For one area arts organization, it’s about taking jazz beyond the bistro

By Jen Meyer

Styling: Jen Meyer

Photography: Jen Meyer

December 31, 2005

Beginning this month, Jazz at the Bistro will begin to operate under a new moniker, Jazz St. Louis. For 10 years, the organization has brought some of the biggest names in jazz – many in their early careers, including Diana Krall, John Pizzarelli and Benny Green – to the intimate setting of the Bistro at Grand Center.

Although the name Jazz at the Bistro isn’t going away entirely – it will continue to exist as the name of the specific program that presents nationally and internationally renowned master jazz musicians – Jazz St. Louis represents an ambitious expansion of the organization’s mission.

Officially, that mission is to “present, promote and perpetuate the best of mainstream jazz to the greater St. Louis community and to enhance St. Louis’ reputation as a center of jazz activity.” In short, Jazz St. Louis hopes to become widely known and recognized as the voice, the face, the portal of all things jazz in the St. Louis region.

“As we were looking towards our 10-year anniversary, [the board and staff] took time to reflect and discuss where we wanted to be in the future, where we wanted to grow,” said Gene Dobbs Bradford, executive director. “Many people don’t understand that the Jazz at the Bistro organization is a nonprofit, and that we don’t operate a club.” (The restaurant, the Bistro at Grand Center, is owned and operated by a completely separate team.)

The new name also makes it easier to tout the initiatives and activities the organization has been involved with beyond performances at the Bistro, including educational and outreach efforts that are hardly de rigueur at other venues and clubs across the country. For example, the organization takes the visiting artists into schools throughout the region for performances, discussions, master classes and workshops; the effort was started by the Whitaker Foundation.

“These artists don’t see anyone else doing what we are doing,” said Bradford. “They’re not used to it, but they really enjoy it. In fact, just recently, Steve Turre came up to me and thanked us for taking him around to the schools. He really just appreciated being involved in this important role of educating our young people in the promotion of our art form.”

Beyond educating students, Bradford said he’d like to use a similar model to turn adults on to jazz, to build demand for what is often referred to as the American art form. “[Jazz] is such an important part of American culture, has had such a profound effect in so many ways, on the way people talk, the way people interact, the way people dress,” said Bradford. “Here, we have such a proud history of jazz, we want to make sure that every St. Louisan, everyone who comes to St. Louis, feels this connection to our heritage.”

Bradford believes St. Louis’ reputation as a jazz center is re-emerging. “Where else can you find, in a market our size, this kind of world-class jazz stuff going on? We’d love to see jazz everywhere, to have St. Louisans feel as strongly about jazz as they do about Ted Drewes. Like, ‘Hey, you have to experience [jazz] while you’re in town.’ And we needed a better name to reflect that.”

Name changes are not a rare phenomenon in the nonprofit arts world. Although such “re-branding” in corporate America may evolve as a response to consumer trends, name changes in the nonprofit arena generally reflect an adjustment to or, more likely, an expansion of mission.

Two other local arts organizations have recently undergone re-branding: COCA and MADCO. Interestingly enough, both organizations kept their original acronyms but revised the words behind them, preserving the existing brand equity. COCA previously stood for Center of Contemporary Art and was re-branded as Center of Creative Arts to more accurately describe the broad scope of arts that the multidisciplinary organization teaches, exhibits and performs. Formerly Mid America Dance Company, MADCO emerged last September as the Modern America Dance Company, to similarly reflect a broader scope for the organization. With recent engagements in New York, Orlando and Toronto, MADCO is no longer predominantly mid-American.

Just as COCA and MADCO engaged outside consultants to assist in their re-branding efforts, Jazz at the Bistro worked with Rodgers Townsend, a well-respected and award-winning local advertising agency. “We are really glad that Rodgers Townsend stepped up to help us,” said Bradford. “They are providing pro bono services, which is so amazing of them.”

Rogers Townsend has demonstrated its commitment to the marketing efforts of various local nonprofit arts organizations, including the St. Louis Black Repertory Company, Circus Flora and the St. Louis Mid-Sized Arts Cooperative. “We take every opportunity we can to do work that helps nonprofit organizations in St. Louis, to help them get their word out,” said Tom Townsend, co-founder and agency principal. “But we have a particular soft spot for art organizations. The arts are a daily inspiration for the work that we do for our clients.”

Bradford emphatically sings the praises of both the process and the results of working with the agency. “We told them a little bit of what we were trying to achieve, they came back … with an image that would show a relationship with these different areas of activities,” said Bradford. “Tom Townsend is a big jazz fan; it was obviously great to have him on board.”

“From a great club with some related programming evolving into a formal, more accessible [entity] with concerts, outreach and education, Jazz St. Louis is providing access to more people in more places,” said Townsend. “We’re particularly proud of being a part of Jazz St. Louis. A city with the jazz roots that St. Louis has, has long-deserved some formalizing of that history.”

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