Columbia will join the ranks of renowned jazz venues across the country this weekend as part of National Public Radio’s live coast-to-coast New Year’s Eve celebration, “Toast of the Nation,” which will also feature the first national music broadcast from New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina.
Jon Poses, executive director of the “We Always Swing” Jazz Series in Columbia, began working with “Toast of the Nation” producer Becca Pulliam three years ago to try to bring part of the nationwide show to the city. Poses said he became frustrated with the process, however, because it required him to make decisions about the show by the time his jazz series brochure was released in July.
This year he was able to make it work; arranging to have vocalist René Marie perform at Murry’s.
Since 1979, NPR has produced “Toast of the Nation,” which broadcasts from live music venues in each of the four time zones in the continental U.S. as it rings in the new year. This is the first year the special will be hosted away from NPR’s Washington, D.C., studios. Instead, it will air the show from a broadcasting station built in New Orleans for the event.
Columbia’s selection is unusual because NPR typically broadcasts from larger markets such as Chicago or Minneapolis in the Central time zone.
Producers of the program look for a sequence of musicians who will flow well into one another as the broadcast does its “march across the country,” said Pulliam, who encouraged Poses to find a vocalist for the Central time segment.
Poses’ first inclination was to seek out Marie, who has performed in Columbia twice as part of the jazz series. Marie said she is looking forward to returning to Columbia and Murry’s. The stage at Murry’s is on the floor with the tables, which she said can feel strange to a musician. But, she said, “The vibe there was just great. ... I’m looking forward to coming back very much.”
Murry’s is usually closed on New Year’s Eve, but co-owner Bill Sheals said he and fellow owner Gary Moore “couldn’t pass up the chance to be on NPR and do something like that.”
Marie said she will tailor her set to carry across to radio audiences as well as to the live audience. It will feature many of her original songs, but because the focus of this year’s “Toast of the Nation” will be rebuilding New Orleans, she will also perform a cover of the Animals’ song “House of the Rising Sun,” which leads with a reference to “a house in New Orleans.”
Marie said she does not like to make her set list until the day of a show but has talked with producers about which songs would work well for the broadcast. Those with tickets to the earlier, non-broadcasted 6:30 p.m. seating are likely to see a different set than those at the 9:45 p.m. performance, she said.
Marie will perform with her band, which features Kevin Bales on piano, Rodney Jordan on bass and Quentin Baxter on drums.
“Maybe I can get my little idiosyncrasies out with the early set, and then rein it in for the late set,” Marie said.
After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, producers of “Toast of the Nation” decided to rework it to focus on New Orleans. The city hosted the Central time zone performance in 2000 from the French Quarter.
The Hot 8 Brass Band and Galactic will play at Tipitina’s in their first live performances in New Orleans since the hurricane. Galactic, a New Orleans funk band, will perform in the time slot usually held by the Mountain time zone.
Pulliam said the promise of Columbia’s event prompted NPR to eliminate the Mountain time zone broadcast this time around.
“We never wanted to cancel Columbia, either, because René Marie is a wonderful singer, and Jon is a phenomenon, known on the East Coast for being active in getting musicians work in the Central time zone,” Pulliam said. “He’s built something there.”
“We’re just thinking we have an opportunity to hear both,” Pulliam added. “The emotion of midnight in New Orleans is something we can’t deny. New Orleans music has in one way or another changed almost every American person’s life. We want to speak for the hopeful and necessary side of rebuilding New Orleans.”
Poses has been cultivating Columbia’s jazz scene for the past 20 years. For more than a decade his series has brought nationally known jazz musicians to Columbia. Before the jazz series began, Poses, Sheals and Moore had worked together to bring national jazz acts to Murry’s.
Gradually, the audience for live jazz in Columbia grew, and Poses introduced the first jazz series in 1995. “Sundays at Murry’s” became part of the series a few years after it began, and Murry’s has become what Poses calls a “mainstay of the jazz series.”
Poses and Christy LeMaster, assistant director of the jazz series, hope the NPR event will broaden the local audience for jazz.
“It’s great to be known for what you do around the country, but I would much rather spend my time broadening our audience here, so we have more support for what we want to do in the future,” LeMaster said.
The broadcast of “Toast of the Nation” begins at 5 p.m. Central Standard Time, but Columbia’s NPR affiliate, KBIA 91.3, will join the broadcast at 7 p.m. for New Orleans piano legend Henry Butler broadcasting from the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Other featured performers include the Brubeck Brothers Quartet broadcasting from Sanibel Island, Fla.; The Chico O’Farrill Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra broadcasting from New York City; and Pink Martini broadcasting from Portland, Ore.
Tickets for the Murry’s event will be hard to come by. Poses said Wednesday that tickets for the late show are sold out and there were only seven tickets remaining for the early seating, which costs $75.