Money Makes the World Go Around but How Do you Survive Without It?

jazz logo  The reality was that once Mario and I parted ways I had a serious financial challenge. Not surprisingly, I had failed during the past three years to get additional funding from the NEA. During the Mapplethorpe controversy Congress had put a lot of pressure on the NEA and grants for small organizations like Highland Jazz had basically disappeared.

There were grant programs at the state level but I encountered two obstacles there: one was the lack of wheelchair accessibility in the venues I used and the other was a lack of diversity.  The Massachusetts Cultural Council may have been impressed by the diversity among the musicians I hired but wanted Highland Jazz to attract a more diverse audience. My argument was that the demographics of Newton’s population  were not diverse. No matter what I did the audience remained basically white and middle class. As a result I couldn’t depend on any serious funding from the state agency.

That left the Newton Arts Cultural Council as my only source of support. I was fortunate to get funding from them every year that I applied. The problem was that the amount of grant money I received was limited. There are a lot of cultural organizations in Newton; each one needed money to continue and there just wasn’t enough to fill everyone’s needs.

My goal was to keep Highland Jazz alive and to break even financially. That meant no income for me, but making money had never been my motivation. I had to be very careful about whom I hired. I couldn’t afford to take a risk with an unknown musician who might be fantastic but who might not attract an audience. That is part of the reality of promoting a music that is no longer part of the popular culture.

I could never have kept Highland Jazz going without the volunteers who stepped up. Seymour Levy is a graphic designer and a great fan of jazz. He started coming to concerts in the fall of 1983. He offered to help in any way he could. He is responsible for designing all the fliers, the cover for the album we produced and the covers for all the cassettes we issued.  He helped develop the template for the newsletter and set the type in the days before desktop publishing software was available.  He never accepted any payment for his work. He and his wife came to every concert and helped out selling tickets, refreshments and even cleaning up.

Paul and Polly

left to right- Polly MacRae, Paul Killion and Nancy Alimansky
photograph by Ruth Williams

Paul Killion and Polly MacRae also started attending concerts at the very beginning. They were in charge of selling soft drinks and whatever goodies we offered. As far as I know they never missed a date. I found out years later that they shared a winter home in the mountains where they liked to go on weekends. But if a Highland Jazz concert took place on Saturday night they would always be there to help.

Phyllis Frank

Phyllis Frank announcing raffle winner
photograph by Ruth Williams

Phyllis Frank was in charge of selling raffle tickets. She was full of energy and would not take “no” for an answer. The audience members seemed to enjoy her teasing and usually gave in to her sales pitch- “Get one ticket for $1.00 or get six for $5.00.”

Bob Ricles served on the board as a legal advisor. After Mario left we lost our soft drink provider. Bob volunteered to buy the soda and bring it to every concert. He had found a vendor which sold the soda at a reduced price so that we could turn a little profit on the sale. I reimbursed him for what he spent. He would faithfully come to every concert, carry in heavy boxes of soda and then carry out the remains which he stored at his house until the next event. He did this for 10-12 years and never complained about the weight of the boxes.   On the plus side he met his wife Gloria at one of the concerts. They are the only couple I know who met and married because of Highland Jazz.

core team

left to right- (rear) Bob Ricles, Phyllis Frank, (front) Polly MacRae, Paul Killion photograph by Ruth Williams

Alex Elin, who also a member of the board, helped a great deal planning programming and particularly negotiating with musicians- something I hated to do. Alex would make calls and find out if a certain group was available and what might be a price they would accept. I think he had more luck than I in negotiations because he was also a musician.

My aunt, Irene Benson, helped out for a few years at the box office. Her math was impeccable and I think she enjoyed the excitement when people started to arrive for tickets. She never stayed past intermission however. I found out later that she didn’t really like jazz very much but only came to help me out.

Eunice Allman and I have known each other since elementary school. She started attending concerts later than some of the other volunteers. She helped Phyllis with the raffles. For a while she was also in charge of buying the various gifts we offered in the raffle. She would scour the discount stores to find something inexpensive but intriguing to use as a raffle prize.

Although I have mentioned them before Ruth and Ed Williams played an extremely important role. Ed recorded all the concerts and Ruth was our official photographer. Ed put together the cassettes we sold but refused to accept any payment either for his recording work or for reproducing and packaging the cassettes.

So with the help of these very special people I was able to keep Highland Jazz going. In addition to the ticket sales we made a little money at each concert from the refreshments and the raffle. The cassettes also brought in a modest income.

It became my custom to take the volunteers out for ice cream after each event. We usually went to Cabot’s on Washington Street in Newton. We would sit around, enjoy each other’s company, and review what had happened that night. It was an unofficial but important meeting where we tried to formulate a strategy to keep going.

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