A CONDENSED HISTORY OF TOPEKA JAZZ WORKSHOP, INC.
- by Marcene Grimes, Executive Director and Historian for TJW Inc.
This is the longest continuously running jazz concert series in the nation, dating from 1969. Our roots go back to the 1950’s when a local drummer/piano tuner/band leader named Mel Kime started a “Jazz at the Jayhawk” series of concerts in the Roof Garden of the Jayhawk Hotel. The first concert was presented in November 1953 and admission was just $1.20 a person. Mel’s dream was to have a concert series that would feature local and area musicians and maybe even someday a few nationally known stars.
Mel proceeded to organize a big band consisting of area musicians who had regular daytime jobs but liked to get together at night and play jazz for kicks. The first concert presented under the name “Topeka Jazz Workshop Band” was in March 1960 at Washburn’s MacVicar Chapel. During the 1960’s, two free concerts a year were held at MacVicar until it was leveled by the 1966 Topeka tornado. Thereafter, free concerts were presented at White Lakes Mall, at some Topeka Arts Council Festivals, the summer park concert series, even a performance at the 1965 K.C. Jazz Festival.
In 1962, a legal entity called “The Topeka Jazz Workshop. Inc.” was created as a 501c3 non-profit corporation. Its purpose was to promote and play jazz. Most of the early Board members were also TJW Band members. By the end of the 1960’s, the TJW Inc. Board was getting serious about seeing if a jazz concert series on a subscription basis would be possible. A mass-mailing letter was sent out in search of the elusive jazz audience and the response, though hardly overwhelming, was large enough to launch the TJW Inc. Concert Series in November 1969. The venue was White Concert Hall on the Washburn campus where the seating capacity was 1200! This was the era of the Big Bands and in the 1970’s TJW Inc. had them all – Stan Kenton, Count Basie, Woody Herman, Maynard Ferguson, Thad Jones and Mel Lewis, Buddy Rich, Dizzy Gillespie, just about every name Big Band except Duke Ellington, who died before we could get him. The cost to attend these fabulous concerts was a mere $5 per adult FOR THE SEASON or $60 for a family membership with guest privileges.
In 1970, the TJW Inc. Board was expanded to include some non-musicians, just genuine jazz enthusiasts. Jim Grimes was President of the Board for the first five years and Marcene, Jim’s wife, was Treasurer. For the next three years Pete North was President and, at the end of the 8th season (1977) Jim Monroe came on board as President and remained until his death in 2005.
While it was thrilling to present the Big Bands in White Concert Hall, the fact is we could never fill the hall and some of our audiences were embarrassingly sparse. President Monroe led the move to the intimate, 200-seat venue at the Topeka Civic Theatre’s Warehouse on the Levee in 1979. In the decade of the 1980’s we presented mostly small combos and it was soon obvious that the cabaret setting was working. The musicians got a great kick out of wandering around the scenery and props for the current play. Season ticket prices at the Warehouse began at $30 per person and by 1985-86 had been raised to $45, a huge bargain to hear the likes of The Four Freshmen, the Great Guitars, Bucky Pizzarelli, Red Norvo, Zoot Sims, and the legendary Stan Getz!
TJW, Inc. was beginning to experience growing pains as early as 1988. However, it was not until 1993 that the venue was forced to change again, this time abruptly because of a summer flood that closed down the Warehouse. For a while, we bounced around different hotel settings but settled-in mostly at the downtown Ramada Inn.
The 1990s became a very active period for jazz in Topeka. The annual Topeka Jazz Festivals over Memorial Day weekend were started by Jim Monroe in 1998 and continued through 2005. The Festivals attracted jazz lovers from all over the country and as far away as London, England. Jim also orchestrated a series of jazz brunches, home jazz parties, and other special events to keep jazz alive and well in Topeka. But the Sunday afternoon concert series remained the mainstay of Topeka jazz throughout the 1990’s and into the 2000’s.
In its first 45 seasons, the TJW Inc. concert series will have presented a total of 330 concerts and has awarded 318 scholarships to young musicians for summer jazz camps and college jazz studies. This educational effort is lead by the Topeka Jazz Workshop Band, Inc., a separately incorporated entity, with the scholarship funding provided by TJW, Inc.’s scholarship funds that are maintained and managed by the Topeka Community Foundation. Many of our scholarship winners have achieved national and even international stature, including two Topekans, Bob Bowman and Todd Strait.
WITHOUT A DOUBT, TOPEKA JAZZ WORKSHOP, INC. HAS BEEN A PRIME FACTOR IN KEEPING JAZZ ALIVE AND WELL IN TOPEKA AND NORTHEAST KANSAS.
A CONDENSED HISTORY OF TOPEKA JAZZ WORKSHOP, INC.