Spoleto Festival USA’s popular Jazz Series regularly entices an international variety of artists to Charleston for concerts at the Cistern, Gaillard Auditorium, and the Recital Hall at the Simons Center for the Arts. This year, it looks like another impressive lineup — thanks in large part to the year-long efforts and guidance of director/producer Michael Grofsorean. It’s a role within the arts world that he cherishes and takes extremely seriously.
“The presenter’s job is to create trust with the audience,” Grofsorean says. “It’s like if the Museum of Modern Art mounts an exhibition by someone who’s name I’d never heard of; what I know is I trust that the Museum of Modern Art will only put on great work. I trust that only great work will go on those walls and in those rooms, and they won’t waste my time. That’s the responsibility of performing arts presenters. You have to gain the trust.”
The Spoleto Festival’s Jazz series kicks off on Fri. May 22 with a set from vocalist Tierney Sutton and her band. Also on the schedule are French violinist Florin Niculescu, Hawaiian ukulele player Jake Shimabukuro, Italian pianist and composer Ramberto Ciammarughi, and vocalist René Marie and her trio.
“There are three things I go for,” he says. “First, there’s lyricism. I think music needs to sing to people in a certain way. The next one is depth. It’s gotta say something. And the third things is, if we get lucky‚ moments of transcendence. You can say that about Beethoven or Bach … and I’m with Duke Ellington in this respect; there’s either good music, or there’s the other kind. So this aesthetic viewpoint is very general. But because it’s general, and artists are unique human beings with unique interests, it can be expressed in really different ways. I really like the fact that when I’m out hunting for this stuff that it comes from all over the globe, I don’t piece it together geographically, like, ‘Oh, I’d like to have something from South America and something from South Africa.’ It just comes from what the artists are creating. That’s really all it is.”
Additional “special events” on Spoleto’s pop music schedule include the Punch Brothers and Beverly “Guitar” Watkins. The full lineup reflects the wide range of international musical veterans and up-and-coming artists who specialize in just about everything under the global jazz tent. It also demonstrates a high standard on Grofsorean’s part.
“Another thing that helps shape the series is that I’m interrogating people who’ve been to the festival for ideas. I think that if you find someone who, in their unique way, creates the sort of music I’m describing, then I’m taking advantage of what they believe in artistically to lead me to other people who share these very general ideas about what music needs to be. I find probably at least half of the artists I invite to the festival through other artists.”
Grofsorean got his start working with music events, radio, management, and promotion in college in Michigan. His reputation as a reliable guy with an ear for high quality music was strong. In 1980, just three years after its official launch, the Spoleto Festival USA invited Grofsorean to arrange and direct the jazz events within the festival. Early on, he dazzled local and visiting fans with programs that boasted the likes of Mary Lou Williams, Dexter Gordon, and Sarah Vaughan. He currently works in Michigan with the Musica Extraordinaria management and promotion group.
“I had a year off in 1987, but I’ve done every year since 1980,” he says. “If you said to me in 1980, ‘In the year 2008 you’re going to bring a Brazilian piano player to the festival who’s never been outside Brazil and sell 1,000 tickets,’ I would have laughed at you. But it’s been where I’ve been aiming all these years.
“I’m on this lifetime hunt for music,” Grofsorean adds. “It’s terribly subjective, but I’m looking for music that speaks to me in those ways. If it does, for a significant amount of people in our festival constituency, it’ll speak to them.”