This past summer, the jazz capital of the world lost one of its most treasured venues. Starry Nights, a hugely popular live music series at the American Museum of Natural History, came to an abrupt end in August. After eight successful years, the museum announced that it could no longer offer the program because of diminished city funds.
The event drew nearly 1,000 visitors on the first Friday of every month to the museum’s Rose Center for Earth and Space. Under the glowing orb of the Hayden Planetarium, guests could enjoy tapas and drinks, roam freely among the meteorites and listen to a stellar line-up of musicians.
Gary Walker, music director of radio station WBGO, praised the series for attracting one of the most unusual jazz audiences around.
“I remember Ravi Coltrane playing, John Coltrane’s son. At one point he looked out and saw about 60 kids jumping up and down to the music-and not kids music, but real jazz,” recalled Walker, who became host when the station began broadcasting select performances five years ago. “That’s got to be thrilling for any musician, being able to have that dialogue with the next generation.”
Admission to the concerts was free with a suggested donation, and the early set time of 5:30 p.m. allowed parents to bring their pint-sized offspring.
Brian Rutenberg, a painter and former drummer, said he was delighted to be able to expose his children to great live music in a spectacular setting.
“It was such an impressive set-up under that big sphere, everything bathed in blue light. What a nice, glamorous detour in the Friday night bath time/bed time routine,” he said, adding that he found the staff patient and accommodating-even when his 2-year-old crawled under the piano.
Many of the artists who performed here over the years welcomed the rare opportunity to play for families.
“That’s what jazz is supposed to be, music for the people,” said Houston Person, the legendary sax player and a Starry Nights regular. “Looks like only the rich can afford it these days.”
Lynn Hassett, the museum’s marketing director, would not discuss the program’s price tag or the extent of the budget, saying that the museum was “loath to talk money.” “Starry Nights is a very expensive proposition to put on, and it was a tough budget decision each year,” Hassett added.
Andy Rowan, producer of Starry Nights, conceded that the series was never profitable. “But you have to balance that against all the goodwill, against the people who walked in and joined the museum, people who would never have thought of it before,” he said.
According to WBGO’s Walker, the current financial climate left the museum struggling.
“In terms of what they told us, they’re too busy looking for $3 million to support their ongoing science programs, they don’t have time to look for a few thousand dollars for a night of free live jazz,” he said.
Still, Walker said he felt hopeful that somewhere out there some organization or individual would get involved.
“This is an incredible opportunity to come in as a sponsor,” he said. “Anytime you can put art in front of people-especially children-you’re doing yourself a favor and you’re doing the world a favor. And God knows we need more of that, not less.”
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