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Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Tuesday, 14 February 2006 18:00
To download an edited version of the Reader interview with RME President and CEO Lon Bozarth (26 minutes, 7.7 megabytes, mp3), click here. Last week, on the day that the River Music Experience announced plans for a second-floor club that would cement its place as a venue for live music rather than a traditional museum, leaders of the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Society met with members of the media to discuss several new initiatives, including a planned downtown-Davenport museum dedicated to the jazz giant.

The goal of both organizations is the same: to build a new audience and, as a result, new revenue. But it’s curious that two organizations dedicated to American musical forms are taking nearly opposite paths.

The irony is that the River Music Experience (RME), as it was originally conceived and executed under first director Connie Gibbons, would have been the ideal place for a Bix museum and repository. But as Howard Braren, who is expected to lead the fundraising for the Bix museum, said, “They’re going a different direction.”

“A Digital Museum”

RME President and CEO Lon Bozarth is sensitive to criticism that he’s destroying what Gibbons built. In an interview Friday, without being prompted, Bozarth started by restating the charge and defending himself against it: “You [the River Music Experience] just got the Keeping the Blues Alive award [from the Blues Foundation], now you’re tearing down the exhibits,” he said. “Bottom line, it’s so much hokum it’s unbelievable. The mission that we have here now is that all of our important research ... the River Wall, all of the stuff that has been projected [on the walls] up ’til now, is digital media. We are now finding ways to re-utilize it.” For example, the material from the six River Wall screens is still available at individual viewing/listening stations, and will be used for upcoming educational programs.

But Bozarth, who came from the live-music hotbed of Austin, Texas, last year, also has a different idea of what a museum is, and what the RME ought to be.

“We’re not into memorabilia and historical paraphernalia,” he said. “I could care less about that. ... Our idea of preserving the blues or any other form is getting it on our stages – authentic, genuine players. ... That’s preserving. We’ll tape it. We’ll record it. We’ll archive it. We’ll have it forever and we’ll have it for research and for people to see, and [on] Web sites. That’s keeping the blues alive, in my opinion.

“Are we a museum? Yeah, I guess we’re a museum. But we’re going to be a digital museum.”

Furthermore, he said, the RME will “continue to build or rent exhibits that are interesting, but that’s not our main business.”

The RME’s main business, starting with the opening of its second-floor club in April, will be live music.

Since its inception, the basement of the RME was planned as a live-music venue. In November 2003, seven months before it opened, Gibbons told the River Cities’ Reader: “You can’t do a music museum without live music. Any day that we’re open, we’re going to have some kind of live music going on.”

As recently as May, Bozarth was still talking up plans for turning the basement into a juke joint, as well as creating a venue outside the RME facility at which it could host national touring acts and seat 500 to 600 people.

Those two ideas have essentially found a compromise in the second-floor club the RME announced last week. Bozarth’s vision is a 250-seat venue (with an expandable stage) for local performers, regional acts, and up-and-coming national bands to play. He said the club would be open six nights a week, with live music each night, and the goal of one or two national-level acts each week. Local bands would be featured each night, either on their own or as opening acts. The downstairs coffee house Mojo’s will still host open-mic nights and Live at 5 shows, and the courtyard RMX Live series will continue, he added. The basement is expected to be built out for classrooms and rehearsal and recital spaces, Bozarth said, although money for that project still needs to be raised.

The RME CEO clearly isn’t afraid of creating big expectations with the music club. “The sound system ... is going to be freaking mind-boggling,” he said. “The system we’re putting in here, it’s like walking around the room with a pair of headphones on. It sounds the same everywhere you go. It’s that crystalline clear. People are going to have an experience up here that they won’t have a chance to get in Chicago or anywhere else.”

Although Bozarth had difficulty coming up with examples of bands he might bring to the second-floor space, he did mention the dirty-blues duo the Black Keys (“We’ll bring them in here, I’ll tell you that,” he said), and breathy, haunted singer-songwriter Cat Power. He described them as acts on the cusp of breaking big, and said that in recent years the lineup might have included Jack Johnson, Franz Ferdinand, and My Morning Jacket. Bands that are “now playing for $50,000 at festivals started out touring in rooms like this,” he said. The goal is to “get ’em in when people can afford the tickets in a room like this.”

The idea is not without controversy. For one thing, the club will serve alcoholic beverages, making it a competitor for nightlife business. For another thing, the RME was built as part of Davenport’s taxpayer-funded Vision Iowa package – meaning that it’s not just competition, but taxpayer-funded competition.

Bozarth said he doesn’t look at it that way. “We’re not building a bar,” he said, but an “optimized listening space” that serves alcoholic beverages. He added that the RME club won’t be competing because there’s nothing like it. “We’re bringing something to the Quad Cites that’s not here,” he said.

Bar owners will probably view that as splitting hairs; if there’s a limited pool of people spending a limited pool of money on nighttime entertainment, the RME’s gain will be somebody else’s loss. Bozarth rejected those premises, though, saying that Quad Citians are spending their music money in Chicago and Iowa City, for example, rather than here.

The CEO also stressed that the nightclub concept isn’t new. In an e-mail, Bozarth wrote: “Plans to create a well-designed, musician-friendly venue have been in the plans for the RME since its inception. Perhaps the question should be not why we are building it now, but why wasn’t it built before?”

The club is also troublesome in that it will be located where the River Wall once stood; that interactive exhibit was the centerpiece of the original RME vision, allowing visitors to explore the history of river music geographically from New Orleans to the upper Midwest. That exhibit already gave way to the current Austin City Limits show – with the River Wall content shifted to individual listening and viewing stations – but to put a live-music venue there might be seen as a symbolic slap in the face to the initial intent. Bozarth said that the wall will still have digital content, but because of the expensive sound equipment in the club, it will only be open when the club is, or to private tour groups.

The shift from the basement-club concept to the second floor was a matter of money, Bozarth said. “It would have cost me a quarter of a million dollars more to build it in the basement,” he said. As it is, the cost of the second-floor club will be $300,000, all of which has been raised. “That’s mostly buying equipment,” he said. “A ton of that is sound system and lights. We want people to have a theatrical experience here. We want it to feel and sound like the real deal.”

Bozarth called the second-floor space “highly under-utilized,” and noted that the reason to try a live-music venue was simple: “We weren’t getting enough traffic up here as a museum.”

He also stressed that the RME is not abandoning education. Through the River Currents program, all 1,400 fifth-graders in the Davenport schools will tour the Figge Art Museum and RME, and Bozarth said River Wall content will be used in that program. “We’ve taken the entire content of the River Wall and put it on one laptop computer,” he said. “And we’ve developed a ... curriculum from it.” He also said the RME hopes to work with Iowa Public Television to get educational content piped into classrooms. The venue is also developing incubator programs, aimed at helping local musicians.

Bozarth added that some critics of the RME’s new direction have never been to the facility, or haven’t brought their issues to him. “If you’re hearing something that doesn’t sound right to you, for God’s sake, come up here and let’s talk about it,” he said. “And then if you don’t like it, ... you’re entitled to your opinion.”

“Bix Deserves a Place of His Own”

While the RME tries to establish itself as a live-music venue, the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Society is trying to establish an identity outside the context of live music. While it has run the successful Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival for the past 34 years, its audience is aging. It believes a museum and other education programs are its best bet for a bright future.

The Bix society faces a quandary. While the name of Bix is a valuable commodity for the race and street festival that bear his name, the cornet player’s music is something most Quad Citians have never actually heard. “Bix is a world figure who is revered around the world,” said Randy Sandke, a cornetist and one of the world’s great swing-jazz performers. The Brooklyn-based Sandke has taken a leadership role in the new 23-member Bix World Advisory Council, and is one example of how the Bix society is thinking big, recruiting “Bixophiles” not just from this area but from around the world. (Sandke has even played Bix’s cornet, borrowed from the Putnam Museum collection.)

Yet outside of sculptures in his image, Bix is more branding tool than musical presence in the Quad Cities. As the Bix society’s Raymond Voss said, organizers of the street fest (DavenportOne) and foot race (Quad-City Times) “are not interested in Bix or his legacy.” Sandke added: “People take their history for granted.”

The Bix society wants that to change.

A museum is just the largest initiative that the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Society is undertaking. It’s adding seminars to this year’s jazz festival, is planning a self-guided-tour brochure and signage for local Bix landmarks, and – behind the scenes – has developed the Bix World Advisory Council. It’s also begun soliciting sponsorships for individual performers and programs, allowing the festival to attract more-prominent talent.

All these things have the same goal: to increase the presence of Bix the musician and composer in the Quad Cities, to give the community – particularly younger listeners – the opportunity to fall in love with classic jazz from the first half of the 20th Century.

“Our crowds are pretty gray,” Voss said. “We’ve got to get our age down. And the only way we can get that done is through education.”

“A lot of it depends on exposure,” Sandke said. “People don’t get much of a chance to see live music, period. You have to seek it out these days.”

Education is being added to the annual Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival. Eight historians and musicians are scheduled to participate in lectures and discussions at the event, which this year will run July 27 through 30. Organizers have also worked with West Music to offer complimentary tickets to area music students.

The Bix World Advisory Council got its start last year, with the core of Braren (a distant relative of Bix), Bix collector and author Joe Giordano, and Sandke.

The short-term goal is to boost attendance at the Bix festival.

“We’re maintaining what we’ve had,” Voss said, in terms of attendance and revenue from the jazz festival. “Our attendance is pretty stable.” In a year with good weather, he said, the society expects between 10,000 and 12,000 people at the event.

But the bigger picture is a repository for all things Bix, in the city of his birth, and near venues where he actually played: the Col Ballroom, Danceland, the basement of the Capitol Theatre.

“We’re trying to seize on the momentum,” Sandke said, of downtown Davenport’s arts corridor, with the RME, the Figge Art Museum, and the Bucktown Center for the Arts all opening in the past few years on Second Street.

“Bix deserves a space of his own,” Sandke added.

The museum is only a concept at this point, with not even a sense of what it might cost. The Bix society knows it wants a street-level storefront downtown, and a space appropriate for the safe storage of archival material. The society hopes to have candidate locations that members of the Bix World Advisory Council can tour during this year’s festival. “By the time they come, we’ll have a location or locations to review,” Braren said. Voss said that the Kahl Building was one possible location. Although it’s not downtown, the Putnam has also been identified as a potential site.

“The ultimate aim would be to put together everything related to Bix,” Sandke said.

Although much Bix memorabilia is in the hands of private collectors – such as a nearly complete collection of Bix records owned by Giordano – Sandke thinks that the Bix society can convince them to part with their artifacts for posterity’s sake. “You’re only the custodian of something in your lifetime,” he said.

Sandke said that while there’s no firm timetable, the goal is to open the new museum in the next few years.

One of the key features of the proposed Bix museum is that it would be relatively small. This is not Bix Palace. Sandke said the concept is “modest enough that we can attract the funds for it.”

And having Braren on board will help, too. He recently retired from Braren Mulder German Associates – a local professional fundraising organization. As Sandke said, “Howard knows how to get things built.”

To download an edited version of the Reader interview with RME President and CEO Lon Bozarth (26 minutes, 7.7 megabytes, mp3), click here.

For more information about the River Music Experience, visit (http://www.rivermusicexperience.com). For more information about the Bix society or the jazz festival, go to (http://www.bixsociety.org).

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