By Matt Cosper
Photo: Jalen Marlowe
June 15, 2020
For a decade now, JazzArts Charlotte (formerly JazzArts Initiative) has built up and bolstered the jazz music community here in the Queen City. Producing a satisfying blend of music programming and education offerings for local audiences, Jazz Arts is a model of how the right mission with the right team can really enrich a community. Led by Lonnie Davis (President) and her husband Ocie Davis (Artistic Director), Jazz Arts has managed the tricky feat of becoming a vital player in the local arts scene while maintaining a family-oriented focus on what is essential: music as a bonding force between people.
Lonnie was born in Germany, where her father was stationed with the U.S. military, but moved back to the family home in New Orleans after her father’s death. In New Orleans, Lonnie discovered music early, taking up the violin and then the flute. High school at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts is where she was introduced to the world of jazz improvisation. This led her to study under legendary Jazz patriarch Ellis Marsalis at the University of New Orleans. Davis ended up graduating with a degree in psychology before entering UNO’s grad school to study urban and regional planning. In the meantime she had met, married, and started a family with Los Angeles transplant, drummer Ocie Davis.
During Lonnie’s second year of grad school the Davis family was displaced by Katrina, heading to Houston during the storm and then to Blacksburg, Virginia when it became clear that returning to NOLA wasn’t an option. Lonnie continued her studies at Virginia Tech.
The Davis family moved to Charlotte in the fall of 2006. They were shocked and disappointed at the lack of a coherent jazz scene in what was a seemingly booming city. “There were no jazz clubs! We got to know a handful of musicians but we realized there wasn’t a scene. There wasn’t a club, a place, an entity that supported musicians, where musicians came together and connected,” said Davis. Lonnie noted that Charlotte’s unofficial racial segregation was in full effect in the music scene, saying “Black and white didn’t really play together, didn’t hire each other on gigs. There didn’t seem to be a lot of crossover.”
During their first years in Charlotte, Lonnie and Ocie were working for Community School of the Arts, Ocie as a faculty member and Lonnie in administration. This was Lonnie’s introduction to the nonprofit world and she credits her four years with the organization as a great education. It was during this time that Lonnie had the idea for an organization to support jazz music in Charlotte. With their combined experience in the jazz mecca of New Orleans and with insight gained working with CSA, there was potential to build something with real impact.
By 2010, JazzArts Initiative was official and the ball was rolling for their first big event: Festival in the Park. Spring and summer were a whirlwind for the Davis’ as they raised funds and put together the bands that would play. The four-day, 23-act jazz program that fall was a major success, and the organization has partnered with Festival in the Park ever since. This early success was the confidence booster that pushed Lonnie and Ocie to expand their offerings. “We threw caution to the wind and just went for it,” she said. “We didn’t have any other choice but to make it happen.”
In the spring of 2011 an education program emerged as JazzArts started their All Stars Youth Ensemble. It seemed clear that after the success of their initial project, a flagship educational program needed to manifest. Education has always been an important part of Lonnie’s vision for the organization and the role it would play in the community.
“I think the arts are an absolute necessity in education. The arts make a person complete, they make society complete. The arts are what hold everything together,” Davis said.
The All Stars Youth Ensemble started with five top student musicians from the region paired with top-tier jazz educators. The students didn’t know each other when the program began, but soon they had forged a connection based on a shared love of their craft. The program took off. Currently, there are 50 students enrolled from middle and high schools all across the region.
Music’s ability to connect people has been the consistent theme in the JazzArts story. This continued with the organization’s next big project. The Jazz Room is a monthly concert series that has been running at Blumenthal’s Stage Door Theater in uptown since 2013. The premise is simple: put talented folks on the bill who haven’t played together before. This sets the stage for unexpected musical fireworks and encourages musical friendships to develop. This can serve as an entry for local up-and-coming players into mentorships in the global jazz community. These relationships are at the center of that elusive thing that the Davises were missing when they first arrived in town: a scene.
“It’s been organic. We didn’t map it out,” Lonnie said of the project. “We just kind of knew what needed to happen. Which was to give people the opportunity to play, to just let music be the connector.”
A shrewd balancing act of programming mainstream acts as well as more specialized performers has allowed JazzArts to build and educate their audience. “It’s not just low hanging fruit,” she said. “We want to stretch our audience…Jazz performance is a true democracy, because you have to really listen and respond in real time.”
Challenging your audience gets easier over years of proven impact, and the group is growing into a confident relationship with the city. JazzArts just celebrated their 10th birthday and, in spite of the very real effect that the Covid-19 crisis has had on performing arts venues and presenters, Lonnie remains focused and optimistic, dreaming of a space of their own for performances and their academy.