Jazz Center of Bellingham finds a new groove and growth - Salish Current
October 30, 2023
Jazz Center of Bellingham finds a new groove and growth
Alexa Peters / KNKX Public Radio

Jazz is alive and well in Bellingham: avant-garde jazz outfit the nu Quartet, featuring Nathan Breedlove on trumpet, David Deacon Joyner on piano, Phil Sparks on bass and Brian Kirk on drums (not pictured), at a Jazz Center of Bellingham show. (Conner Helms/Jazz Center of Bellingham)

October 30, 2023
Jazz Center of Bellingham finds a new groove and growth
Alexa Peters / KNKX Public Radio


This article first appeared on KNKX on Oct. 27, 2023.

In Bellingham, a bayside city about an hour from the border with Canada, there’s no shortage of places to enjoy live jazz.

“As far as being a jazz musician in Bellingham, I am working all the time,” said Jerry Steinhilber, a Bellingham-based professional drummer originally from Chicago. “My chops are as high as they’ve ever been just because there’s so many places to play.”

When he’s not performing, Steinhilber is a board member of one organization helping to nurture a healthy jazz ecosystem in Bellingham —The Jazz Center of Bellingham (JCB).

Officially incorporated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2016, the Jazz Center of Bellingham, formally called Whatcom Jazz Music Arts Center (WJMAC), leads with the mission of enriching the Bellingham community by presenting two jazz concerts a month at the FireHouse Arts and Events Center and providing jazz education experiences in the area.

“We’re on the board because we love jazz and, and we know that jazz can always use a little bit of help,” said John Butorac, another of JCB’s six board members. “We want to keep jazz alive.”

After a touch-and-go time during the pandemic, JCB has bounced back. This year, the nonprofit has sold out several shows and they’re seeing younger faces in the crowd, notable feats for purveyors of a century-old music that accounts for only 1.1% of record sales.

According to JCB’s data, average show attendance grew from 43% in 2021 to 74% so far in 2023. Their educational programs, including jazz combo classes for adults and an annual five-day summer jazz camp for high schoolers and older, are steadily attended.

“If you want to play jazz, you know, you got to get out there and play,” Butorac said. “So, through the combo classes, students get an opportunity to play to learn tunes together.”

Generous grants from Artsfund and ArtsWA over the last two years are partly to credit for JCB’s upturn. The grant funds allowed Steve Jones, JCB board chairman and events coordinator, the room to book more national and international artists. The Michael Weiss Quartet from New York, Cory Weeds Quartet from Vancouver, B.C., and Cuban pianist Chucito Valdes, all performed at JCB recently.

Now at the FireHouse

At the same time, JCB’s permanent relocation of their performances from the now-closed Sylvia Center for the Arts to the FireHouse in 2022 has been a boon. A historic 1927 firehouse in Bellingham’s quaint Fairhaven district, the FireHouse was renovated into a unique and multipurpose space for arts and community.

When the FireHouse’s retractable stadium seating system is down, it’s a sublime and intimate performance space. When those seats are up, it’s a great space for art shows, classes, community meetings and more. The space’s versatility and focus on community meant there was a large base of passionate arts and culture lovers for JCB to tap into.

“You can hear a pin drop in there when people are playing quietly, and the acoustics are fantastic,” Butorac gushed about the FireHouse. “And they have a beautiful Steinway.”

Seattle-based drummer D’Vonne Lewis performs at a Jazz Center of Bellingham event. (Conner Helms/Jazz Center of Bellingham)

Shrewd marketing also supports JCB’s growth. For example, many of JCB’s shows are themed to make jazz, and local artists who play the style, more accessible. 

Don’t know the music of locals Jose “Juicy” Gonzales Trio or vibraphonist Brian Kirk? Learn about their music through the lens of well-known jazz legends: Gonzales’ trio will perform of Vince Guaraldi’s holiday classic, A Charlie Brown Christmas on Dec. 20; and Kirk will pay tribute to legendary vibraphonist Milt Jackson on Feb. 14, in a show sponsored by Bellingham resident, jazz historian and author Milt Krieger.

“It’s another dimension that people can look at,” Butorac said. “I think that it helps ticket sales a little bit.”

By reaching out to local youth with their educational programs, more teens and young adults are becoming aware of JCB.

August Montiel, a 16-year-old high school junior, began volunteering with JCB last summer. Montiel, who sings and plays piano in the jazz band at Squalicum High School, first became aware of the nonprofit when JCB Education Outreach Coordinator Christian Casolary came to her band practice. 

Montiel is now a regular volunteer. She’s passionate about taking photos at JCB shows, supporting their social media presence, and getting more involved with the organization’s marketing efforts.

“I mostly just do [Instagram] stories and I’m hopefully going to start doing reels. And I do my own work on my own social media accounts to advocate for the Jazz Center,” Montiel said. “And I want to do more advocating, like going to Western [Washington University] or Whatcom Community College, or maybe even other high schools as a representative and being like, ‘Hey, come to the Jazz Center.’”

Butorac and Steinhilber are ecstatic to see the community around JCB growing and that young people like Montiel want to be involved. Steinhilber, who will host his trio’s CD release party at a JCB show on Nov. 15, is especially thrilled that the JCB is bringing in engaged listeners.

“I mean, you can hear people gasp about the musicianship because of the quality of the acts that come in there,” Steinhilber said. “I just had a chill go up my back. That’s a big thing when you’re a performer.”

— Reported by Alexa Peters / KNKX NPR

 [Ed.: The New Prospect Theatre is now operating in the former Sylvia Center space; see “Pandemic’s past but local theaters are (cautiously) optimistic,” Salish Current, Aug. 11, 2023]

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