Bechtler celebrates five years with all-star jazz concert at neighboring Knight

The Bechtler Museum of Modern Art is celebrating its fifth anniversary Friday by moving its hugely popular, sold-out monthly jazz concerts to the larger neighboring Knight Theater.

The Ziad Jazz Quartet, which began hosting the monthly jazz series in May 2010, will be joined by a who’s who of guest artists.

At the time Bechtler launched the monthly series, there was a lull in jazz concerts in Charlotte. When saxophonist Ziad Rabie got the call about directing a monthly jazz series, he was more than surprised.

“I thought it was a practical joke,” says Rabie, who played The Bechtler’s opening New Year’s Eve party with a funk/R&B cover combo in 2010. “I got a call saying, ‘Hey, can you play Miles, Coltrane, and Monk?’ That type of jazz has never been super popular in Charlotte. I never realized there was this latent jazz audience looking for the right situation and venue to come out and support it.”

Within three months, the Bechtler was turning people away at the door. Eventually, the Quartet started doing two shows on the designated night each month.

“The first couple of times, we had 30 people,” Rabie says. “By the third month, we had 400.”

“It’s my favorite night of the month,” says Bechtler President and CEO John Boyer. “We could never have imagined it becoming as successful as it has.”

The jazz series is one of many programs – others are its Music and Museum chamber orchestra series and its Modernism + Film series – that the Becthler uses to complement and add context to its visual art, Boyer says.

The Ziad Jazz Quartet usually focuses on a theme that reflects either the current exhibit or era or season, but for the anniversary, Rabie recruited several old friends.

“We’re reprising some of the more popular selections they’ve done on these concerts,” Rabie says. “It’s going to be a look back at the best of the last five years.”

His guests include vocalist Toni Tupponce, drummer Al Sergel, percussionist Jim Brock, trumpeter Jon Thornton, trombonist Rick Simerly, and Gastonia native Maria Howell.

The anniversary show is somewhat of a reunion for the now-Atlanta-based actress and singer (“The Color Purple,” “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”), who first met Rabie and band members Ron Brendle (bass) and Rick Dior (drums) while singing at Jonathan’s Jazz Cellar in the mid-’80s.

“Although there were other places like the Double Door and the Radisson, we were the only one called a jazz spot and the Jazz Society was really strong as well,” Howell says. “Ziad was on the scene when I came on at Jonathan’s Jazz Cellar. We had a great time down there.”

Nowadays, she says she has a great time in Charlotte every July, when she returns for back-to-back Independence Day concerts at the Bechtler that always sell out.

And in the end, it’s a win-win situation for everyone – good for artists, good for the jazz community as a whole and good for the Bechtler.

Says Boyer, the museum’s president: “We’ve tried to find a good measure of variety so we can attract people who wouldn’t flock to a Matisse exhibition, but might be interested in urban planning or architecture and design.”

Or jazz.