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For Love of Jazz

Volunteers' low-key approach brings high-quality tunes to Sonoma


COLLABORATIVE EFFORTS: Susan Frye, Vic Conforti and Linda King are among the many who make it happen.

By Patricia Lynn Henley

A soft motion ripples across the audience as heads bob and feet tap in time with the sweet and sensuous music. It's a warm September evening, the last in a summer series of free monthly jazz concerts in Sonoma Plaza's outdoor amphitheater.

Late arrivals lug picnic baskets and search for a spot to roost. The wide wooden benches filling the amphitheater are full, as is the surrounding low concrete retaining wall. Volunteers pass donation baskets, gathering in the cash needed to keep the music going. It's just one more successful evening for the Sonoma Valley Jazz Society (SVJS).

"We want to connect people with jazz," explains society president Janice King. "I mean, I love blues and classical, but there's something about jazz. It's multilayered."

King remembers when she first encountered the Sonoma Valley Jazz Society. A mother who also worked full time, she wasn't able to get out of the small town of Sonoma often to hear good music. And she wanted to get involved in her local community, but wasn't sure how to find the time. Then she stumbled across one of the summer concerts.

"It was a nice summer night. There was the farmers market, and the jazz was playing. I thought, this is heaven. It doesn't get much better than this."

The society was formed 19 years ago by a group of locals who didn't want to have to drive out of town to hear really great jazz. One of the founders, Norm Anderson, passed away last year. Another, David Watson, moved to Hawaii. But in its own laid-back fashion, the jazz society continues to ensure that indigenous American music will be played locally.

"It's so low-key that it just kind of grows organically," says Michael J. Kelley, a local music promoter and sound engineer. "The right kind of people find out about it, and they bring people from all over the world—it's truly world jazz."

Past headliners include Omar Sosa and his Afreecanos band, as well as the Honolulu Jazz Quartet. In addition to the four free Summer Plaza concerts, there's a Meet the Musicians series, where jazz pros both perform and talk about their musical careers. Plus, the society co-sponsors an annual jazz camp, with middle and high school students coached by experienced musicians.

The society also helps book jazz musicians on Friday and Saturday nights in the lounge at the Lodge at Sonoma. King handles that in conjunction with society board member-jazz vocalist Dana Land. Musicians love playing in the lounge, Land says. "It's a listening venue," Land explains.

SVJS first vice president Vic Conforti has loved jazz since he was 12. His brother's a musician, and Conforti, whose holds a day job as an architect, plays chromatic harmonica and the drums. "I love jazz and I love to share it with people," he says of his long-term commitment to the society.

The group's annual operating budget of about $12,000 is raised by collection baskets at the free concerts, $40–$70 memberships and $200 annual sponsorships by local businesses and individuals. About a dozen core volunteers keep everything going.

Society cofounders Bev Prevost, Rocco Leucero and Wanda MacAleese stay involved to varying degrees. In addition to King, Land and Conforti, society board members include Susan Frye, Lina Perals, Sylvia Kelly, Diane Rawicz, Ann Hollister, David Aguilar, Ted Bell and Bonnie Thomas.

They call themselves "the little jazz society that could." King likes making announcements at the summer concerts because it gives her a chance to look out over the diverse audience.

"It's so great that we can bring this little bit of pleasure into their lives and just add to the whole community. I know people say it's become a tradition with them, the jazz concerts in the park. They've been coming for years and years."

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