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Xavier Magazine | April 27, 2017

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Concerted Effort

There’s an old joke in the music business:

Q: How do you make a million dollars in jazz?

A: Start with two million.

The same joke applies to that other great art music, classical music. As standards fall and popular culture continues what seems to be an endless decline, classical and jazz are in danger of becoming dead musical languages.

But given his vocation, John Heim, S.J., is no stranger to maintaining strict standards in the face of changing fads, of holding to timeless values and a sense of what is truly good and what is truly not. That faith in the redeeming quality of great music continues to drive Heim—and the music series he has created and made renown. For the last 30 years, Heim has presented hundreds of concerts through the University—more than 250 classical concerts and nearly that many jazz events—and attained near-legendary status in the national and international jazz and classical music communities for his honesty, lack of compromise and devotion to the music. Not to mention his notoriously wicked sense of humor.

Asked how he manages to fund his jazz crusade, he says with perfect comic timing and deadpan delivery, “We beg … And we borrow … And we steal.”

Since he began presenting classical concerts in 1976, with jazz following a few years later, he has transformed the University into one of the area’s leading concert venues. Back then, classical music lovers had Music Hall and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, but if you preferred solo piano and classical guitar, you were out of luck. Jazz devotees had it even worse. Greater Cincinnati was home to the great guitarist Cal Collins, but if you wanted to hear him, the only options were loud, smoky jazz joints.

And while every jazz lover in the Cincinnati area no doubt has fond memories of the original Blue Wisp in nearby O’Bryonville, that was pretty much it as far as the area’s jazz venues when the Xavier series was in full swing in the 1980s. Back then, the opportunity to hear great jazz in an acoustically fine theatrical setting was a rare bit of heaven.

Some of the greatest names in jazz have performed on the University stage. For guitarists, there was Herb Ellis, a former member of Oscar Peterson’s greatest trio; classical/jazz/bossa nova great Charlie Byrd; and perhaps the greatest, most lyrical mainstream jazz guitarist of the past 50 years, Joe Pass. Xavier’s roster of jazz pianists includes McCoy Tyner, who made history with the great John Coltrane; Harold Mabern, one of the kings of modern Memphis jazz, blending the soul of blues and R&B into his swinging, hard-bopping style; and the legendary Marian McPartland, the grand dame of jazz piano. Even Teddy Wilson, who made history as part of Benny Goodman’s groundbreaking integrated quartet, performed at Xavier. And of course, there were hundreds of lesser-known jazz artists, as well as platoons of classical virtuosi, all coming to Cincinnati to perform at the University.

Joking aside, Heim hasn’t resorted to larceny to fund his habit. But while the University provides the venue and staffing, it can’t afford to subsidize a classical and jazz concert series. “We get some corporate support, but it’s mostly private,” Heim says. “We just the other day got $6,000 in the mail as a bequest. It’s partial. I’m not sure what the other part is going to be.” But Xavier’s support, combined with his vocation, does make the series possible, he says earnestly. “It’s the difference between being associated with a non-profit organization, as opposed to having my own venue where I have to make a living and support five children and a wife,” he says. “I just couldn’t do it, and I don’t think many people could.”

He’s right. The failed independent promoters who have come and gone since the Xavier concerts began 30 years ago could nearly fill the 360-seat theater in the Gallagher Student Center where Heim stages his events.

With the venerable CSO dominating classical music in the area, Heim is understandably better known in jazz circles than for his classical efforts. J Curve Records, the Cincinnati jazz label that briefly flourished in the late 1990s and early part of this decade, even dedicated a CD of Cincinnati jazz to him. But though many of Cincinnati’s jazz fans are also his fans, Heim’s first and truest love remains classical music, played on piano unadorned by accompaniment. The direction of the series has evolved by popular demand.

“People complained that, with the nice theater, it wasn’t fair that we didn’t have classical guitar as well,” Heim says. “And then they said, ‘Look, if you’ve got the piano and guitar idea, why don’t you expand it to include jazz?’ At one point, we even had a string series, but nobody showed up.”

They did show up for both the piano and guitar series. But drawing crowds has never been easy. And after a while, the jazz audience began dwindling, as older performers lost their drawing power—and sometimes their dexterity. It was time for a change. So, with the aid of patron and amateur promoter Rod Barr, Heim shifted gears. He ended the jazz series and launched a swing series, featuring a big band led by Bill Gemmer, as well as other local, smaller groups and national guest artists. The series draws nearly full houses every time.

Through these changes, Heim’s spiritual calling continues to shape his musical decisions. Faith in high standards and the deep belief that those standards do not change have helped him maintain the series’ high quality despite its small budget. “The only way I’m going to put anybody up there is if I’m pretty well sure they’re going to do a good job for the audience and myself,” he says. “There’s enough junk around, I don’t want to be responsible for more of it.”

Still, at age 71—even a very youthful 71—Heim knows he can’t keep this up forever. But for now, he sees no end in sight. And in a way, he sees the series very much in keeping with the Jesuit commitment to service. “I think that’s one of the functions of universities,” he says. “Not only to educate the young kids who come to them, but also to be of service to their communities. And I think this is one way in which we are being of service to our community.”

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