Come for the Swing, Stay for the Classical

I was reading my Time Magazine today while my computer booted up, hoping that my cable modem would behave today (that was why there was no entry yesterday. No problem yet today, perhaps the Time-Warner cable approves of me reading Time Magazine) In the magazine there was a small inset on Artie Shaw, a big band leader who died last month. (More info, the NY Times and Ken Burns’ PBS Jazz website have interesting synopses of his life.)

I found the article somewhat amusing because it discussed how he was trying to expose his swing audiences to classical music, similiar to how arts organizations try to grab new audiences by offering popular pieces and hoping people will experiment with unfamiliar territory.

Shaw’s experience went something like this:

“Bandleader Artie Shaw had tried feeding long-hair music to short hair audiences, [but] he had discovered that ‘It is necessary to give an audience some familiar points of reference before you can expect it to go along on new things’…He thought…playing old Shaw specials…might lure strayed followers back into the tent. Once they were in, perhaps he could give them [classical works] in small doses. Last week…on the opening night of a nationwide tour, the first part of Artie’s experiment worked. A record breaking crowd, including a good many of the jammy jitterbug type..was lured into Boston’s huge Symphony Ballroom. The Shaw faithful, plus a few horn rimmed jazz intellectuals, clustered around the bandstand…Right there, any semblance of success stopped. When Artie’s boys began unraveling Ravel’s Piece en Forme de Habanera, the crowd around the bandstand applauded politely, but even the most ardent jitterers had to stop dancing. Cried one in petulant exasperation: ‘Artie you suck'”

I don’t know if arts managers will take heart in the fact that hurdles they face in widening the perspective of their audiences are nothing new. Or if they will see this article from 1949 as validation that their efforts are hopeless.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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