Interview with Austin Jazz Society’s Tom Van Tassel: How to Support the Local Austin Music Scene While At-Home

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By Claudia Ruiz
Music Journalist

With the rise of live streaming for entertainment, places like Austin Jazz Society provide closure for those of us who crave live music again. I had the chance to speak with the president of Austin Jazz Society, Tom van Tassel, about the future of their organization and the current state of live jazz music today.

Claudia Ruiz: So Tom can you tell us what is the Austin Jazz Society?

Tom van Tassel: We are a 501(c)3 non-profit organization with a mission to support live jazz in the Austin, Texas area.

C.R.: And what is your particular job within Austin Jazz Society?

I am president, and I have been president since 2013. And that is when we initiated the membership program. We have been holding monthly events at the gallery located in the Chez Zee American Bistro. The organization actually started 10 years earlier, at the request of William Kirchner.

C.R.: And what are some tasks and responsibilities you have as president of the Austin Jazz Society?

T.V.T.: Well, AJS is a relatively small voluntary board. And you might say I am the chief cook and bottle washer. I wear many hats as AJS’s president. I work with the board to establish goals and objectives, the annual budget, and plan initiatives to meet those annual objectives—things like growing our membership, increasing attendance at our events, being financially sound, and attracting qualified directors. And I also try to assist our other directors in their responsibilities when needed.

C.R.: And with all that in mind, how would you say your non-profit organization has adapted to live streaming events?

T.V.T.: Actually, we have a monthly schedule. And it was pretty obvious to us in March that we were going to have to cancel our events, because venues were being shut down. So, our initial objective was to try to help the jazz musicians, because many of them are highly dependent upon gig-income for a living. And so, we came up with the notion of Project Safety Net.

No one really knew how long this was going to last; we also didn’t know how well it would be supported. We took $5,000 from our bank account and we initiated this project, and we promoted it through our membership and through people on Facebook, and we had a great response.

In a fairly short period of time, we raised about $30,000, and we were able to turn around $500 checks and send them out to a number of musicians. And then that continued to grow. Now we are into May and Collin Shook, who is the founder of Monk’s Jazz, had bought a camera. He was demonstrating the use of it to me, and I gave him a call and said “What do you think about doing some streaming?” He said, “Well, of course, everyone is reluctant. Could we even have the musicians together to have the streaming?” And initially, that was an issue.

But finally, in June, we started. And this past Tuesday, we had our 21st weekly stream. This is done, in addition to increasing donations to cover the cost of that, any overages are going into Project Safety Net, where we are distributing money to the needy jazz musicians here in Austin. So, hats off to all the people who are donating. We have had well over 600 people who have donated to this cause. And it is through their donations that it has been successful.

C.R.: And I think the fact that it is online and it is accessible to anyone who has Internet connection really is a big thing that brings people in, as well. Even with me and my own family, my parents aren’t really technology savvy, but when I show them a livestream happening, they don’t have to leave the house; it’s more comfortable to be where you are and watch it from your child’s computer.

T.V.T.: I really think that the people who are more used to using computers, smartphones, iPads, those types of devices, are more likely to take advantage of streaming concerts. By the way, it has been really good for Austin Jazz Society, because we have a lot more people listening to the streams than just our members. So, the word has gotten out. I think what we concentrate first on was a high-quality stream. If you’re familiar with streaming, there are a lot of moving parts. And you have to be on top of it. And Collin Shook has done a wonderful job figuring out that technology.

And we are using two platforms—we are using both Facebook and YouTube. And of course, the other advantage of that is that if you can’t watch it live as it is being streamed, it is captured and you can watch it on a replay. And we have a lot of people doing that as well. So, I would say that the other advantage we have found is that not everybody wants to go to Downtown Austin late at night to catch a jazz show.

I have several people that tell me that they are watching more jazz now than they were before the pandemic. So, there are some advantages to this; it’s not quite the same as a live situation, and one of the things that we are playing around with is “how can we deal with the dynamics between the musicians and the audience?” So, we are thinking about inviting a very small group of people so that we get to create that dynamic for the musicians.

C.R.: Yeah, that sounds like a good way of reaching out to even more people than it already has been online. So, who are some of the people or performers in the past that you have had perform for this concert series? Who comes to mind when you think of Project Safety Net?

T.V.T.: Well, we’ve had Ephraim Owens, a great trumpet player here. We’ve had Andre Hayward, great trombone player. We’ve had, like I said, we’ve had now 21 streams, so I went to everyone that was on our calendar for events this year, and invited them to do a stream, and almost everyone has done it. The board has agreed to support 8 more streams between now and the end of the year, so we’re going to have to wait and see what happens. We were thinking that maybe if things start to open up, it may be a hybrid situation where we are going to do a live performance with streaming so that people who are still leery of coming to a live audience situation can still enjoy it.

C.R.: So with that in mind, what events alongside the Project Safety Net concert-series can we look out for this season?

Well, that is really up in the air. We don’t know what is going to happen with the pandemic and the criteria that we are going to have to meet when we starting doing live performances. I can tell you we are working out a transition, if and when that is going to happen. In the interim, one of the things we are discussing right now was “can we do something that will involve the youth?” Youth musicians in high school, give them an opportunity to be streamed, and to make that part of one our events. We’re going to try to resume our monthly events at Chez Zee, but again, we don’t know when that will be possible.

Right. And even here in Texas State University, a lot of people who are doing their recitals for their music degrees are resulting to on-line streaming. So I think that was a very good idea for a lot of local scenes in Austin to adapt to that, too, just because there is still a need for art and music, it is just a matter of how we can access it now.

I agree with you. And I think that it is definitely catching on. I watch streams from New York City and Michigan. They are very good and high-quality streams. I do notice that because there are so many people now doing it, it is effectively, a little bit, the number of people who are attending our events and the donations. So one of our objectives now is trying to figure out how we can increase the viewers beyond, because we have people who plan on every Tuesday night to watch the Austin Jazz Society Monk’s Jazz show. So we just want to try to work and see if we can try to expand it.

That sounds like a safe way to go through with that. So right now, let’s say there are some listeners who are from the jazz department of my university or are just general fans of music, listening. What advice do you have to many current jazz fans who may be listening right now?

Well, until we can get back to a launch situation, I would say take advantage of the streaming that is going on. I’ve seen Litchfield up in Connecticut; they normally have an annual jazz festival; they did it online, streaming; it came across very, very well. From a technical standpoint, my preference is to watch it on YouTube, I just think the quality is better. So if you have that ability, that would be some advice. I guess the other thing would be to just remember that you have a lot of musicians and artists that are out of work. And the only way that they are going to continue to do what they do is if they are supported. So, I would try to encourage everybody to go ahead and pretend you are going to a live show. And the door fee or the tip, go ahead and make that donation. In our case, we’re a non-profit organization, so your donations are actually tax-deductible, so my advice would be go ahead and support these organizations.

That sounds great. I agree completely; support people, tip them, however way you can. So lastly, where can people go to get more information about future events and news from Austin Jazz Society?

Yeah, if you just Google “Austin Jazz Society”, our website will come up. If you go to the homepage, it’s going to tell you a little bit about Project Safety Net and what you can do to be part of it. You’ll see we update it every week, and tell you what the next stream is going to be and who it is going to be and the bio on those people. And, if you’d like to get into looking into how we’re doing in terms of how much money we’ve raised—we are up now to over 100 musicians who have benefited from Project Safety Net. All the information is there, so just go to our website.

C.R.: Well thank you for your time, this has been Claudia Ruiz with KTSW.

Information about Austin Jazz Society and all the other functions can be found on their official website.

Featured image retrieved from the Austin Jazz Society.

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