Adrian Ellis, who for over a decade has been a sought-after consultant to cultural institutions from New York City Opera to the British Museum, has a new mission these days: building the audience for jazz.
As the new executive director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, which opens its season on Friday, Mr. Ellis is taking the reins of the organization at a uniquely important moment in its development. JaLC has just completed a period of enormous growth, with its budget tripling in five years, to nearly $40 million this season. it owns a spectacular facility in the Time Warner Center — the Frederick P. Rose Hall — where, in and around its own programming, a busy schedule of theater rentals contributes around a third of the organization's income. it runs vibrant educational programs, both for jazz listeners and for high-school-age musicians. its own musicians, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, regularly tour around the country. JaLC also sends other jazz ensembles around the world, performing in countries not regularly visited by American musicians, as part of a State department program called American Music abroad.
But here in New York, in Mr. Ellis's view, JaLC hasn't figured out how to reach all the people who might enjoy its concerts. "Knowing who [our] audience is and how to reach them is an area that we're still experimenting with," he said in a recent interview. "How do we encourage people who are on the brink of thinking about jazz?" He continued, using a metaphor possibly inspired by the situation of rose Hall within the Time Warner Center: "How do we coax them onto the elevator that will take them up and give them a long-term relation to the music?"
Average ticket sales are at a healthy 80% of capacity, but Mr. Ellis said he would like to see the audience demographic be younger and more diverse.
Currently, around 50% of the audience is between the ages of 45 and 65, with only 11% coming from the prime rock-concert-attending age group of 18-to-34-olds. almost 80% of the audience is white, and 12% is African-American. Nearly 60% of the audience has completed some graduate study. So how do you attract young audiences? Based on his experience consulting for and observing performing arts organizations, Mr. Ellis said, he believes that two things about an organization are most important for attracting audiences: a welcoming physical home and a powerful presence in the online world.
Although JALC's three theaters are individually beautiful and enjoyable spaces, Mr. Ellis said he would like to see Rose Hall cohere into a destination that is more than the sum of its parts — a place where people come and then decide what they're going to see, rather than the other way around.
Being British, he invoked an example of a London venue, Southbank Centre, which encompasses several buildings on the south side of the Thames and offers music, dance, art exhibitions, and literary events. "It has a vibe; there is a sense of occasion," Mr. Ellis said. "We want the same thing here."
Creating that energy, he added, depends on what hours the facility is open and what happens in the spaces outside the theater, which at Rose Hall include a large atrium with a view of Columbus Circle, and a Jazz Hall of Fame. Informal performances in the atrium, free preconcert talks, as well as the retail and catering presence all make a difference, he said. The high number of rentals — to other Lincoln Center programs, other nonprofits, or commercial productions — makes creating this cohesive experience more challenging, he acknowledged. Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola is the only of the three venues that features jazz seven nights a week, 355 days a year. The Rose Theater is used for JALC programming 25% of the time, and the Allen Room only 18% of the time.
But as important as the organization's physical presence is, Mr. Ellis said, the key to attracting young music audiences is online. He is particularly optimistic about the potential uses of collaborative filtering — the "you liked x, so you might like y" algorithm that allows Netflix to recommend you movies based on how you have rated previous rentals, combined with the collected tastes of other users.
"The one thing you want in culture is for people to experiment, and that's extremely difficult," Mr. Ellis said. Particularly with something as diverse as jazz music, audiences "need and want un-patronizing help in navigating it, so that they can find things they want with some degree of confidence," he continued. Collaborative filtering can give people that confidence, that "even if they don't know exactly what they're getting into, it will be an experience they'll enjoy." There are various models, he said, for how collaborative filtering could yield recommendations of live performances. The ratings system could be tied to ticket purchases, so that when you buy a ticket for an event online you are asked to rate the last event you went to, or it could be based on an online community of people "who don't mind wasting five minutes" rating the various things they've attended.
"That's really the way things are headed," Mr. Ellis said of collaborative filtering. "It's certainly the way music is headed."
As the audience grows, Mr. Ellis said, he would like slowly to expand the amount of JALC programming in the theaters relative to rentals. The programming, he said, should reflect the future of jazz, as well as continuing to maintain and create an audience for the jazz canon.
"People's love of the music is deepened by their understanding of the music, and that requires some historical perspective," Mr. Ellis said, pointing to a poster on the wall of his office, titled "Highlights of the Jazz Story in the USA," showing the history of jazz music as a giant family tree.
Accordingly, the season opens with concerts on Friday and Saturday by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra celebrating the music of Benny Carter, who is enjoying his centennial. "Right at the center of Jazz at Lincoln Center's mission is to showcase and create an audience for that historical music."
Correction from October 16, 2007:
355 nights a year is how often Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola at Jazz at Lincoln Center's Frederick P. Rose Hall features jazz. The number was misstated in an article on page 11 of yesterday's New York Sun.