By OCinSite At-Large | May 07, 2012 4:03 PM
Photo by Paul Prewitt
By Sarah Pierce
On any given night 11 years ago, you probably had only one choice when it came to seeing live music in Laguna Beach: the local rock band at a downtown bar. That all changed in 2001, with the founding of Laguna Beach Live!, a nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing professional jazz and chamber music to our beachside community.
Even if you haven’t heard of Laguna Beach Live!, you’ve more than likely heard one of their concerts. Over the past 11 years, Laguna Beach Live! has brought hundreds of professional musicians to Laguna including, most recently, Grammy Award-winning artists Billy Childs and Joshua Bell. The organization is also responsible for the annual Laguna Beach Music Festival, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in February.
“As a nonprofit, we’re limited in how much marketing we can do, so it’s very frustrating to me when people come to a concert and say, ‘Wow, this is so great! When did you start?’ ” co-founder Cindy Prewitt explains. “When I tell them how long we’ve been around, they immediately want to know, ‘Why didn’t I know about it?’ ”
Well now you know! And as the great Louis Armstrong once sang, “Now you has jazz”—thanks to Laguna Beach Live!.
Laguna Beach Live! was founded in August 2001 by Cindy, Joe Byrne and Sam Goldstein simply because “no one was playing jazz down here,” as Joe says.
“There are lots of visual arts in Laguna, but not much of the performing arts,” Cindy says. When the hotels agreed to the 2 percent Business Improvement District bed tax, 1 percent of which goes to support the local arts, they saw their opportunity.
Photo by M. Felt Photography
The group banded together, called their organization Laguna Beach Live! and held their first concert at Seven-Degrees with Sally Kellerman, who was best known as “Hot Lips” from the TV show “M*A*S*H*.”
“She’s a wonderful actress and funny lady, but a lot of people at that time didn’t know she has a terrific voice [and] can really sing,” Joe says. He and Sally have known each other for more than 40 years, ever since attending Hollywood High School together, so she was happy to help an old friend out.
Thanks to Sally’s smooth, sexy vocals, the concert was a success, and jazz music in Laguna was born.
Music for All
It’s not just the rhythmic notes of jazz that can be heard floating through the ocean air, however. Laguna Beach Live! puts on nearly 30 concerts a year featuring accomplished musicians in jazz, chamber, bluegrass and even gospel.
“We keep trying new things,” Cindy explains. “We look around and see what we don’t have, especially in the south county area, and try to bring it here.”
All the concerts are held in intimate venues that allow the audience to get up close and personal, and even interact with the musicians after the show.
It’s all part of the organization’s mission to increase local appreciation of music while making the concerts accessible to everyone, “regardless of their ability to afford good music,” says board member Joe Hanauer.
Most of the concerts are free, but ticket prices never go above $40, even for the most accomplished musicians. A Joshua Bell concert in overpriced New York City, for example, could cost as much as $200.
“To have this kind of music and be able to drive 10 minutes to enjoy it is quite a luxury, especially with those kinds of prices,” Joe says.
Visitors Far and Wide
Laguna Beach Live!’s other goal is to attract tourists to Laguna to support local businesses, he says.
“The business environment is so critical to the way of life we have in Laguna,” Joe explains. It’s important to the organization that they give back to the community, especially the hotels that generously pay more taxes to support the arts. “What Laguna Beach Live! does is it presents something for the hotels to help direct their visitors to.”
Arts and culture are magnets for tourists, and tourism research repeatedly shows that cultural travelers stay longer and spend more than other travelers. Audiences to arts and culture events pump nearly $32 million a year into Laguna’s economy, excluding the cost of admission, according to the 2005 study “Arts & Economy Prosperity III.” Spending by arts and culture organizations and their audiences also supports nearly 1,500 full-time jobs in Laguna.
Arts organizations like Laguna Beach Live! help local businesses grow, create jobs and secure Laguna’s reputation as a worldwide destination.
“It’s an eco-cycle that works,” Joe says.
It’s not just tourists that Laguna Beach Live! is hoping to attract, however.
“I think you would be surprised to hear the percentage of locals who come to see our shows versus out-of-towners,” co-founder Sam Goldstein explains. Sam estimates only about 30 to 35 percent of their audiences are locals.
“It depends on the concert,” Cindy says. Events like the Laguna Beach Music Festival, which has a lot more press and marketing, probably has an audience comprised of two-thirds out-of-towners, she says. Smaller concerts like their First Sundays are comprised of 80 percent locals.
“It’s the search for bodies. You’re always trying to bring people in,” Sam says. A good example is the Billy Childs concert Laguna Beach Live! held at Laguna Beach High School last October, which was also filmed for PBS television.
“I was lucky enough to get Billy Childs, who’s a three-time Grammy winner, and last year won the Grammy ‘Jazz Musician of the Year,’ ” Sam says. “He’s sold out Disney Hall [which seats 2,265], and we had to scuffle to fill the high school auditorium.
“It’s amazing. You can almost bring in God and you can also perform to a bowling alley,” he adds with a laugh.
Just the fact that Laguna Beach Live! has been able to attract such talented musicians, however, is a testament to the positive things they’ve accomplished in a relatively short period of time. And their vision for the future continues to grow.
Laguna Beach Live! hopes to televise more shows like the Billy Childs concert, which is the first television show of a musical event ever produced in Laguna. It will air on PBS SoCal April 14.
“I’ve created a wonderful relationship with KOCE,” Sam says. “But like all things, the cost of production is high.”
Laguna Beach Live! had permission from Joshua Bell, Edgar Meyer and the Calder Quartet to film their performances during the 2012 Laguna Beach Music Festival, but they couldn’t find the money to get the production made.
The other main challenge Laguna Beach Live! continues to face is finding venues for their shows.
“There are no jazz rooms in the city where you can sit 150 people,” co-founder Joe Byrne says. So the organization has had to improvise with the help of Hotel Laguna, Laguna College of Art & Design and the high school, which lend them space throughout the year at a reasonable fee.
“We’re very flexible and creative with finding space,” Cindy says—one reason they’re thrilled about a new relationship they’ve formed with the Laguna Playhouse. A change in leadership at the playhouse, with new Executive Director Karen Wood coming in, has opened the door to forming a partnership that will allow Laguna Beach Live! to use its 420-seat facility.
Their first collaboration together was holding the February music festival at the playhouse, which Cindy says was a huge success. It’s that kind of local support that has allowed the organization to grow and fill Laguna Beach with the sound of music.
“A lot has changed since we started 11 years ago. There’s a lot more music in town,” Cindy says, who sometimes has multiple shows to attend in one night. “We have the luxury now in Laguna of having a lot of choices, so it’s great having that variety. You’re able to have a choice now.”