Jazz in June started as a gamble. In 1991, the Sheldon Art Association (SAA) – formerly known as the Nebraska Art Association – began the event as a way to draw younger audiences to the museum. There was no money to pay artists, and making money didn’t seem realistic, either. But a small but mighty group of visionaries decided to do it anyway – maybe for just one year – and see how it went.
The gamble paid off.
Now 25 years later, every Tuesday in June, thousands of people gather for live jazz, camaraderie, food, and beautiful summer weather on the Sheldon Museum of Art’s west lawn. The event that started out as a magnet for young art lovers and to share educational information about works in the Sheldon sculpture garden has become a Lincoln tradition.
Kathy Piper, the former executive director of the Nebraska Art Association, was on the planning committee during the first Jazz in June, and she said the group had no idea what to expect for the first concert. The only promotion for the event was a batch of mailed postcards.
“I had no idea who was coming,” she said.
People began to arrive. Piper estimates the crowd that first night at around 500. The board members could not have been more pleased.
The concerts began to grow from there – mostly through word of mouth. The Lincoln Journal Star wrote reviews of every concert and published photos. The event started to catch on.
The Nebraska Jazz Orchestra was one of the first groups to play at Jazz in June. Dave Sharp, a former instructor in jazz studies and jazz history at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln School of Music spearheaded the coordination of the bands during the first several years. Because money was short, he’d cobble together groups of two or three of his musician friends or ask a local group to play for little money. Dan Ladely, now the director of the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center, also volunteered to help coordinate musicians.
It was not long before Jazz in June’s reputation as the herald of summer began to draw musicians and audiences from all over the country for “Great Jazz in the Great Outdoors.” In the mid-1990s, Berman Music Foundation founder Butch Berman joined the Jazz in June committee. It was Berman’s knowledge and passion for jazz and his foundation’s sponsorship that catapulted Jazz in June to the next level.
For more than 10 years, the Berman Music Foundation served as a valued partner, team member, and stakeholder to the Jazz in June music series. In 2004, Jazz in June began to experience record crowds with the performances of the then 14-year old jazz piano wunderkind Eldar Djangurov and his trio and the Kendra Shank Quartet. Under the tutelage of Berman, Jazz in June was able to bring many of the nation’s most accomplished jazz artists to the stage. Berman, who passed away January 31, 2008, devoted much of his final days to planning that year’s series. To show their appreciation, the Jazz in June committee dedicated the 2008 concert series to his memory.
As the crowds grew so did the community interest. Corporate support began to increase, as did in-kind services and the event’s volunteer base. In 2005, the Farmer’s Market which was traditionally a Saturday Haymarket event, found its way to Tuesdays in June, with the tag line now evolving to “Great Jazz, Great Food, in the Great Outdoors.” The same year, Sheldon and University Landscape Services started sculpture garden tours, and docents were stationed in the museum to encourage people to visit the exhibitions and answer questions.
Marthaellen Florence, who has been involved with 23 of the 25 Jazz in June concert series and has been the chairwoman of the event for more than 10 years, said she believes Jazz in June owes its longevity to the passion that it ignites in the people of Lincoln. “Where else can jazz lovers experience a front row seat to an international array of world class performers, free of charge under a summer prairie sky?”