Thanks to a generous anonymous benefactor who has picked up the tab for the entire season, The Hartford Public Library's admission-free "Baby Grand Jazz Piano Series 2013" launches the first of its 16 weekly Sunday concerts this Sunday, Jan. 6, at 3 p.m.
It opens in what promises to be a power-packed performance by the celebrated duo featuring the Dutch trumpeter Saskia Laroo and the noted Hartford-based pianist/singer/composer Warren Byrd.
Over the front entranceway of the Main Street library, a giant banner proudly proclaims the increasingly popular series' motto: "The Best Things in Life Are Free," a symbolic celebration of last year's tremendously successful season.
Last year's series smashed all attendance records, drawing nearly 5,000 concert-goers over the season. Packed houses in the library's atrium, the scenic site for the Sunday jazz matinees, became a weekly event, with the series often drawing crowds of nearly 400 or more, and, in one case, nearly 500 for the season finale, a solo piano concert by Emery Austin Smith, one of the city's celebrated jazz patriarchs.
Getting a jump on the packed turnouts, devout concert-goers arrive early every Sunday to claim the best seats, up front and near the atrium's iconic, well-tuned baby grand, the inspiration for the series' name.
"It was unbelievable. It really was," says Mary Crean, the library's chief development officer, marveling at how the series skyrocketed in popularity last season.
"If we had a couple hundred the year before that would have been considered a larger crowd. So every week we just kept building on the audience," she says.
"It's really become quite a place for jazz. People are talking about it all year now — something I don't remember in the past — and are looking forward to it," she says.
Besides enlivening the downtown cultural scene on Sunday afternoon — a time not usually noted for its up-tempo pace — Crean hopes that the robust turnouts at the central library will have a ripple effect on the local economy, including restaurants in the area.
As a complement to the music series, the library is exhibiting jazz-inspired works by two prominent Hartford artists, photographer Maurice Robertson and painter Andres Chaparro, deeply committed champions of the music. Their photographs and paintings will be exhibited on the library's second floor through February. An opening reception will be held Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m., free and open to the public. For more information visit http://www.hplct.org and click on the Baby Grand Jazz slide or Robertson/Chaparro exhibits slide.
Among the library's many diverse attractions, concert-goers can also visit its ArtWalk, a luminous, state-of-the-art gallery that rises above Main Street along a glass wall that floods the space with ambient light during the day and, as a website entry poetically notes, "appears to glow as a jewel box at night."
"The library becomes an arts and cultural oasis for people," Crean says, "a place where they can enjoy a little bit of music and a little bit of art."
"It's meant to be a destination and a place where people can just become inspired, or they can just close their eyes and listen. Whatever they want to do. And it's all for free.
"The wonderful thing about the series is that it's free for anyone who's at the library that day. Even if they're doing something else, they can pause, listen and enjoy because the music in the atrium resonates throughout the entire place. You can be working on a computer and say, 'I'm going to watch and listen for a while.'"
Another element that Crean and many "Baby Grand" regulars have observed is that the musicians enjoy playing at the library as much as the audience digs the music and the atrium's amiable atmosphere.
Laroo, for example, is a big "Baby Grand" fan, based on a wonderful experience she had when, at the end of a solo piano performance there by Byrd, she joined him on trumpet for his grand finale.
Recently in an interview from her hometown of Amsterdam, Laroo recounted her love at-first-sight experience with the jazz-in-the-library phenomenon.
"I very much enjoyed listening to Warren play his solos and enjoyed studying the audience, the ambience, the whole thing. I think it's a really, really wonderful venue. I like the fact that it's so successful. There are so many people coming, and it's so well organized.
"I used to love to read as a child. I loved books. I love what's inside them. So the surrounding of a library is very inspiring," she says.
Perhaps the best or, certainly, the most succinct summation of "Baby Grand Jazz" comes from Chaparro, the painter and well-known Hartford jazz concert producer.
"It's one of the hippest joints in town," he says of the library, which has embraced jazz as both an art-for-all and a higher form of literacy, an integral part of our cultural legacy to be nurtured, preserved and celebrated.
Running from Jan. 6 through April 28 and celebrating its 10th year, the weekly series' lineup ranges from the internationally celebrated pianist Larry Willis to such top Connecticut-based talents as percussionist/composer/bandleader Ed Fast, vocalist Nicki Mathis, pianist Earl MacDonald, guitarist Sinan Bakir, vocalist Theresa Wright and pianist Emery Smith. A favorite closer for the series, Smith's solo piano performance last April drew a season high turnout of 480, a big, amiable crowd exuding warm, wall-to-wall enthusiasm for the hometown jazz hero.
In a repeat of last season's funding drama, or melodrama, an anonymous benefactor is funding the 2013 series. Last year, the same unnamed donor rode to the rescue with a check for $7,500. This year's life-giving gift to "Baby Grand" was a little bit more than last season's and no less vital.
Here's the complete season lineup:
Saskia Laroo/ Warren Byrd, Sunday; The Colbys (Bev Rohlehr & John Colby), Jan. 13; The Survivors Swing Band, Jan. 20; Ed Fast, Jan. 27; Nicki Mathis, Feb. 3; Mark Dover, Feb. 10; Theresa Wright, Feb. 17; John Brighenti, Feb. 24.
Also, Jeff Wieselberg, March 3; Latin Quartet Jazz Collective, March 10; Dane Scozzari, March 17; Earl MacDonald, March 24; Sinan Bakir; April 7; Daniel Bennett, April 14; Larry Willis, April 21; and Emery Smith, April 28. For more information: 860-695-6300 or visit http://www.hplct.org and click on the Baby Grand Jazz slide. The library is at 500 Main St.
In a separate free series, the library also presents indie pop performers on the second Sunday of the month from January through April in performances at 1:30 p.m. before the "Baby Grand Jazz" concerts, which run from 3 to 4 p.m.
Here's the "Indie Pop Series" schedule: Henning Ohlenbusch, Jan. 13; The Sawtelles, Feb. 10; Lys Guillorn, March 10; and Lesa Bezo, April 14.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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