talent and frequent guest appearances by titans from New York and Boston, happy to travel a couple hours to play gigs in the jazz corridor between the two megacities. Smith, who’s become the library’s unofficial jazz laureate, is the playing, walking, talking embodiment of that lost Golden Age.

Meg Okura.
Credit Meg Okura

In yet another  example of the series’ fondness for spotting rising stars, it launches its 2014 season on Sunday, January 5, with a performance by the sensational, classically trained jazz violinist Meg Okura, leading a trio contingent tapped from her acclaimed Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble.

Besides the sheer kick of hearing live music--an experience that can make even a mediocre solo sound alive and well—the series offers a variety of delights. Along with experiencing that electrifying, in-the-moment charge, you can savor the serene aesthetic ambience of the atrium itself. Particularly when the winter sun’s radiant rays illuminate the atrium, viewed by some as a sunny sign of approval from above. Plus there’s the special communal feeling that bonds the mixed audience of city residents and out-of-towners around the shared experience of hearing jazz with others gathered in a packed congregation.

Credit Heather Brandon / WNPR

Jazz, it seems, can even be an antidote for urbanphobia, the fear of journeying into the city suffered by some residents of the burbs and exurbs, who may associate the city more with shootings, muggings and carjackings than with culture, cuisine and cool jazz.

There is anecdotal evidence that the recent skyrocketing success of Baby Grand Jazz has had a positive effect on some suburbanites, who might have felt a little reluctant or a bit fearful of driving into the city. Perhaps the series, in its own admittedly limited way, has demonstrated to some skeptics that there’s nothing to fear about visiting Hartford but fear itself. So among its extra-musical benefits, Baby Grand Jazz has the potential of being an invitation to one and all to come to downtown Hartford and enjoy its urban cultural assets, including its sophisticated, modern library, maybe even patronize neighboring restaurants, and help pump up the economy a bit.

The Kitchen at Hartford Public Library is open Monday through Friday.
Credit Heather Brandon / WNPR

Not to be overlooked, of course, is the fact that Baby Grand Jazz is free, no doubt a factor in the series’ increasingly magnetic appeal. Especially now during hard economic times, when unemployment is high, and basic safety net items like food stamps and unemployment benefits are slashed in the name of salvation-through-austerity.     

But the series’ appeal involves far more than just offering yet another free jazz concert in Hartford. Baby Grand Jazz, in fact, has always been free, which, judging by the anemic turnouts in earlier years, didn’t automatically make the series seem like the best bargain in town. Just by itself, being free doesn’t necessarily cut it, particularly in a city like Hartford, long celebrated for its dazzling array of high-quality free concerts presented annually in Bushnell Park.

Through much of its earlier years, in fact, Baby Grand Jazz, which is celebrating its eleventh season, regularly drew meager, less eager turnouts. Basically, the same hard-core devotees would show up without fail at the Sunday services. Now that  faithful hard-core of true believers is joined by a far larger, more diverse turnout, including young novices who might want to discover first-hand what jazz is all about.

At least part of the skyrocketing attendance figure is a reflection of the library’s progressive philosophy, its expanding educational and civic mission, and its contemporary image created by Poland. A visionary CEO, Poland believes the role of the public library is to be not only a learning and cultural center, but also a living institution that is very much a vital part of the community. Gone are the days of the old-fashioned, stereotypical image of a library as an intimidating, maybe even elitist or semi-detached place, primarily welcome to and patronized by a bookish few.

Poland has initiated progressive programs that have expanded the library’s mission, reaching out to every member of the community. His vision is of a 21st century public library that’s not just plugged into the Internet, but is also tied to the needs and interests of the daily lives of the entire community, rich and poor, old and young and people of all ethnic, racial and cultural backgrounds. Today’s library offers a rich mosaic of informative, helpful programs covering real-life issues ranging from immigration and citizenship to jobs and careers.

Besides the library’s traditional and invaluable wealth of books and periodicals, the HPL offers a wide variety of educational programs, services and opportunities for learning, cultural enrichment, or just plain, old-fashioned pleasure and delight derived from reading and discovering something new.

Mixing elements of populism and ecumenism, Poland’s approach is rooted in his belief that an urban library is a welcoming gateway to knowledge, a learning center without walls, echoing the contemporary, all-embracing, democratic cultural and communal concept of modern museums being “museums without walls.” All of which makes Baby Grand Jazz, with its sense of syncopation and surprise, the ideal soundtrack for Poland’s progressive steps, the library’s freedom jazz dance into the future.

"The library’s core purpose," Poland explained, "is to make learning an opportunity, free and accessible to everyone. And we see learning and the opportunity to dream and to think about things that you might like to do as all being part of the library’s responsibilities. So in other words, whether it’s music, books, or movies -- you name it -- we want to give people access to what our world is about. In our view, jazz, in particular, is a  wonderful American musical style that can really connect with the soul in a way that can even help people spend time dreaming a bit. We can’t ask more from a library than to have that happen."

Check out Baby Grand Jazz and the library’s multi-purpose menu of its diverse programs for all at www.hplct.org or call (860) 695-6300. 

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