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

Notice: Comments that are not conducive to an interesting and thoughtful conversation may be removed at the editor’s discretion.

  1. Tommy Beekman on said:

    That was a cool article. Being Dean’s roommate and basically with him since day one of this RVAJazzFest, I must concur that there were a lot of the so-called ‘arts supporting’ businesses that kept their heads up their asses the whole time. Now I realize the economy is tanking and there can’t be a dollar wasted, but this event trumps any sort of monetary obligation. Hopefully, if it goes off well, it could be the cultural turning point for the jazz scene in the city. There should be a TV movie made about this; a lowly college student with a bulletin board and a website pulls off the greatest jazz event in the history of Richmond. Now that sounds lofty, but whats the big deal with forking over 50 bucks? You aren’t giving charity, you are investing in culture. People (even jazz fans) seem to forget that the jazz being made now is not their dad’s or grandad’s music, if you want to hear the same old changes and solos go buy a compilation at starbucks.

    THIS is jazz, like it or not. THIS is whats going on now. It’s youth and it’s frenzied and sweet and all that, I for one am glad I won’t hear Take Five on Saturday night. But the companies with the budgets want you to put on the suits and do the yes-suh no-suh for their cocktail parties, and you ask yourself when does that end?

    Answer: RVAJazzfest

  2. mattwhite on said:

    i need to say that tony garcia and the folks at the vcu music dept are helping out as well. they have been a wonderful help and support and when using your deductive reasoning do not include them in your results.

  3. lindsey on said:

    that’s a bold article there, mattwhite. i think it’s a damn shame that the corporations that turned down helping out with this project are also not going to read this article. i think it’s important to show them why steven bernstein’s visit is so important so that they will want to support it. i also think they need to come see what “jazz” means now by experiencing the living, breathing music that we are privileged enough to hear quite often. the problem is, how do we do it? i don’t have any better answer than the next guy, but my guess is that we won’t be able to show anybody until the are willing to see.

    and that’s my two cents. ha.

  4. Scott Burger on said:

    Millions and millions of taxpayer dollars went into Center Stage. We will never see much of that money ever again, and we are likely to see millions more go into their corporate black hole.

    “Serious fun”, my ass. They are wasting the City’s public art budget on their downtown white elephant.

    Thank you guys for persevering and making the jazz scene happen despite their idiocy.


  6. If I wasn’t already intimidated by the amount of money I’m dealing with, I am now. Thank you, Matt. I wonder if your corporate planning of the arts concept is one unique to Richmond? I’m sure that it can’t be. And I think you made a good decision to emphasize the positive rather than the negative. There was just the right amount of “rant” in there, but positive energy is worth so much more in the end.

    Thanks, Tommy, for continuing to point out my bulletin board.

    P.S. Hey, Style zeitgeist: hint hint ;)

  7. Great Article! It reminds me of a conversation I had just today with Firehouse Theatre about a show my band is doing with Matana Roberts in May. I got the rental fee and now the hike uphill begins. Luckily, as in this scenario, everyone involved is super positive and willing to work.

    At first it seems like there should be a better way, and then I think that this is the better way and it will continue to be so (and hopefully get easier).

    There is much more to be said on this subject, but thats all I got for now.

  8. Janet Ralston on said:

    Matt, have you considered sending this as a letter to the editor of the Times-Dispatch? You might garner more attention there, and ultimately, more support. This is a very thoughtfully worded and intelligent “rant,” hitting all the right notes.

  9. While I can certainly understand the emotions and motivation that go behind this rant, and the comments that follow, and I am certainly not a part of your scene, I feel the need to chime in.

    You owe yourselves a HUGE AMOUNT OF CREDIT. DEAN. MATT. Everyone that you can think of right now that has gotten you to here, you owe a huge amount of credit and thanks.

    Why, NOW, would you expect corporations and arts counsels to contribute to something that is actually happening NOW. Historically, they catch on LATER. And especially after reports show that something is “worth” investing in.

    Dean, I have no idea how far you are actually sticking your neck out, but I have a good feeling that you made the right decision. You found yourself in a situation/put yourself in a situation to do this NOW. Could anyone else have put this thing together? Is that possible? My guess is yes, and no. But mostly NO.

    I don’t know how many people I speak for, but I am way excited for this weekend, way impressed that y’all have put this together, and am glad to have played a small part in the promotion of this great event. One of many, and I would LOVE to play a larger role going forward. I know I’m not there, but I want to put in where I can.

    Keep working. Y’all will become the counsel. I’m impressed, for whatever that’s worth.

  10. I think you’re underestimating the RTD’s arts coverage. Observe today’s weekend cover story:

  11. I’m not looking to take Archuleta’s cover spot. He clearly deserves it. But I’m curious to know what I didn’t do to get any coverage whatsoever in the RTD’s seemingly thorough “Live Music” preview of the week:
    RVAjazzfest isn’t on the inRich’s online calendar because I didn’t gratify them with making an online account. But shouldn’t the news release have taken care of getting it in the paper’s calendar? I guess I should ask myself if I REALLY even care?

  12. Thats strange. Usually if you send it in at least 2 weeks before the event, they’ll put anything in there. Maybe they got confused by the whole “blog” thing.

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