Michael Grofsorean—Michael G. to Festival insiders—has been programming Spoleto jazz since 1980. We sat down with him recently to pick his brain—about music, about artists, about his approach to programming, and about Charleston:
SFUSA: How do you select the artists for each season?
Michael: I look for three things. First, I seek lyricism. In some way, musicians need to sing to people, whether it’s with their voice, piano, guitar, clarinet, whatever—the instrument doesn’t matter to me. Second, there must be depth. In some way, the music must touch people in their souls. I don’t know why this happens. I only know that it does, and that this level of experience is what we are in business to present for our audiences. Finally, and third, if we are lucky, I hope for a few moments of transcendence, when the beauty of expression makes time stop. Something extraordinary and mysterious and incredible happens in those moments. Again, I don’t know why, but I know I want those moments when we can have them.
SFUSA: Do you look for a balance of genres—so much jazz, so much world music, so much Americana, etc.? Or is there some other commonality and/or contrast you look for?
Michael: Being a practical person, I pay a lot of attention to the balance of artistic diversity and financial viability. The point is to present the best art you can find, but stay in business so that you can present it at all. The particular way this works out for us has much to do with our history of presenting—I watch ticket sales assiduously—and an incremental approach to trying new things. The numbers have to add up, but the performances need to add up, too—artistically—or the people don’t come back.
SFUSA: You’ve been programming the Wachovia/Wells Fargo Jazz series for 33 years. How have you seen the series change?
Michael: That period of time is about a generation-and-a-half, and has brought with it all that those words imply. In the beginning in 1980, I had devotion for master jazz musicians who had been left behind, even though they remained at the height of their powers. I’m thinking of people like pianists Mary Lou Williams, Roland Hanna, and Tommy Flanagan, saxophonist Dexter Gordon. With time, these musicians passed on, and I began to understand new developments in South America and Europe. Jazz in the 80s from Europe seemed lacking to me, but from the 90s on, creative powers outside the U.S. have surged. This is a huge subject, but the short version is that the artistic freedom that gave rise to originality in the U.S. during the mid-20th century is now flourishing in Europe and South America. Players are studying classical music, studying the 20th century developments in the New World, including jazz, Cuban, and Brazilian music, and are now making a third generation of work that has no name, except the name of the person creating it who, most often, is also composing the work as well as performing it. Labels for genres of music have become ever less useful. Duke Ellington’s thought, that there’s good music and the other kind, is as relevant as ever.
SFUSA: Where, geographically, do you see the most musical innovation coming from?
Michael: Norway, Italy, and Brazil are especially strong sources of new music, but great players are coming from Spain, France, and Poland, too. I’m suspicious that there’s great work in Eastern Europe that I don’t know about yet, and maybe in Asia. My antennae are on high alert.
SFUSA: How do bluegrass, zydeco, and other types of folk music relate to jazz?
Michael: American forms such as bluegrass offer the same opportunity as other musical histories. Writer Albert Murray said that artists find things in their world that fascinate them, then extend, elaborate, and refine them into new work. American folk forms are as free to be extended, elaborated, and refined into new work as any other body of work. Artists such as Punch Brothers are showing the way. So while it appears that we have more “roots” music in the Festival, I don’t see it that way. I see it as a broader view of who is making genuinely new work, and offering them a place in our program.
SFUSA: You bring so many artists to the U.S. for the first time. Why do you think it’s important for the Festival to include artists who are not well known—or known at all—in the U.S.?
Michael: The world remains, thankfully, a big and diverse place. If you really give it all you have to find the best you can find, it will inevitably take you global. Our freedom to chase great work globally is a tribute to our audience, because they will support what we find with their willingness to attend performances and make financial contributions. There remains a lot of great work to be found and brought to Charleston. But you’ve got to keep your ears on straight, and listen for what counts—that the artist, from that stage, has got something to say.
Michael G.’s top eight things to like about Charleston:
| The live oak trees at the Cistern, and at Middleton Place; to me, these are the Rocky Mountains of Charleston—rich with majesty.
| The stone sidewalks downtown; I think that all sidewalks in the world should consider being like these.
| The beach at Station 19 on Sullivan’s Island. My children grew up loving that place on the beach, and consider it to be a place they need to go. I try to go there at least once, even if only to just look at the ocean.
| Going to SNOB and giving Frank Lee a big hug. His kindness toward so many Festival musicians over the years, keeping his place open late for us, the good company we enjoyed together, was extraordinary and is cherished.
| Going to Magwood’s and Wando Shrimp, talking with the people there and picking up a 5 pound bag, drinking red wine while I do the grunt work of preparing them to cook, then enjoying them sautéed with some good bread and a salad.
| Going to the Mt. Pleasant Farmer’s Market and buying fresh beans, instead of dried beans.
| That this city has such a profound history and people, and that I’m still learning about it.
| The scent of the air.