George Steel, who was the Director until last October when he left to head up the Dallas Opera, was responsible for reshaping the theater's programming to include a jazz series. There were only three jazz events per season scheduled for the first few years, but as the acceptance and audience has grown, the jazz events now number up to five per season. Melissa Smey, who is now the Acting Director and was General Manager for eight years, had been doing the jazz programming for the last few years. She is delighted to be working with jazz artists: It's such a dream job to be able to work with musicians and put on their concerts, bring an audience to it and bring the musicians to the audience and have them enjoy it. Musicians such as Eric Reed, Wycliffe Gordon, Lewis Nash, Cyrus Chestnut, Terence Blanchard and even John Zorn have performed at the theater. The programming leans towards straightahead jazz with few forays into 'new' or avant garde jazz. Our audience likes straightahead jazz best, commented Smey.
Miller Theater is a (comfortable) 688-seat proscenium-style theater designed to support its eclectic mix of artists and programming. The theater is wider than it is deep, making for a more intimate feeling for the audience.
Aside from the talented musicians, the events also offer low ticket prices. The top price for a concert is $25, but there are discounts for Columbia students who pay only $7. Seniors get a 15% discount and other students and people under 25 get a 40% discount. There is also a price break if you buy a subscription. Smey explained this is done so that we are able to attract new and younger audiences. Especially for the jazz concerts, up to 25 to 30 percent of the audience will be people under the age of 30 who are not regular concert goers. But for a low price, they are willing to take a chance on something. We are getting people from the neighborhood, people from the community and from the surrounding areas that are willing to come to something close by. And we're getting top quality artistic choices that are affordable. And so, at least for the past five years, it's been a winning combination.
The jazz events at the theater are also tied into the University's radio station, WKCR (89.9 FM). On Fridays from 4:30-6 pm, the station features a Live From Miller Theater program which plays music from the concerts and also interviews some of the performers. George Steel founded the show about seven years ago and it was decided to continue it after he left. Director of Marketing Lauren Bailey, Audience Services Manager Denise Blostein and Smey are co-producers and co-hosts for the show. Lewis Nash was Smey's first on-air interview when he guested before his concert last October.
The theater is able to draw audiences from its student body. College students have always leaned towards jazz, possessing a curiosity and a spirit of adventure. Another plus for attendance is the University's hosting of a family/parents weekend every October. We always try to have one of our jazz concerts on that weekend because the chances are that the performance will be a complete sellout, said Smey. Family and parents come in from all parts of the country and this makes for a wonderfully diverse audience and they definitely get the music.
The Miller Theater is one of the few venues featuring jazz left on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and although it does not advertise in the usual media outlets, has a loyal core audience to whom it markets. Smey added, We even get people from New Jersey because it is easy to get here for them. And since the attendance at the jazz concerts have been good, 500-600 people is the norm, stated Smey, our plans are to keep doing more of what we've been doing.
~ Marcia Hillman