MusicMusic Features

Greg Willingham Pushes Jazz N Soul Music Through a Pandemic

A prolific pivot

When Greg Willingham, co-owner and founder of live entertainment promotion company Jazz N Soul Music, started streaming concerts, there were two unexpected developments. The first is Jazz N Soul Music, which promotes jazz, blues, R&B, funk and soul performances, saw its audience expand.

“Our age demographic which trends a little older, [is] beginning to tick back,” Willingham says. “We’re pulling in a younger audience.”

The second development is even more surprising. Jazz N Soul, which presents concerts by local and national artists like Buddy Guy, Jeffrey Osborne, Ocie Davis, Matt Kelly and more, is partnering for the first time with the Arts & Science Council (ASC) as part of its Culture Blocks program. 

Jazz N Soul Music
Greg Willingham (far right) with Dee Lucas (left) and Persona Bell. (Photo courtesy of JNS Music)

Even Willingham thinks it’s an unusual coupling. Culture Blocks supports arts and culture experiences taking place at libraries, recreation centers or parks. On Dec. 27, Willingham’s Jazz N Soul Inspiration series features guitarist Mayhue Bostic and his band, streaming live from The Cube, a music venue and art space in south Charlotte.

Everything we’ve promoted; we’ve done the traditional way,” Willingham says. “We sold tickets and if we made money, great, and if we didn’t, we didn’t. We never received grants or sponsorships.”

That template changes with the Culture Blocks-sponsored Mayhue Bostic show, but Jazz N Soul also continues to present some concerts the traditional promoter’s way: booking and scheduling shows and selling tickets. On Saturday, a week before the Mayhue Bostic Group was scheduled to hit the stage, Jazz & Soul presented a set by saxophonist Adrien Crutchfield. Charlotte native and former Prince sideman Crutchfield performed a virtual holiday-themed show at The Cube for $5-$10 a pop.

Jazz N Soul is an offbeat fit for ASC because it’s a for-profit promotion business, says Willingham, but a further twist is Jazz N Soul doesn’t care that much about making money — at least for itself.

“Our underlying mission is to uplift the community and feed the human spirit through music and entertainment,” says the company’s website.

We’re here primarily to support local and regional bands,” Willingham offers. “We try to get them a little money.” That attitude makes Jazz N Soul an outlier in the local live music business, and puts them on firmer ground than many Queen City promoters amid the pandemic. For each show, Willingham and his partner Keith Anderson hope to make enough money to pay musicians, stage crew, camera operators and streaming technicians. 

Keeping the lights on is the goal, not turning a hefty profit. It’s a philosophy in keeping with Jazz N Soul’s genesis, which took shape more than 50 years ago in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

From the Midwest to Middle C

 Willingham’s first musical memory stems from first grade, when he saw a group of high schoolers practicing with a rock band for a theatrical presentation of the musical Hair

“They were doing ‘Let the Sunshine In.’” Willingham recalls. “As a kid I thought, ‘Wow! This is something else.’”

Growing up in segregated 1970s Milwaukee, Willingham was exposed to a lot of  jazz, funk, R&B and blues in his Black neighborhood. “It’s something I grew up with, and that’s what I naturally gravitated toward.”  

When he was 8 years old, Willingham’s parents took him to Summerfest, a music festival on the shore of Lake Michigan, where he saw Steppenwolf and Gladys Knight and the Pips. Willingham also did some small party promotions in high school.

Jazz N Soul Music
Greg Willingham (left) with Anthony Hamilton (center) at the DNC in 2012. (Photo by Ron Lewis)

Then he went away to college where he earned a degree in Management Information Systems from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. There he joined the fraternity Phi Beta Sigma, with which he’s still active today.

 “I’ve been a member for almost 40 years,” Willingham says. “Representative John Lewis was a proud member, along with Al Roker and President Bill Clinton.” 

Charlotte’s Emmy Award-winning poet and author Boris “Bluz” Rogers is also a member of the fraternity. Willingham’s first concert promotion was a charity show for the frat, a live show featuring local artists.

 Then, life happened and Willingham took a break from concert promotion. After earning a Master of Business Administration (MBA) from Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee, Willingham got recruited for a job in Charlotte and moved to the Queen City in 1998. He married in 1991 and started raising a family. 

Today, Willingham heads his own company, SoundVizion LLC, the parent company of Jazz N Soul. By day, he works at project management, program management and relationship management. In the evening — and sometimes during the day, depending on his schedule — he runs Jazz N Soul Music with partner Anderson, a fellow member of Phi Beta Sigma.

In 2007, the fraternity converged on Charlotte for its conclave, a conference held every other year. Needing someone to help manage the fraternity’s entertainment, some of the brothers who knew about Willingham’s promotion background approached him. That’s when Jazz N Soul was born, created to promote a concert at the Booth Playhouse featuring saxophonist Everette Harp and vocalist Howard Hewett (Shalamar, Jody Watley). 

Willingham and Anderson established the company as an LLC, but the business didn’t really get serious until 2012. Willingham remembers booking shows regularly at the House of Jazz in Lake Norman for six months. 

A chance meeting with a bartender from Petra’s led to a close working relationship with the club’s then-owner, the late Jerry Brown. After an inaugural show featuring Latin jazz band Los Leones, and guitarist Troy Conn, Petra’s became Jazz N Soul’s base of operations. Despite some larger shows, such as Buddy Guy and Jeffrey Osborne at the 1,020-seat Halton Theatre at Central Piedmont Community College, the Plaza Midwood club remained Jazz N Soul’s home for three years. Willingham even dabbled in country, booking the Oak Ridge Boys at the Belk Theater.

After leaving Petra’s, Jazz N Soul booked shows at Morehead Tavern, then got in on the ground floor with Middle C Jazz, booking shows at the new venue in Uptown Charlotte. Willingham remembers meeting and hitting it off with the club’s former director and booker Jonathan Gellman, a relationship that came in handy later.

Diving into the stream

When COVID-19 swept through Charlotte, Middle C Jazz shut down temporarily in March. Jazz N Soul started looking for a new home, and Willingham reached out to Gellman, who had opened The Cube.

Ever since a primitive experiment with streaming at a Petra’s show, Willingham had wanted to embrace the new technology. Gellman had a stage set-up, including internet infrastructure and a high-speed connection at The Cube. Willingham describes The Cube as a studio, with lights and a digital soundboard. All Jazz N Soul had to do was bring in additional lights and cameras.

“Jonathan asked us to give it a try,” Willingham remembers. “If it works, we could stay. If it didn’t work, no harm, no foul.”

Jazz N Soul’s first streaming show at The Cube was Ken Gober in April. Technically, the stream didn’t look that hot, Willingham remembers, but the vibe in the space was infectious. The promoters relished the opportunity to support soundmen, videographers and local band members by putting them back to work.

“We were very excited to enter this new world,” Willingham says. Everyone was happy to be working again, even though there was no comparable compensation. “It was [cool] and still is. Most bands are just happy to play.”

Jazz N Soul Music
Willingham (far right) with the Sean Mason Trio following a Middle C Jazz set. (Photo courtesy of JNS Music)

With musicians, technicians and a venue, everything was set for Jazz N Soul to start streaming more shows at The Cube — except for one thing, a live audience.

That suggestion arose at a previous streaming show Jazz N Soul had booked earlier in the spring. Adrian Crutchfield had just performed a streaming set at The Playroom, a rehearsal facility in west Charlotte, but he had one suggestion for Willingham: It felt weird and disconcerting to be playing to an empty house.

Ever since then, Jazz N Soul has invited a small studio audience to each Cube show. The performance space is 4,500 square feet, so Willingham limits the audience to between five and 10 people. The people are socially distanced and staff performs temperature checks at the door. 

“It makes a big difference,” Willingham maintains. “The band can feel that energy, even with just five or 10 people.” 

In the meantime, business was steady, thanks to Willingham’s day job as head of SoundVizion. (The company had made a big impact in 2012 providing production support and stage management at the Democratic National Convention.)  

One of Willingham’s friends, R&B singer/songwriter, entrepreneur and Dear Soul Music record label owner Arsena Schroeder, asked Willingham to provide her production support. Schroeder has been awarded four ASC Culture Blocks grants in support of her brainchildren, the Unplugged+Live Concert Series and the Using Your Unique Songwriter’s Workshop. 

Willingham readily agreed to help his friend. As the project proceeded, Schroeder urged Willingham to get involved with ASC Culture Blocks. Willingham initially balked, pointing out that Jazz N Soul is not a nonprofit, but Schroeder persisted. She offered to coach Willingham through the Culture Blocks submission process.

If it wasn’t for Arsena there would be no way we would be involved with ASC Culture Blocks,” Willingham says. “It wouldn’t have happened.”

With a new relationship with ASC, new technology for streaming shows and a new demographic made up of  younger online viewers augmenting Jazz N Soul’s regulars, the company is set to weather the COVID-19 storm, and perhaps even thrive. But Willingham wants more — not for himself but for the community.

“We’re remaining viable,” he says. “We’re still growing our market share and our fan base. We’re still doing what our mission statement dictates, which is uplifting the community.”

Even if the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine proves not to be a magic bullet, Jazz N Soul can still fulfill its mission, Willingham says. But that’s not how he measures his company’s success.

“Can we keep moving forward? Yes, we can. Do we want to in this light? No, I don’t think we do,” he says. Willingham believes too many people have not been taking the coronavirus as seriously as they should, and he prays that  such attitudes will change, “We really need the theaters, clubs and the parks to open up. The musicians [may be] okay streaming, but they really need people, and I think we need each other as well.”  

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