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John Lamb, Published October 21 2013

Small room in a small town attracts giants of jazz

Watch Stefon Harris LIVE from downtown Fargo! Navigate to the "Live From Studio 222" channel, click the 'Buy Ticket' button and enjoy the show!


Fargo - Tucked away behind Atomic Coffee, Studio 222 is a hidden gem in downtown Fargo.

The off-the-beaten-path space rolls out the red carpet to a worldwide jazz audience via the Internet on Tuesday.

The room hosts Grammy-nominated vibraphonist Stefon Harris. While the physical space can only hold around 100, Spider Johnk, the concert organizer, is live streaming the concert with the hopes of attracting jazz aficionados everywhere.

Johnk sees the Giants of Jazz Series serving as both an educational tool for musicians and a promotional instrument for Fargo-Moorhead.

“We’re really marketing Fargo. We keep talking about how ‘hip’ we are, but we don’t get a chance to show it outside the community,” says Johnk, who has 25 years of marketing and corporate event planning experience. “People will say, ‘What the hell is going on in Fargo that has these jazz greats coming through town on a regular basis?’ ”

Harris, who has performed with Charlie Hunter and Kurt Elling, among others, has been called “one of the most important young artists in jazz” by the Los Angeles Times. His 2010 release, “Urbanus,” was nominated in 2010 for a Grammy for Best Contemporary Jazz Album.

For Tuesday’s show, Harris will be backed by local musicians, bassist Bill Law, drummer Allen Carter and Jordan Christianson on keys.

Johnk says there are about 250,000 jazz teachers and students around the country. Additionally, 60,000 people subscribe to Down Beat, a monthly national jazz magazine. Johnk hopes some of these jazz fans will log on to www.livefromfargo.com, pay $4 and watch Tuesday’s performance.

“They get a chance to see someone they may never get to see again,” he says, noting that touring jazz acts don’t stop in just any town.

Which makes “Live from Fargo” so unique.

Johnk credits music teachers at North Dakota State University, Minnesota State University Moorhead and Concordia College with fueling a strong, but largely unheralded jazz scene. In recent years major musicians like Peter Erskine, who drummed for Steely Dan and Weather report, trumpeter Marvin Stamm and two-time Grammy-winning bassist Eddie Gomez, were brought to town for shows and to workshop with students.

“How many other towns have these giants of jazz coming through town and no one knows about it except a handful of students and teachers?” Johnk says. “The potential for this (series) to be a recruitment tool for the three colleges is huge.”

His plan is to present four to six concerts during the school year, with each concert streamed. He says the model could be extended to other music forms and eventually produced twice a week.

He’s hoping for another Giants of Jazz show in early December and has tentatively booked a return of the Eddie Gomez Trio in the spring

The shows can’t be recorded because of music licensing issues, and he knows some artists will have concerns about streaming the concerts. He says revenue from the viewing will be split among the performers.

He compares such concerns to those that artists had about radio and TV broadcasts decades ago.

“It’s an opportunity to reach way more people than it would be any other way,” he says.

Another concern from the musicians is the quality of the online presentation, but Johnk says the technology is finally right for such a show.

Three cameras, including an unmanned birds-eye view from above Harris’ vibraphones, will follow the 90-minute concert. The performance will also employ two sound engineers, one to focus on the room sound and the other focusing on the feed sound.

While he’d like to attract an online audience of thousands eventually, he’d be happy with a much smaller number the first time around.

“If we can get 100 people online, that proves my theory works,” he says, adding he hasn’t had much money for promotion and hopes interest spreads by word-of-mouth.

Even if many in the area opt to stay home and log on instead of going downtown and paying $30 to get in to Studio 222, that would show that Johnk’s model has legs.

“To get it off the ground several people have taken a big leap of faith to get it started,” Johnk says.

The Hotel Donaldson stepped up with rooms and Mezzaluna is supplying meals for the performers. InforumTV, which is owned by Forum Communications, is acting as a sponsor and providing video support.

Johnk hopes to get more supporters lined up. Ultimately he wants the series to be a self-sustaining business, even if it also serves as a promotional tool for the area.

“I honestly believe if you have a good music scene like this, there are other things that are healthy,” he says. “You don’t have to go to the movies to understand that the Fargo Theatre marquee is great for Fargo. Even if you don’t like jazz, it helps fill out our cultural card. The jazz scene is just one more of those valuable assets.”

Charley Johnson, president and CEO of the Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, sees the value in the programming and already jumped on board.

“I absolutely think the arts are a draw, just as sports are a draw. Any kind of entertainment outlet is a huge part of our community,” he says. “Anything that showcases an aspect of our community is a great thing for us.”

“In 1974 there was no ‘Austin City Limits,’ ” Johnk says. “Now, 40 years later, I’m a true believer that ‘Austin City Limits’ branded Austin (Texas) as a cultural center. Fargo could be the northern tier Austin.”

If You Go

What: Giants of Jazz featuring Stefon Harris

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Studio 222, 222 Broadway, Fargo

Info: Tickets for the show are $30 and are available only at the door. Watch online for $4 at inforumtv.com


Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533