It’s Friday night at The Stage Door Theater in uptown Charlotte. Chatter fills the room. But the chatter fades as a jazz ensemble of middle and high school students take the stage to perform a 10-minute set featuring “Bye Bye Blackbird” and “Twelve’s It.”
A saxophonist, pianist, bassist and drummer step onto the stage. Jeremy Davenport, the brown-haired headliner with a short mohawk, dressed in a dark suit, follows carrying his beloved trumpet. He turns to the band and cues them with a few snaps of his fingers.
It’s the prelude to a 90-minute tribute to Frank Sinatra, and another sold-out show, a monthly, live performance series created in 2013 by Steele Creek resident Lonnie Davis. The series showcases the Charlotte region’s most talented musicians.
“The idea of a monthly jazz series is something we always wanted to do,” said the 37-year-old Davis.
She is president and CEO of the Jazz Arts Initiative, a nonprofit organization she co-founded with artistic director, jazz drummer and husband, Ocie Davis. The mission of JAI is to develop an audience for jazz through education, performance and support.
“Jazz is America’s classical music,” said Thomas Clark, a self-proclaimed jazz lover and retired banking executive. “Lonnie’s done a fantastic job taking the art form to another level.”
Lonnie Davis is a 25-year jazz flutist who, in 2006, along with her husband and two daughters, moved to Charlotte a year after Hurricane Katrina ravaged her native New Orleans.
They went to Houston shortly after the storm, where they stayed in a hotel for two weeks. Lonnie, who was six months pregnant, was anxious to return home. And although it had escaped damage, Ocie suggested they explore other places to live.
That fall, they moved to Blacksburg, Va. Davis soon gave birth to her second daughter. And a few months later, a neighbor, who knew Davis’ 7-year-old daughter had been enrolled in a French immersion school in New Orleans, heard about a similar curriculum at Smith Academy of International Languages (now Waddell Language Academy) in Charlotte.
Davis and her family visited Charlotte twice in two months before moving here in 2006.
“Ocie and I immediately began learning about the cultural community, the music scene,” Lonnie said.
After three months, they connected with musicians, and Ocie soon began playing gigs and teaching private lessons.
Meanwhile, Davis landed a sales job at music retailer. After about eight months, she was hired at the Community School of the Arts. She practiced her flute during lunch breaks, and often performed with her husband, a drum teacher at the school, at faculty recitals.
Lonnie said one day while washing dishes she was inspired to start a nonprofit organization that supports jazz.
“There was no organization around educating the public about this music or connecting musicians,” she said.
In 2009, the couple established JAI.
“I knew from the beginning education was one of the main focus areas,” she said.
They contacted friends who were school band directors, and during school hours ran a residency-style program where they evaluated music students.
They also held assemblies, programmed jazz acts at Festival in the Park in 2010, and collaborated with UNCC, Johnson C. Smith University and the Mint Museum for programs such as the Jazz All-Star Youth Ensemble and the JazzArts Music Camp. The also created a support program for local musicians to network, and The Jazz Room to help build a stronger jazz audience.
JAI is funded by revenue and grants from the Arts & Science Council, Belk Inc., the Knight Foundation, PNC Bank and the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation.
Lonnie, who’s listed among Southern Living magazine’s 50 People Who Are Changing the South in 2015, said she hopes to build greater community support, secure more funding for educational programs, and establish a jazz club and jazz center to teach adults and kids and host performances.
“I'm changing the South one jazz audience member at a time either through education or live performance,” she said.
Natasha Morris is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Natasha? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact the Jazz Arts Initiative at info@theJazzArts.org or 704-336-9350 to be added to the season five waiting list. All memberships are sold out.