“Forward – Never Straight: Reflections On Jazz From the Heartland” by Thomas Ferrella

Ground rules

I am not a jazz professor or jazz musician, nor do I hold myself out as an expert or a jazz illuminato. I have never taken a class in jazz or its history. And, honestly, I do my best to avoid the intellectual side of jazz – I am simply a fan and I know what I like.

Through osmosis, I am aware of the politics of the word “jazz” and how its meaning is ever evolving with so many different personal interpretations. But, I define it very simply and will be using the word here with this definition in mind. “Jazz” is a musical artform that is always moving forward.

Madison, Wisconsin, sits in a magical cultural triangle between Minneapolis, Milwaukee and Chicago. This is important.

Our problems are not unique.


The skinny

Frustrated that Madison’s jazz scene was so lean – and not for a lack of certain folks trying over the years, it just never sustained. Even with very prominent jazz musicians living in our community, they did nothing to nurture a local scene. It was a cultural wasteland so to speak and oh so magically located… Let me be clear, Madison is a vibrant music city. Jazz just never fit in. In defense of previous attempts, it was probably because of economics that it never succeeded. But honestly, our local jazz community is fractured. Lots of sharp elbows defending scant territories and unhealthy political tribalism. Now, the current corporate music overlords are dominating our city’s staid programming, all counterintuitive to the essence of jazz and my personal mission.

7 years ago, I made an unforeseen serendipitous connection with Roscoe Mitchell and boldly invited him to play in a little gallery space on the near-east side, with Vincent Davis and Junius Paul rounding out the trio. It was, needless to say, stunning. Feeling empowered, I followed that up with a soft connection I had made with Ken Vandermark through a photography exhibit I did in Chicago. Another hit performance ensued! Wow, back-to-back iconic jazz figures. I definitely felt I was on to something…so I just plodded forward. Somewhere in these 7 years I became an impresario. My email/phone contact list became surreal. I never imagined having Andrew Cyrille’s phone number or the fact that he actually would take my calls.

Eventually, my buddy Dave Stone signed up for the cause and we subsequently formed our non-profit, BlueStem Jazz, named after the local formidable native tall-grass prairie plant: big bluestem. As we like to say “home-grown_cage-free_all-organic_non-gmo_gluten-free_pasture-raised_ all-natural jazz for the soul” – what the heck – we are from the heartland.

We developed a philosophy: treat everyone with respect, value the integrity of the artform and be as generous as possible. This simple formula has been our north star and our musicians have been our ambassadors. The word spread quickly that there were a couple guys of a certain age in Madison, that dig and respect the music. Our shows have since flourished with talent from around the globe.

Of course, being in this magical triangle with Rob Szocik’s IMprovised SOund gigs in Milwaukee, the Icehouse in Minneapolis and of course Chicago’s Hungry Brain, Constellation, Elastic Arts… has had a great deal to do with access to the talent. This triangle thrives through symbiosis.

Todd Nicholson from Arts for Art said BlueStem Jazz is running one of the most vibrant jazz scenes in the country. William Parker said, “New York City doesn’t have anything like this”. Comments that I cannot verify or refute. We just do what we do, and we do it with love and passion…damn the politics! plus we might very well have the most grateful passionate jazz fans in the world. No one here takes our scene for granted and our patrons have been extremely generous.

7+ years, 400+ shows, 1400+ musicians. Here is what I have learned, the good and bad:

  • Jazz is a reflection of life. A reflection of humanity, vastly good. But there is an extremely small negative vocal minority. We interpret their voices as a healthy reminder of our good fortune and success.
  • Jazz musicians are driven by passion. As most artists, they are thinkers. They are interpreting the world and sharing their innermost feelings. They bare their souls to our benefit. They want to be heard. They are considerate and interesting people. And, when you reflect on the dismal economics encompassing jazz, they are saints. It is miraculous they persevere and sadly many do not. I am blessed to be walking the planet with them.
  • The interconnectedness of jazz-musician collaboration is unheralded in any artform. It is a life lesson in and of itself.
  • Local musicians just do not support each other, a sad truth that is not exclusive to Madison.
  • Jazz had never been a stagnant art form until the educators and critics got ahold of it and codified and commodified. At a recent performance here, Nduduzo Makhathini said “curriculum chokes the music”. I find it to be more of a double-edged sword. A lot of good things come out of jazz education, but many programs are doing the artform more harm than good. Nicole Mitchell said in the New York Times [9.3.2020]: “The music is about community, so if a student graduates and doesn’t have any connection to community, that’s a real rip-off for that student in terms of what they’re supposed to be gaining, and it’s also a rip-off for the future of the music.” Our efforts to remedy this locally have been unsuccessful.
  • It is unsettling how the contemporary jazz musician that is moving the artform forward has to use adjectives like “progressive”, “avant-garde”, “contemporary”, “experimental” … to describe their music. This is inane tautology.
  • The word jazz has also become a trigger word for many. Everyone has a preconceived notion, and frequently interpretations are negative. We have actually had bands ask us not to use “jazz” in their promotional materials.
  • Where are the culturally curious young people? Is this human sub-species extinct by way of the microchip?
  • Have African Americans abandoned jazz as audience members? In my experience, this is not unique to Madison. I have noticed this for the past 50 years on a national and international level.

Our non-profit is lean with passionate volunteers who like our musicians, do the work with love. I sometimes joke that it takes a village to support jazz just like with children. But, unlike children, this art form is fully grown. Why in this country are people threatened by original creative work? It is almost a badge of honor that good work suffers from the lack of an audience, and acceptance is a long twisted fucked-up road filled with heartache. I almost think this comes from the same place where racism resides: different is inherently threatening–hence a reflection of the human condition…

Personally, I blame our educational system. We do not teach our children the essence of what makes us human. We do not teach aesthetics. Graduating seniors cannot name ten American architects, ten landscape designers, blues and jazz musicians, novelists, oil painters, playwrights, poets. They learn nothing of color or composition. Talk about being ripped off. We do not formally pass this information on. In fact, we squash the creative spirit with rigid curriculum and we dummy down our children to what it really means to be human. Our very life blood, our air….and that is art!  Yes, with an !.

To all of the musicians that have played and will play in our series, I am forever grateful. To our partner venues and their staff, to our volunteers and the peeps who promote and network, a big hearty grazie. And, to the folks outside of Madison who keep this music alive, hats off.

….You see…it takes a village.


I leave you with a poem

BlueStem Jazz

love still wears a smile on the motion of bodies singing of bluestems

with a sway – a honk – and a bleet —- ‘chill that vibe, cause baby it comin home’

are you ready?

for the deep dive

the random access memories

life in the realm of shades – the intimation of the unknown

and can you let go?… can you seriously let go…and

sway with the bluestems


Thomas Ferrella


Graphic Design/Cover Photo:  thomas ferrella




Clyde Rich“Forward – Never Straight: Reflections On Jazz From the Heartland” by Thomas Ferrella


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  • Madison Jazz Calendar - Thomas Ferrella essay - February 26, 2024

    […] “Forward – Never Straight: Reflections On Jazz From the Heartland” by Thomas Ferrella […]

  • Bob Kerwin - February 26, 2024

    Defining jazz as “a musical artform that is always moving forward,” isn’t helpful. What is forward? Is it something new, and by inference exclude anything not new? What about music in other genres, none of it is moving forward?

    I understand and empathize with the difficulty of defining jazz. As the producer of the Madison Jazz Calendar I have to decide what makes it on the calendar The problem is the genre has splintered and grown so far from its roots that the label has limited usefulness as a descriptor. What remains for an artist is determining whether there is branding value in associating with the term or not. This is how just about any kind of improvised music can be labeled jazz, and conversely, how some improvising musicians reject the label.

    Whatever jazz means to Thomas, I can say wholeheartedly his work has been good for the community. There is a level of excitement and energy in the music scene that previously didn’t exist. Keep up the good work!

  • David Stone - February 26, 2024

    Well said Thomas

  • Al Rasho - February 26, 2024

    I present jazz to my audience in our small club in Madison, WI. The jazz that is deemed more mainstream and accessible to the general audience, does sell out. The jazz that is not so accessible, avant-garde, has a very limited audience.
    To me, jazz is a miracle. I’m not out to teach or convert. I present different forms and hopefully others will enjoy it.
    The problem in presenting jazz that is not mainstream is keeping a venue sustainable. Chicago’s Jazz Showcase has managed to stay open since 1947, but they have never veered very far from mainstream. It’s founder, Joe Segal, was of bebop era.
    I don’t know why we are born with the influences that we are born into, I know that jazz is in my DNA.

  • Steve - February 27, 2024

    Some challenges, yes, there will always be challenges, but there is no doubt BlueStem has been incredibly successful in bringing top tier artists to a community that appreciates good music. Madison is a better place thanks to BlueStem!

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