Next year, the house concert series wants to double up.

Arnie Francis is enthusiastic about Diane White and seven other groups in the 2015-16 series. ©Brett Delmage, 2013
Arnie Francis is enthusiastic about Diane White and seven other groups in the 2015-16 series. ©Brett Delmage, 2013 is about to announce its 2015-16 season of monthly jazz concerts from September to next June. The series will feature local favourites like vocalist Diane White and the Robert Fontaine Quartet, as well as visiting artists like Mike Rud and Sienna Dahlen from Montreal.

Read about the concerts in the 2015-16 series

But the Almonte/Mississippi Mills-based series has almost reached capacity – an impressive seven of its eight concerts this season were sold out, often weeks in advance. So organizer Arnie Francis told that he's looking to start a second series, based closer to Ottawa.

But he needs houses, and hosts, in locations like Manotick, or Stittsville, or west Ottawa.

Francis and his wife Ingrid Kadoke are long-time jazz fans. In 2012, they decided to share their love of jazz with their neighbours – and hear more of their favourite music – by hosting jazz concerts in their home in Almonte, and the JazzNhouse series was born. When they downsized from that house the following year, they found several hosts in the Almonte area who were willing to lend their homes for a concert once or twice a year. The concerts have continued to move from house to house in the general Mississippi Mills area for the last two years.

“Every year [attendance] gets a little better,” Francis said. “The first year based on averages, we had about 26 people per concert in the first 8 concerts. Then in 2013-2014, we had about 35 people on average. Well, this year, we're averaging 41-42 people per concert which is quite towards the top end of what house concerts can handle. We're not going to be expecting to expand that.” (In comparison, GigSpace, which hosts many jazz concerts, normally accommodates 46 listeners.)

And that has meant that he's had to turn people away – for example, the last concert of this season, on June 20 with the Melissa Boyce Trio from Toronto, has been sold out since early May and there's a wait-list. So Francis would like to find other locations so he could book artists, particularly visiting ones, for two consecutive concerts, for example on Friday and Saturday nights.

More opportunities for musicians to perform?

“Ideally, we would have a JazzNhouse Kanata series going that would run parallel to but not at the same time as the JazzNhouse Almonte series. What that allows for myself as an organizer [is] it means I can go to these very excellent artists and say to them, 'You know what, I have more than one gig for you. I would like you to play at this and this gig.' ”

“And I think that's the type of thing our performers are looking for. They're looking for an opportunity to play the music they love and when they come out to a concert like the last one in May [with the Carlos Alberto Santana Trio], they're blown away by the intensity, by the attention that the audience pays them, by the way people simply want to find out more about their music. What do you do? Where did you learn that particular style? That's a little different from a stage performance. So that's why we think we're going to stick with the concept.”

Having another series outside Mississippi Mills would also allow him to invite back groups who have been hits at past concerts, to play to a different audience, he said. He currently has a policy of not repeating acts.

He said he sees an opportunity to offer “really good musicianship in a house concert in, say, Kanata Lakes, or Westboro, or Stittsville. So the question becomes just breaking that little entrance thing where we can have a host willing to give this a go.”

In his own community, Francis said, he's been able to operate by word of mouth, but that hasn't worked in other towns like Perth, where, despite trying, he hasn't found any locations. So he's looking for referrals, in order to do one or two non-Almonte house concerts in 2015-16, and a full second series in 2016-17.

Our performers are looking for ... an opportunity to play the music they love and when they come out to a concert like the last one in May, they're blown away by the intensity, by the attention that the audience pays them, by the way people simply want to find out more about their music. What do you do? Where did you learn that particular style? That's a little different from a stage performance.
– Arnie Francis

He's looking for houses which, based on his experience, will work for a house concert: able to accommodate 35 to 50 listeners, and preferably not in a basement. “Not necessarily bigger but simply work better.”

Francis said that all but one of his hosts in 2014-15 had hosted previous house concerts. “So we are enjoying being invited into people's homes, and they just enjoy the way it rolls out. In concept it's difficult. People think that having 40, 45 people in the house – it's not always easy. But when we set up, it's pretty seamless. We have people set up the chairs, the musicians arrive an hour before the concert, they do the sound check, people come in. There's not a lot of ticket taking; it's all on-line. We check people off on the guest list inconspicuously. People just come in. It's like coming into somebody's home – it is coming into somebody's home, and just sitting down and seeing people you know, maybe new people. So for the hosts it's just an opportunity to enjoy the social environment of doing something like that. It's been really good.”

This year, one host did two concerts, while the rest did one. “We've had a couple of hosts who are quite open to having it again and again.” Next year will have some repeats, and at least two new hosts, he said.

Because house concerts are in small, intimate spaces, they're mostly acoustic, he said, although some guitar or basses or keyboards may require amps. “We had a vocalist who was comfortable with a mic and so needed to use a mic but most of the homes are not that big that you really would need a mic.”

“We're making sure that everybody is comfortable with the level of sound. Sometimes if you have a horn player, it can be quite hard to balance that sound. But usually we've had good results, people using mufflers and things like that. And basically the musicians have always been pretty adaptive. It's worked well. We've not had complaints about the quality of the sound coming out.”

Still getting new listeners, even in year three

The concerts generally attract listeners who live within about a 25 km radius or half-hour drive, Francis said. “We're seeing a pattern of about 30-35% coming from other communities. So we're getting quite a few people coming from Kanata, Stittsville, Western Ottawa area. We still get a very good contingent from Perth, amazingly enough, and Smiths Falls, Arnprior, around that area.”

However, “It is still pretty much of a local audience. And because more and more people are learning about this, even locally, we're getting people still in year three saying to us, 'I didn't know this existed. This is great! I'll bring a friend.'”

“One of the advantages of having house concerts is that some of the people that the hosts invite have not really been either to a live music concert in that type of an environment or have not been exposed to jazz. So when they are in the audience and listening and engaged with performers, they start to become very enthused about the music, about the ambiance, the environment. So we've been having really interesting ... people coming up to us afterwards and saying 'Oh that was fantastic. I really enjoyed that part of the concert, the vocalists or the sax player'.”

About a quarter of the audience attended almost every concert this year, he said, including the seven people who bought a season package, but there are also many new people at each concert.

Larger concerts: a lot more work for not a lot more payoff

In its second season, tried several larger concerts: a second performance of Capital Vox's choral remembrance of Dave Brubeck in a church in Almonte in December, a concert with the Miguel de Armas Latin Jazz Quartet with country singer Tracey Brown in the Almonte Old Town Hall in February, and an all-day JazzNfusion festival in June. While Francis said each was quite successful at the time, they're not where he wants to put any further effort.

Organizing a larger-scale concert from the ground up is a “a difficult and time-consuming task, and the rewards are pretty limited” – not just for the organizers, he emphasized, but also for the musicians.

“You've got to hire the hall, which is a major cost that we don't have with house concerts, and frankly that's why the artists enjoy it, because they get the money instead of it going to a venue. And then you've got to hire a sound man and then you have to make sure you have lighting, you've got to have people at the door. It gets extremely expensive and time-consuming. It doesn't work out in terms of the effort that's required from a volunteer base.”

“My wife and I do this because we enjoy doing it. And one of the things that we've always said is if we look at each other and we say we're not enjoying this anymore, we're just going to stop. And when we tried with the mini-jazzfest and the large concert at the Almonte Old Town Hall, it was a lot of work and we did not feel the warmth of engagement at that particular time from other people. Now maybe in time that will change, but we don't really have a structure or a committee structure where we could go to people to ask could you do this, can you do that.”

Francis said that two major differences between and other house concert series is that he sticks to one genre – jazz – and that he plans his series more than a year in advance, whereas other simply host musicians on tour.

“That's the way I tend to operate: very focused, very exact. Keep the scope limited, but we know what the scope is. That's why we're just going to make it a jazz series.”

    – Alayne McGregor

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