New nonprofit aims to keep jazz alive in Austin

Parker Jazz Club

Predicting that jazz is going the way of opera and the symphony, founders of the Texas Jazz Society are coming up with creative ways to keep the musical genre alive. The Texas Jazz Society officially launched in October, and has plans through the holidays to engage new and old audiences. 

“The fan base for jazz is getting smaller,” said Kris Kimura, one of the founders of Texas Jazz Society. “Clubs all over the country are closing. And we need to pay jazz musicians a living wage.” 

CBS New Poll in 2018 ranked jazz seventh in popularity out of eight musical genres, and in Austin there are many fewer venues offering jazz than other types of music. Kimura, himself a jazz musician, says that’s because too many venues book musicians by popularity, then pay them a percentage of the bar tab. When the viability of a venue is tied to the popularity of the music and how much people drink, there’s little room for jazz. 

Kimura is also the owner Parker Jazz Club, a two-year old venue downtown. Parker Jazz Club has a unique relationship with the Texas Jazz Society in that the Society pays the musicians and engineers for the performance at Parker and Parker gives them the space and promotes the performances to bring in the audience. “Listen, nobody starts a jazz club in Austin to get rich,” he said. “For me the music is the thing, not how much booze I sell.” Kimura believes Parker can break even on this model, and that someday the Texas Jazz Society can operate along the same lines as an opera or symphony nonprofit, with funding coming from arts grants and members. “These are the types of music that have always needed a little patronage,” said Kimura. 

Raising money as a nonprofit to pay musicians to perform is one aspect of Texas Jazz Society, but another is getting new fans and cherishing the old ones. To that end, Kimura wants to replicate the success he had with a high school fundraiser, where a high school jazz club from Eanes ISD was able to raise money with a performance at Parker, which donated the space. Texas Jazz Society will explore that model to identify other ways it can offer the space to jazz performers as fundraisers. “We’ve got to hit the younger musicians,” he said. 

The aspect of Texas Jazz Society that’s closer to his heart is the Tony and June project, which brings jazz musicians to local nursing homes and assisted living facilities at no cost. Texas Jazz Society funds pay the musicians for the performances. The performances focus on music from “The Great American Songbook” and jazz standards, much of which has special resonance from the residents. Musicians perform for the first half of the show, then sit with residents to talk about the memories that were stirred up. “I couldn’t believe the power we had with this music,” said Kimura, about the first time they performed in a nursing home. “And even for the musicians, we get so much more out of sitting down and talking with them.” 

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