Jazz at Five celebrates 25th season with free Wednesday concerts on State
Wednesday nights are “music night” during the summer in Downtown Madison.
When the wildly popular Concerts on the Square series winds down in early August, Jazz at Five takes over the weeknight slot, filling the top of State Street and much of Capitol Square with free, outdoor music and a relaxed, friendly vibe. The jazz concerts — featuring three acts each — run every Wednesday through August into early September.
Listeners can throw a blanket on the Capitol grounds and open a picnic basket while hearing live jazz in a multitude of styles — or set up a chair right on State Street and watch the musicians perform.
This Wednesday marks the start of Jazz at Five’s 25th year — not only a milestone anniversary, but a pivotal time for the series. On its quarter-century birthday, Jazz at Five now wants to get younger.
The event is overseen this year by new director Spencer Stanbery, who at 20 is even younger than the series itself.
It’s the first year a full-time employee has helped run Jazz at Five, which draws more than 2,000 people per show. The concert series has thrived for a quarter-century as a volunteer-run organization, but “I think it was the next step to take to really grow Jazz at Five,” Stanbery, who’s worked for many local music events, said of his hiring.
The first Jazz at Five was the brainchild of Cathy Sullivan, owner of the former Puzzlebox store on State Street, along with jazz singer Gerri DiMaggio and help from the Concourse Hotel — a stalwart sponsor every year since 1993.
It followed on the heels of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s summertime Concerts on the Square, which can draw crowds 10 times the size of Jazz at Five. Yet the jazz series has grown, too, increasing its sponsors from three to 25, quadrupling its revenue in the past decade and, three years ago, enlarging its footprint to include the grassy Capitol grounds.
Stanbery, who graduated from Madison Media Institute in May, was hired by Jazz at Five’s volunteer board of directors — Ken Johnson, Mike Thorson, Kirsten Spira and Charlie Giese — who have spent the past five years developing a “transition plan” to keep Jazz at Five running long into the future.
“The most difficult thing is for an organization to transition to a younger generation with the same passion,” said Johnson, 67, who’s been on the Jazz at Five board for 10 years. With a paid director in place, particularly one like Stanbery who is determined to bring more young people into the fold, “you now have an organization for decades to come,” Johnson said.
Jazz at Five follows a three-act format: From 4-4:30 p.m., a performance by an outstanding youth jazz band, followed by shows by professional acts beginning around 5 p.m. and 6:45 p.m.
Listeners can bring a chair to view the show on the State Street stage or rent a chair on site for $3. Picnickers are allowed to bring food and drink onto the Capitol lawn, where speakers transmit the music from the stage.
Catered table service is available to sponsor-booked tables along State Street, although most are reserved at this point. Food carts and beverage booths will offer food, beer and wine for sale.
It’s a festive atmosphere, all focused on the music – including returning favorites like the Skai Academy youth band from Milwaukee, many top-tier local pro musicians, plus two special guests: the national recording artist Lao Tizer with his band, and pianist/composer Geoffrey Keezer with vocalist Gillian Margot.
Volunteers still are the heartbeat of at Jazz at Five, and more are needed to help set up and tear down the equipment, staff the information and beer booths and enforce street blockades. (Volunteers receive free food and beverages; email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.)
Though it’s all labeled “jazz,” the music is wide-ranging in style. This year’s lineup, with shows starting around 4 (youth bands), 5 and 6:45 p.m. each Wednesday, includes:
, youth performers from Milwaukee; the 11-piece, Caribbean-style band
; Madison-based saxophonist
and his band,
West End Conservatory
youth performers; award-winning bassist
and a newly formed quartet; and keyboardist
with his gypsy jazz quartet.Aug. 22: New swing band the
Betsy Ezell Quintet
with singer-songwriter Ezell; and the bebop horn sound of the
Eric Jacobson Quintet
.Aug. 29: Madison Music Foundry’s
The Blue Dyes
; ’50s jazz pianist John Wade with the
John Wade Trio
; and the 12-piece
Original Hyperion Orchestra
with pianist and UW-Madison professor emeritus
.Sept. 5: The
7 O’Clock Saxes
from Middleton High School; the 18-piece
Waunakee Big Band
; and multiple-Grammy-nominated pianist
, originally from Eau Claire, with vocalist
More information is at: jazzatfive.org