Claws come out over Jazz At Five marketing campaign

The "Jazzcat" character is dead, after several Madison musicians called it demeaning.

An image from the Who Is Jazzcat website promoting the Jazz At Five series.

An image from the Who Is Jazzcat website promoting the Jazz At Five series.

Update: As of Monday afternoon, the Jazzcat website and social media accounts appear to have been taken down. We have screenshots below. Julie Herfel of marketing company Lindsay, Stone and Briggs, says "We chose to end the Jazzcat campaign following the feedback from several jazz musicians, as we only wanted to help raise awareness of local jazz, not hinder its growth. We've connected with several local artists and are planning to work together to find new ways to share jazz with the public."

A new character called "Jazzcat" is trying to drum up new interest in the free Jazz At Five series, but Madison jazz musicians rate it somewhere south of a big litter clump.

Conceived as an "ambassador" for the concert series, which returns August 10, Jazzcat appears to be a woman in a cat mask and a dark suit with a slim tie. She's on Twitter and Instagram. Her origin story? "We've heard rumors that she was born feral on the streets of New Orleans, living off discarded crawfish shells and scraps of etouffee," the Who Is Jazzcat website says. A Tweet elaborates: "#Jazzcat was born on the streets of New Orleans, one of a litter of Creole kittens with #music coursing through their veins."

Queasy layers of ethnic appropriation aside, Jazzcat is really the brainchild of Lindsay, Stone & Briggs, a Madison-based marketing firm that has done pro bono work for Jazz At Five for the last 20 years. LSB initially hoped to recruit a local jazz musician to play the mascot. A lot of musicians, including people scheduled to play Jazz At Five sets this summer, are having none of it.

"I'm extremely pissed off," was the initial reaction from Darren Sterud, a trombone player, bandleader, composer, and music teacher who is scheduled to lead his own New Orleans-style jazz band at the series' August 24 installment. "It's insulting, it's degrading and it demeans any actual work jazz musicians in Madison have done to try and improve the scene." Other musicians complained in Facebook posts and private messages, calling it everything from "wack" to "racist."

Sterud says he supports "everything that [Jazz At Five] has stood for," and still plans to play his set there as scheduled. But even after cooling off a bit, he's still concerned: "In the last three to five years the brand and the vision of Jazz At Five has been slowly dismantled," he told me.

LSB and Jazz At Five organizers initially asked Sterud to be jazz cat, hoping that the character would be played by an actual musician who, according to a proposal LSB sent, would "show up at places or events in Madison and play part of a song and then leave, staying just long enough to get people’s attention." It's not clear if they got an actual musician: Whoever's playing the character shows up in soundless Instagram videos waggling a trumpet around.

Nick Moran, a jazz bassist and event organizer for the Greater Madison Jazz Consortium (which isn't involved in Jazz At Five), also said asking professional musicians to play a series mascot felt insulting. LSB's proposal said the person playing Jazzcat would show up at as many as 10 events and be paid $100 per event for a total of $1,000. "That’s sometimes more than I would make performing at Jazz At Five," Moran says. He adds that he gives Jazz At Five credit for booking more local artists in recent years, but says they're not paid very well, considering the audience and corporate sponsorship the events attract. Money isn't the only issue musicians have with Jazz At Five: Moran says that event organizers chastised pianist Ben Sidran for criticizing Scott Walker during a performance at the series a few years ago.

Moran believes that $1,000 would be better used to pay musicians a little extra, or to undertake a marketing effort that promoted jazz in Madison more broadly, rather than just one series. "I don't want to poo-poo other people's work," he says, "but it just blew my mind how out of touch it was and what a waste of resources it could be."

Julie Herfel, LSB's director of creative operations, says the firm just wanted to take a fresh approach. "Many of us at LSB are hardcore jazz fans, and others are trained musicians with a love for jazz, specifically," Herfel says. "While admittedly Jazzcat is a bit quirky, she is by no means intended to demean musicians, the art, rich history of jazz or its cultural significance. Quite the opposite—Jazzcat is intended to generate intrigue from people who don’t traditionally listen to live jazz. We want people to try on jazz for the first time, perhaps at Jazz at Five. For that reason, we went with an approach that was easily digested by the untrained ear."

Jazz At Five board member Ken Johnson had a similar response: "The Jazz At Five board supported the idea because Jazzcat is different. Madison can be different," Johnson says. "Jazz is different. It’s not the same marketing we’ve done in past years, which is why we wanted to try it. Will everyone like it? Doubtful. Will mistakes be made? Yes. Will the mistakes be corrected? Yes. Will Jazz at Five get better? Absolutely." Johnson added that the board members "value feedback—both good and bad; it shows that the community is listening and cares."

Herfel and Johnson have a point: Jazz At Five is a free, outdoor summer music series on the Square, which means it needs to appeal to a broad audience, and ideally provide a point of entry for people who aren't already serious jazz listeners. A playful and casual approach to marketing makes sense. Personally, I love jazz and I love cats, and the idea of a cute cat-themed campaign doesn't really bother me in and of itself.

The problem is in the execution, which isn't especially cute or funny. LSB is no lightweight marketing firm—past clients have ranged from Marshfield Clinic to Milio's to the Green Bay Packers to the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. Pro bono or not, this could have been done with a bit more sensitivity and self-awareness.

Jazzcat's Instagram account posted one photo from the premiere of The Jazz Singer, a film known for its use of blackface. "This was an inadvertent error on our part and one we take very seriously," Herfel says. "We have removed the photo, and are assessing our creative process to ensure it does not happen again." Good on LSB for learning from the misstep, but jazz offers so many reference points that you could, well, just not. And judging by Jazzcat's low number of social-media followers and engagements, it's not really having much impact as far as reaching new or younger audiences. Even on a basic marketing level, it doesn't really speak to, say, the experiences you can have while listening to jazz, or the emotions that music can stir up.

Then there's the language about Jazzcat being a "feral" and "Creole" cat from New Orleans, and copy like "Jazzcat says: 'Ain't no wrong notes.'" (That statement in itself probably has a few musicians blowing a gasket.) When you're an overwhelmingly white company dealing with an art form black people created, using that kind of language is just plain playing with matches. This gives weight to Sterud's assertion that the campaign reduces jazz to "a jive music with hipster vibes." The other frustrating layer here is that people of color (including Sterud) are vastly outnumbered among Madison jazz musicians. That's not to diminish the contributions of white musicians, fans, and event organizers in town, but it only heightens our responsibility to respect the cultural context of the music.

Musicians and other artists might have a chip on their shoulder, but in my experience when musicians complain about a venue or marketing campaign or event organizer in Madison, it's way off the record, or they don't know a journalist is overhearing them. They frequently feel disrespected or taken for granted or undermined in their efforts to make decent money, and usually just choke it down to avoid burning bridges. People like Sterud and Moran have studied music seriously and make their living playing and teaching, and contribute to many different acts and events as players and organizers. In other words, they're hardly the kind of people who sit on the sidelines looking for something to gripe about. So the fact that they are speaking out publicly indicates that they're feeling genuinely stung and concerned about how the marketing campaign will impact Madison's music community.

After Sterud received the Jazzcat job description from LSB, he sent it around to several other Madison jazz musicians, including Moran. "From the thread of the email, it seemed like most of the musicians didn't think [the Jazzcat idea] was gonna get off the ground," Moran says.