The Brown Bag Concert Series, presented by the Salt Lake City Arts Council, will celebrate its 35th anniversary this August.
Little know that the 34th iteration came close to being its last.
The Council’s Casey Jarman is the organization’s only full-time staff person responsible for not only the Brown Bag Concert series but also the Living Traditions Festival and the wildly popular Twilight Concert Series. The demands on his time, as well as tightening budget constraints, threatened to force his hand.
But Jarman continues to believe that the downtown needs free, accessible arts programs in a downtown about to be revitalized by the City Creek Center.
A shopping center isn’t the only thing that invigorates a city — it is the arts, the Council contends.
"I’m glad we can still have a month of the Brown Bag Concert Series," said Jarman, who has seen the series contract from two months two summers ago to just one month last year. This year the series will run in August.
It’s not as if there aren’t enough musicians and performers to fill the free series, which runs on weekdays from 12:15 to 1 p.m. in varying places downtown, including Salt Lake City & County Building, Exchange Place Plaza and City Creek Park.
In 2011, there were 120 applications for just 20 spots, and Jarman always tries to make sure all of the area’s performing arts organizations and performers know that all are welcome to apply, whether they are dancers, filmmakers, actors, poets, rock bands, chamber quartets, solo acts, or just plain creative people who have a talent but need a stage to perform. "We’d take the Utah Symphony if they applied," he said.
Gerald McDonough directed the first years of the series, and Jarman — a gifted player of the mandolin — performed several Brown Bag concerts in the early years with his group, the Jarman/Kingston Quartet, before taking over the series in 1985.
As a past performer, Jarman acknowledged that it can be a "tough gig" when "people are eating lunch and you don’t have them wrapped into the palm of your hand." But for the 50 to 75 audience members who show up for the performances, and the musicians happy for exposure and a stage, the series is a gem, dedicated to locals in summers that are typically dominated by nationally touring acts making their ways through the Wasatch Front.
"It’s nice to have a free concert series downtown," said Will Sartain, local musician, concert promoter and co-owner of Urban Lounge and Kilby Court, who has performed in the series. "It livens up downtown."
John Flanders, a local tenor saxophonist and multi-instrumenalist who performed a Brown Bag Concert last year with his jazz group Double Helix, agreed that the series is an often-overlooked treasure. "They are a real asset to the city," he said. "Things like that let you know that things are happening."
Joe Muscolino, who performed the first Brown Bag Concert Series 35 years ago, said that the series is especially important this year because people have been avoiding downtown for several years because of all of the construction. Muscolino grew up in Manhattan, and said the only time he has ever felt the same vitality and energy that resides in New York City is when Salt Lake City hosted the 2012 Olympics — and that with a new downtown, the Brown Bag Concert Series is a way to ignite the same type of fire.
The series in its first decade became so popular that Jarman convinced the council to create an evening extension of the Brown Bag Concert Series. That series, originally called the Brown Bag Twilight Series, will celebrate its 25th anniversary this summer, after a year that saw rapper Lupe Fiasco draw more than 50,000 people to the final night. (The Twilight Series will once again be held in Pioneer Park, Jarman confirmed.)
But while the Twilight Series shines the spotlight on nationally touring acts such as past performers Bon Iver, The Decemberists and Modest Mouse, the Brown Bag Concert Series is almost exclusively reserved for Utah acts who want Utah audiences on their lunch break to lend them their ears.
They’ve been going in and out of style, but they’re guaranteed to raise a smile.
The Salt Lake City Arts Council’s Brown Bag Concert Series will be held this August, and the deadline for applications is Friday, March 9 at 4 p.m.
• The free lunch hour concerts are presented in public parks and plazas downtown weekdays.
• The application is available at http://www.slcclassic.com/arts/brownbag/BBApp2012.pdf for the application.
• The series begins Monday, August 6, and continues through Friday, August 31.
• The series presents all disciplines of the performing arts.
• The applications should be hand-delivered to the Salt Lake City Arts Council at 54 Finch Lane in Salt Lake City (Inside the Art Barn in Reservoir Park in between E. South Temple and 100 South, and in between 1300 East and University Street).
• Solo performers receive $80, and each member of an ensemble of up to 10 members receives $65
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