By LEIGH C. MERRIFIELD
News & Journal Editor
It is easy to lose track of time, but it was back in 2009 that the West Virginia Jazz Society (WVJS) was given a name by a small group of people who love jazz music and saw an opportunity to allow it to become an experience in north central WV.
“We more or less had a vision, but no plan,” said WVJS President Eric Spelsberg. “Jazz is ‘America’s music’ and used to be a lot of homes, but it was interrupted by the rock ‘n roll era. So many people said ‘WHAT?’ to us trying to showcase jazz musicians here locally.”
Now, as WVJS begins its eighth year, the nay-sayers are perhaps not quite so skeptical! Look what has happened during this time period. It has emerged!
Spelsberg says they feel very fortunate about what has evolved so successfully. “We are very pleased and thankful and just don’t question what or how it has happened. Many thought there wasn’t much interest in jazz around here, but, SURPRISE! It has been good for north central West Virginia,” he commented.
It has been, however, a great deal of work. Spelsberg will be the first one to tell you that it has taken patience and persistence, but now WVJS is recognized by both jazz musicians and jazz enthusiasts alike.
“I don’t know quite how to describe what has happened, but I know that during this time period relationships have formed and they continue to become better and better,” he continued. “We have just walked the road and things have come together. We are not where we want to be yet; we want to continue to grow … and it’s happening.”
During the first year of existence, WVJS had one concert; now they host several annual strolls … and other cities in north central West Virginia are wanting to get involved and host jazz events in their own area’s venues.
“Hosting the jazz strolls has been a wonderful way for our communities to make good impressions. Then people come back again, and they tell their friends and they come too. The jazz strolls are not just about what happens that one evening,” he added. “The strolls have led to return engagements, return visitors, and business being brought to the area and people talking about how much they enjoyed being here. It has been good for business all the way around.”
Spelsberg noted, as just one example, that Washington Square owner Tim Gentilozzi has stated that his in-house restaurant business AND his carry-out and delivery business has spiked …… all because people attending a jazz event he hosted sampled his food and loved it and they continue to return for more!
And, already Parker’s new restaurant in Clarksburg has expressed an interest in presenting jazz music.
“I guess you could say that while jazz in our area has emerged to a higher level, it has been a benefit for many restaurants and bars in our area that help us by hosting events. It has also been a huge benefit for high school students to experience this music, and now some of our area colleges are getting involved – like WV Wesleyan, WVU and Glenville State. We are more visible and have been fortunate to establish a good relationship with CVBs in the area and city governments,” Spelsberg continued. “Some local business firms are now acting as sponsors for some of our events and we’ve had help from private individuals who don’t want to be mentioned. Additionally, we received a $5,000 grant from The Dominion Foundation to help us with our Holiday Jazz Weekend held in Harrison County in December. We are also planning to go to the County Commission next week when we will speak to them about eight events that will be up and coming. We hope that by presenting them with a year’s plan in advance, they will be able to perhaps consider adding us to their budget so we can continue to grow.”
The West Virginia Jazz Society is extremely fortunate, they say, to have received support from the Barbara B. Highland Fund for the Arts. “That support has truly taken us to another level and we are so grateful for that,” Spelsberg noted.
Spelsberg says that not only do jazz event attendees go home and tell their friends about how much they enjoyed jazz events in Harrison County, WV, but also the musicians who visit here to perform return to NYC and other jazz meccas ….. and they, too, tell others – “Hey, you ought to see what they’re doing in Clarksburg, WV!”
“Here is one instance,” Spelsberg related. “I got a call from someone in Israel named Alon Nechustan. He is a famed pianist and friends of his had played here and told him about their experience in our state. He said he was coming to the U.S. and was interested in coming here. His performance here came from that – just word of mouth!”
Cities like New York, Philadelphia, D.C., Memphis, and Atlanta are noted for being jazz club destinations, and Spelsberg says there is no reason why north central WV can’t be called “America’s Jazz Crossroads”! “We have interstates and airports and travelers pass right through here. We just want to give them more reasons to stop and sample our venues, our menus and our great hospitality. We’ve hosted jazz artists in Buckhannon, Morgantown, Fairmont, Bridgeport, Clarksburg, and Shinnston and it keeps growing! Harrison County is now an international community in that the same artists come here in as good a style as anywhere in the world!” he concluded.
Watch for news of the next big WVJS event to take place in April!