SALT LAKE CITY — Jeff Whiteley has heard people call the Excellence in the Community concert series one of the best-kept secrets in town, but he only likes part of that phrase.
"Why not have Salt Lake City be considered the big band capital of the world?" Whiteley said. "And here’s our contention: It already is. But no one knows it."
Since his days as a successful street musician with friends in Paris following his studies at Brigham Young University, Whiteley had a dream of shining the spotlight on talented Utah musicians.
“We were young and naive and we thought, ‘Gee if we can do this in Paris, just think what we can do in Utah!’” he said. “That’s where the whole thing came from was the discrepancy between the momentum that we could generate in France and then the lack of momentum in Utah.”
So Whiteley went from the metro tunnels and streets of Paris back to his Utah home, where he eventually launched the Excellence in the Community concert series in 2005. But it wasn't until 2011, when the musician landed the series a home at the Gallivan Center — which celebrates its 25th anniversary on June 15 — that his dream of helping talented Utah musicians play in professional local venues was finally coming true.
It had taken 500 concerts and six years of drumming up support to get to this point, but it seemed that the effort was finally starting to pay off — for the first time since the nonprofit’s founding, Whiteley was able to not only pay the musicians for their work, but also offer concerts on a regular basis to the public for free.
“These are the founding ideas for Excellence in the Community,” Whiteley said. “Could we get Utah musicians, the top ones … out of the background music business and give them concerts in professional settings so that people could understand how good they truly are?"
A 'great wealth of local musicians'
Between finding sponsors, scouting out talent and gaining a loyal following, getting Excellence in the Community running was no small task. The series has come a long way since its founding 13 yeas ago, when its only sponsor was Hires Big H. Now, supported by local arts organizations including Utah Opera, the George S. and Dolores Dore Eccles Foundation and Daynes Music, the nonprofit also hosts concerts at the Viridian Center, Covey Center for the Arts, Peery’s Egyptian Theater and Holladay City Hall Park.
Whether it’s jazz, African, classical, big band, Motown, Broadway, Spanish or Middle Eastern, the music played at an Excellence in the Community concert typically involves genres that don't often get much playing time on the stage. And according to Gallivan Center program director Talitha Day, the musicians who play at the concerts are top-notch.
“We have graduates from Juilliard, from Manhattan School of Music, that have performed all over the world and they want to come home,” she said. “They want to live in Utah, raise their families and they don’t have as many opportunities because people like to bring in big bands from all over the country, which is great — I applaud them. But for us, we want to focus on local artists.”
Gordon Hanks, a board member for Excellence in the Community and founder of the GAM Foundation, added that before the nonprofit existed, there wasn’t an adequate outlet for Utah artists to play on a stage that matched their talent.
“We have this great wealth of local musicians in all genres and they never had great professional venues to perform in. … Some might work in a club or they might work in the mall,” Hanks said. “It’s got to be really frustrating for young artists to work, and work, and work and then where do you play?”
When it comes to breaking out into the music industry, Ray Smith, professor of saxophone at BYU and director of the jazz big band Synthesis, noted that the process is a little less cut and dry than it is for other professions.
“There aren’t really any forms where people can just drop by and introduce themselves at a job interview,” said Smith, who has frequently performed in the concert series. “It doesn’t work like that. It’s totally word of mouth and referrals and just getting known and having a chance for people to hear you in different ways.”
It's this exposure that Excellence in the Community strives to give local musicians, and for singer Michael Chipman, the series has also come in handy when it comes to producing his own music. One of Chipman’s performances with his friend Melinda Kirigin-Voss was recorded at the Covey Center during a concert for Excellence in the Community and was recently released on iTunes. Chipman said he hopes to eventually tour his show nationally and even internationally, but credits Whiteley and his nonprofit for helping him to achieve the goal.
“It’s been a really powerful venue for us to … get to the next level,” Chipman said. “Most of us are just trying to cobble together a living the best way we can by teaching or doing whatever it is that we do to make a living. For Jeff and his group to provide so much support for us is really remarkable.”
'We believe in what we’re doing'
Excellence in the Community providing free, family-friendly concerts to the public will also hopefully inspire members of the community to develop their own musical interests, said conductor and violist Joel Rosenberg.
“When (kids’) parents take them to concerts, then they say, ‘Well gee, I want to learn to play the oboe, and I want to learn to play the saxophone or the violin,'” said Rosenberg, who has performed with Excellence in the Community in the past with his group Paradigm Trio. “And also adults who may have put down their instruments, maybe they’re encouraged in their early 20s, 30s, to get back to it.”
Huntsville resident Anna Wilson moved to Utah after a career in Nashville where she recorded and performed with the likes of Keith Urban, Lady Antebellum and Kenny Rogers. In the midst of starting her own band, Troubadour 77, Wilson noted that playing with Excellence in the Community is a unique opportunity because the organization also pays the musicians for their work.
“If you’re just making art and no one’s getting to hear it, or you’re constantly having to give it away for free because no one feels like it has value to be paid for because it’s in your backyard, (that) is never going to cultivate a spirit of creativity,” Wilson said. “Excellence makes sure that that spirit is cultivated and that artists are incentivized to want to keep creating for the sake of art.”
Saxophonist Jory Woodis has performed with Excellence in the Community as many as 15 times and says he enjoys the range of audience members who attend. And the musical network he’s been able to form because of it, he said, is an added bonus.
“There are a number of musicians that I have met while playing together for the Excellence concerts that I never would have met otherwise,” Woodis said. “Now we are connected and I call them — and get calls — for outside gigs.”
But while the nonprofit continues to be successful, finding the continued support for it has been a challenge. According to Whiteley, the 10-person organization didn’t receive any pay for eight years since the majority of funds went to the musicians and stage setup. And although it’s free to attend, Whiteley stated that the setup is only possible because the tickets have been paid for by sponsors.
“It wouldn’t happen without Excellence saying, ‘We don’t have money, no one’s paying us, but the idea is so good, we’re going to do it anyway,’” he said. “We believe in what we’re doing. That’s the point."
Whiteley also hopes that Excellence in the Community will eventually extend beyond the Wasatch Front and reach rural Utah communities. Opportunities for doing so are few and far between, though, as Excellence in the Community needs additional sponsors in order to perform regularly outside their typical venues. But finding the support from government and corporate leaders is worth it to Whiteley, if it means inspiring the community to be more united and inspired as a whole.
“These musicians … contribute to (a) high quality of life,” he said. “Their work can lift another person’s burden or can touch another person’s heart or can take a child’s imagination on a journey. That’s mankind at its best. That’s my definition of civilization, shoring up the best part of human nature and inspiring people to reach for that. ”