Several years ago a group of intrepid music lovers in our nation’s capital, armed with expansive tastes that included healthy ears for improvised original music on the edgier side, developed a collective they dubbed Transparent Productions. Two of the principles in the Transparent Productions collective are friends and colleagues from my WPFW radio days in DC: Larry Appelbaum, host of "The Sound of Surprise" Sunday evenings from 5pm-7pm, and Bobby Hill, current program director at the station and host of "The Other Side" Saturday night/Sunday morning at midnight. Catch them both at 89.3 FM in the DC area or listen live at www.wpfw.org.
Transparent’s operation is quite simple: all performance admissions proceeds go directly to the artists and Transparent accrues no revenue from their productions. An interesting cadre of artists have come to the Transparent stage, which for the most part has operated largely out of a fair-trade import store in Takoma Park, MD (a close urban suburb of DC that is right on the Metro line), a space on the George Washington University campus, or Twins Jazz in DC’s U Street corridor. Their events, always warm and musically challenging at the same time, tend to play to a hearty cadre of adventurous listeners who’ve been thirsting for such sounds and finally have a portable "home" to such music in DC. Blessed with a locale which is convenient traveling distance for day trips by musicians living in or traveling through the New York City area, Transparent has gifted the DC market with performances that would not otherwise have been presented in that community. This idea always struck me as an opportunity for other forward-thinking collectives of enthusiasts to create a circuit for creative music, starting on a regional basis.
Willard Jenkins: What was the initial idea behind the formation of Transparent Productions?
Larry Appelbaum: District Curators helped create the audience and opportunities for creative, improvised music and avant garde jazz here in DC for nearly 20 years. But when they folded, it was a dry period and many of us grew tired of having to go to New York to hear this music. A small core group began meeting to discuss how we might start presentig. That early group included Lisa Stewart (formerly of District Curators), Bobby Hill, Thomas Stanley, VInce Margatis, Herb Taylor, and myself. We began working through some ideas and launched out first concert on July 6, 1997 with Joe McPhee & Michael Bisio at the old Food for Thought restaurant in Dupont Circle. With no budget for publicity we thought we’d draw a handful of die-hards. It was a nice surprise when nearly 90 people showed up.
Bobby Hill: [The idea was] To fill what we thought was a clear need and audience desire for the live presentation of the non-mainstream side of jazz music; what is often referred to as "free jazz", "avant garde jazz", or the more contemporary term "creative improvised music."
Did you have an exemplary presenting model at your disposal or was this Transparent idea crafted from whole cloth?
BH: The aesthetic model was District Curators, an organization that for many years presented such music at the now-defunct DC Space, located on 7th & E Street in Washington, DC. In fact, Transparent Productions’ first concert was a collaboration with District Curators during their 1997 4th of July festival. In one sense we jumped into the presenting mix because Disctrict Curators had transitioned from a monthly presenting organization to one that primarily only presented during major festival-type events. Our approach, though only utilizing donoated space and providing 100% of all admission and music sale proceeds to the artists, was uniquely Transparent’s approach to presenting such music.
LA: We knew we didn’t have the time to devote to building the typical infrastructure of an arts presenter. All of us have full-time jobs and we all pursue creative interests apart from music. But we also knew there was a loose network of presenters all over the country doing this sort of thing on a grass roots level. After much discussion we came to consensus on several important points:
a) we would volunteer our time to present the concerts
b) we would give the artists 100% of the door and all CD sales
c) we would charge a reasonable fee so that teenagers and
college students could attend
d) we would only use donated spaces near public transportation.
What would you describe as some of the successes and failures of Transparent thus far?
LA: This question is probably best answered by the audience or music community [in DC], but I would point to all the great musicians who have played shows for us, including William Parker, Leo Smith, Dave Douglas, the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, ICP Orchestra, Peter Brotzmann, Steve Coleman, Evan Parker, Rova, Matt Shipp, The Thing, and many others. In all we’ve presented nearly 150 concerts without any operating budget. [Since our interview Transparent has also presented the Kidd Jordan Trio with Joel Futterman and Alvin Fielder, the Frode Gjerstad Trio with Paal Nilssen-Love, and Kahil El’Zabar’s Ritual Trio, which was broadcast on WPFW.]
We’ve shown that it’s possible to create a scene if you’re willing to donate your time and do a little work. In that sense we were inspired not just by these great musicians, but also by the whole DIY (Do it Yourself) ethos.
We’ve been fortunate to work with wonderful people in the community who have helpted contribute in many ways. For example there’s a beautiful artist named Jennifer Carter who owns a Tibetan Buddhist Fair Trade store in Takoma Park. She lets us use her space for concerts and she’s been very supportive of us and all the musicians we’ve brought. Same with a jazz club in DC called Twins Jazz. We couldn’t do these shows without the creative community pulling together.
As far as failures go, some shows haven’t drawn as large an audience as we might like. And there were a couple of musicians who we couldn’t bring and they’re now gone. So, life is short and you can’t be too casual about passing on opportunities.
BH: Key successes: 1) A constant and growing audience that truly listens intently to and appreciates this music; 2) Major artist’s willingness to perform under our approach, and the positive feedback [we’ve] received; 3) The successful proliferation of similar such presenting organizations, such as Electric Possible ll, Clavius, and AnDieMuzik [in nearby Baltimore].
Challenges: To better balance the work required between Transparent Productions’ presenting members to reduce presenting fatigue. Also, maybe we shouldn’t also pay admission to the performances that we present; (just kidding: that’s all part and parcel of maintaining our transparency.)
How do you go about engaging artists for performances?
BH: As many of Transparent Productions presenting members are former and current music programmers on WPFW, and also write about this music through other avenues, we all have our artists associations and contacts. Over the years, artists have also reached out to us because of what they’ve heard.
LA: In the very beginning we actually contacted artists to invite them. Very soon the word spread and we began fielding calls and emails from musicians all over the world who wanted to play DC. Many musicians who play this music do not necessarily have agents. So when they organize their own tours they tend to start with New York and it’s fairly simple for them to get in a vehicle and drive to Philadelphia, Baltimore, DC and beyond. Some of the hard-core NY musicians come to hit in DC, and then drive back the same night. These musicians love to play and the DC audiences appreciate the opportunity to see them. Unfortunately, we only have the resources right now to do 2 or 3 shows a month. And as much as we love straight-ahead jazz and other musics, we’re committed to doing things that are a bit more out on the edge.
How do you go about publicizing Transparent’s presentations?
LA: With no money for publicity we have to be savvy and creative about getting the word out. We know how to write a press release and we make sure to send them out before press deadlines. The Washington City Paper [weekly] was very supportive when we started out. The Washington Post and the Post Express are very effective ways to publicize the shows. We are also fortunate to have a radio sattion in DC that supports this music, WPFW-FM. Perhaps the most important way to consistently and reliably get the word out is through the DC-Improv-Announce listserv. It’s a Yahoo list with more than 500 email subscribers and they get timely announcements of not only our shows but various other new music events here in DC. We’ve also got out website at www.transparentproductions.org.
BH: [We publicize our events] Via the Transparent initiated DC Improv listserv, which is now also used by other like presenters; old fashioned flyer postings, radio, occasional print, and word of mouth.
Ideally how would you envision Transparent growing and expanding?
BH: Through even younger membership and broadened space presenting opportunities. Also, we’re just beginning to toy with the possibility of going traditional [not-for-profit, tax exempt] 501(c)(3). All no-strings-attached donations are welcomed. All contacts are listed on our website: www.transparentproductions.org.
LA: I’d like to have the time and resources to present more than a couple of concerts a month. It might also be nice to find a supportive hotel that wants to kick in rooms for the artists who want to stay over.
You can reach Larry Appelbaum at email@example.com.