Steven Bernstein visits. I rant.

Top-down artistic growth is bogus. No one can point me to a city emanating relevant artistic output and give me the phone number of the city planner so I can pick his brains about how he created such a place. Never has happened, never will.

Today Steven Bernstein comes to Richmond. For nine days we he will be prepping and recording an album with a band I am a part of named Fight the Big Bull. This coming weekend he will be playing two shows in Richmond. One Friday, an East End spectacular, at the Grand Opening of The Robinson Theater presented by East End Fellowship, and one Saturday as part of RVAjazzfest presented by There is no lack of coverage, save the irrepressible RTD, concerning these events. The x’s and o’s will be neatly laid out in Style Weekly tomorrow, later this week on, on a radio special presented by Peter Solomon on NPR, and are currently plastering the website of RVA mag – from what I’ve heard there is even an advertisement in Urban Views weekly. Interviews from Steven’s point of view will dot the internets horizon as both RVANews and RVAjazz will be running interviews with the main man himself. The following, however, is a cathartic critique of how some of this came to be and what it might mean to me, the music community, and our city.

Top-down artistic growth is bogus. No one can point me to a city emanating relevant artistic output and give me the phone number of the city planner so I can pick his brains about how he created such a place. Never has happened, never will. The birth of jazz, blues, R and B, soul, country, rock and roll, reggae, hip-hop, grunge, etc. are all traceable. No one will ever trace their roots to corporate planning…ever.

Unfortunately, I’m scared that Richmond wants, encourages, and participates in this latter kind of planning. For months and months I have been trying to find funding/press for Steven’s visit. A visit that marks a landmark in the growth of the Richmond music community and adds mountains of legitimacy to the growing national opinion that Richmond’s jazz community is far more than respectable and is a community that is outpacing most others in the world. Maybe you missed the comment over at, an international webzine of cultural criticism who’s monthly readership exceeds a million, about Richmond’s burgeoning jazz community – “Richmond is the new Brooklyn? Why not?” It is a small wonder then that despite a growing national sentiment towards us, the major of the funding for this landmark visit is being provided by…

1. a small East End church….and by East End I mean Q street.
2. a college student who is taking on a guarantee that rivals a semester of tuition

This is not only a source of civic embarrassment but equally the genesis of much pride. After much back and forth I have decided to use my allotted words to encourage the readership with stories of hope and resourcefulness not of higher-ups’ heads in the sand – although I trust you all have deductive reasoning skill sets. The fact that a leading jazz figure can visit Richmond with a multi-thousand dollar guarantee and the bill be footed entirely by independent sources and the events covered by almost entirely independent media is as encouraging as the products of your deductive reasoning are discouraging. In fact, if were doing a Style Weekly-style zeitgeist it is entirely possible that we could come out in the positive.

Dean Christesen started in December 2007. His website has quickly become an active and leading member of our musical community. Weary of the limits of the internet (whaa?) Dean has organized the Jazzfest because “You have to create a real situation where real music can occur.” In a telling remark that is unfortunately supported by the spreadsheets that accompany this article, he told me that he thinks “creative music (like the music at the Jazzfest) is not in the place where bigger organizations will cover it.” Hosting an event that could easily be hosted at the Modlin Center has its promotional and financial complexities (read: at the end of Saturday night Dean owes me a lot of money) but folks who love the music more than the safety of inactivity make this world go round.

East End Fellowship lays even farther off the concert promoting path than Dean does. The multiracial church housed in the re-furbished Robinson Theater on Q street aims to bring cultural activity to a building, once an African-American cultural icon, that has laid dormant for years. Corey Widmer, co-pastor of the church, told me that East End is “a church that is about the restoration of their community” and that they “want a big portion of our time, money, organization, and leadership to go towards what goes on outside where we are gathered.” Corey also added that “music doesn’t have to talk about Jesus to be beautiful.” More or less we are talking about a community of people that are committed to bringing tight things into their neighborhood, love music, and saw and recognized an opportunity.

Truthfully, I have no special love for “independents”…basically that means you don’t have any money, a situation that breeds resourcefulness but often dictates unfortunate limits. Although in this particular situation a unique thing is happening this is not always the case. Do not let those among us who have money throw their pearls to the swine. Keep the scene-makers accountable and support those who are trying to make a difference. In a small community there is not much money to waste. Where organizations that have million dollar budgets have overlooked this event, a kid and a church stepped in, not only with emotional support, or prayer, or time but with “dollar dollar bills ya’ll”.

The unique character of Steven’s visit is that he is coming to a city that has zero prior reputation for supporting long term residencies of established artists outside the university setting and is being paid by a collection of events held by a patchwork of unique individuals. As a city this is, of course, something to be immensely proud of.

Feb 20th
Fight the Big Bull featuring Steven Bernstein.
No BS Brass Band
Robinson Theater Community Arts Center
8:00, Free

Feb 21st
Fight the Big Bull featuring Steven Bernstein
Glows in the Dark
Brian Jones’ Boots of Leather
8:00, $10

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Matthew E. White

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