What New Frequencies aims to be: Cheap. Cutting-edge. Crucial. Cool.
What it’s determined not to be: Castor oil. The first series of unusual performances at McColl Center for Art + Innovation has been designed as a tonic for audiences, not a “take your cultural medicine” prescription.
The target audience? Anyone who wonders what kind of concerts and readings larger cities than ours get and/or what’s out of the mainstream and ahead of the pack. But Jeff Jackson, who curated the 10-event series, uses the word “fun” when talking about it.
“These events aren’t only for extraordinarily savvy people,” says Jackson of the dance and jazz concerts, film screenings and authors’ readings. “These are things general audiences could enjoy. We have a big-tent approach, not a holier-than-thou philosophy.
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“The (performers) are virtuosos. This series isn’t just unusual for Charlotte; it’s adventurous for any city. Friends from Baltimore and San Francisco e-mailed me and said, ‘This looks amazing. I wish I lived there.’ ”
The series began strongly last month, when a capacity crowd saw short films by Jem Cohen. (A capacity crowd for the screening room is 70, though chairs with less helpful sightlines can be added. The concert space holds more than 100, depending on the way seats are arranged among artistic installations.)
New Frequencies is a perfect fit for us ... We’re not a normal theater or music venue, but you get an interplay with performers you can’t find anywhere else.
Armando Bellmas of the McColl Center
“New Frequencies is a perfect fit for us,” says Armando Bellmas, director of marketing and communications for the McColl. “We’re a center for resident artists from all kinds of fields, people who are creating new work. These musicians and filmmakers do that, too.
“We’re not a normal theater or music venue, but you get an interplay with performers you can’t find anywhere else. They’re on the same level as you, and everything’s right up close.”
A plan that brewed slowly
Jackson planted the seeds of this idea with former McColl head Brad Thomas in 2013. Jazz musician Brent Bagwell, who plays with Ghost Trees and promotes concerts by other bands, put together four shows in 2014-15. (“Jazz is a religion that spreads eyeball to eyeball,” he says. “Converts are made when you’re right on top of them.”)
Knight Foundation grants paved the way: A $95,000 gift in fiscal year 2014 let the McColl remove a wall in the middle of the concert space (among other things), while $40,000 in the current fiscal year helped cover programming and expenses. Most crucially, that support let the McColl keep prices at $5 for author and film nights, $10 for music and dance.
“Admission costs shouldn’t be a barrier,” says Bellmas. “You’re mostly risking your time on work you don’t know.”
Veteran promoters Bagwell and Ross Wilbanks, who have set up the current jazz and film components respectively, have struggled for a decade to find suitable venues.
Bagwell has bounced from Snug Harbor to Studio 1212 to The Milestone; Wilbanks has found himself in coffee shops and art galleries. Both have used Patchwerk Playhaus, the back room of Century Vintage on Central Avenue. “(Jazz saxophonist) Ken Vandermark got a MacArthur ‘genius grant’ and played in the back room of an antique store,” says Jackson. “That’s a shame.”
A new clearinghouse for culture
“The small venues have all been hospitable, but it’s nice to have jazz under such an esteemed roof,” says Bagwell. “For most musicians, the jazz world is neither huge nor glamorous. For a Wayne Shorter or Wynton Marsalis, it can be. But people we’re bringing have made music in nooks and crannies all their lives. Even in New York or Chicago, they play small rooms.
“All of a sudden, the McColl Center is one of the premiere venues for this kind of music in the East. When I send (musicians) a link to the website, they say ‘What a beautiful place.’ It’s in this old church, there’s art all around, it’s an arts center with a real budget.”
When Wilbanks tells artists or distributors he’s working out of such a spot, they return e-mails more quickly and take him more seriously: “It’s been an ideal situation to be stationed somewhere consistently, and the McColl has a reputation for supporting modern art.”
No one involved sees this as competition for established programs, from Charlotte Film Society’s multiple screenings to Jazz Arts Initiative’s monthly tributes to older jazz greats. New Frequencies remains a small piece of a big, multifaceted puzzle.
Filling an obvious gap
“Any film community should have a lot of levels,” says Wilbanks. “You need large multiplex films that are party events, a ‘Star Wars’ for everyone to engage with. You need art-house theaters like the Manor. And you need a place that’s consistently doing something like New Frequencies – a kind of salon, an inexpensive place to take a flier on films you won’t see anywhere else.”
For Jackson, a writer and critic who has covered the Charlotte cultural scene since arriving in 2005, New Frequencies meets a long-neglected need.
“The big museums and the Arts & Science Council have been out of touch with performers like these, and someone needed to fill the gap,” he says.
“I’m not blaming the larger cultural institutions. It’s just a reality: They haven’t made it part of their mission, and they’re not aware of what’s happening at this grassroots level. We’re lucky the McColl Center responded.”
All concerts take place at McColl Center for Art + Innovation, 721 N. Tryon St. Ben Marcus starts at 7 p.m.; the rest begin at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10 for music and dance, $5 for movies and readings. Details: 704-332-5535 or mccollcenter.org.
MUSIC, Feb. 9: Clarinetist Ben Goldberg’s Invisible Guy trio includes pianist Michael Coleman and drummer Hamir Atwall. Goldberg, the top clarinetist in a 2013 Rising Star poll for Downbeat magazine, draws on his Jewish roots and radical versions of Klezmer music to create adventurous chamber jazz.
FILM, Feb. 26: “Daredevils,” described as “a feature about risk and language,” gets its regional premiere. Stephanie Barber’s piece debuted in the 2013 New York Film Festival; in it, a writer (Kimsu Theiler) interviews a well-known artist (Flora Coker) and feels reverberations from their discussion throughout her day.
DANCE, March 4-5: Japanese Butoh started in the late 1950s; it’s traditionally performed in white body makeup with slow, hyper-controlled motion and extreme imagery or emotions. Dancer Du Yufang will do a new work, accompanied by Andy Hasenpflug (music director for American Dance Festival). The local Triptych Collective opens the program; the band Ghost Trees will participate in one piece.
FILM, March 22: Films by Chicago writer-director Peter Thompson mix documentary, dream and fiction. He described “Lowlands,” which will show here, as “a cinematic essay that moves between chronological and geographical zones and events, including the 1996 trial of a Bosnian Serb for crimes against humanity, the paintings of Johannes Vermeer, and the relationships between them.”
READING, April 12: Ben Marcus, author of “Age of Wire and String” and “The Flame Alphabet” (published by Knopf), reads from his work. This American experimental novelist and story writer, whose work regularly appears in the New Yorker, has won Guggenheim Foundation and American Arts and Letters awards. He appears through arrangement with CPCC’s Sensoria Festival.
MUSIC, April 22: Trio Red Space consists of Tim Daisy (percussion), Mars Williams (saxophones) and Jeb Bishop (trombone). The Chicago musicians have made jazz together and separately and played with bands as various as The Vandermark 5 and Psychedelic Furs.
FILM, May 20: Experimental filmmaker George Kuchar, who’s known for his outrageous mix of camp, humor and a self-described “low-fi aesthetic,” earned praise from Andy Warhol, John Waters and the Village Voice (whose critics ranked “Hold Me While I’m Naked” one of the top 100 films of the 20th century). New Frequencies screens some of his rare short films.
READING, June 3: Poet Sandra Beasley, who received a 2015 National Endowment of the Arts Literature Fellowship, has a new book (“Count the Waves”) out from Norton. She’ll read from her work, possibly including the memoir “Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life.”
MUSIC, June 10: Ghost Trees Big Band, a 13-piece ensemble built around local free jazz duo Ghost Trees and using many players on the Charlotte scene, includes instruments as unusual in jazz as pedal steel guitar and singing saw. The Chicago duo of cornetist Josh Berman and reeds player Keefe Jackson will open.