Today it’s our pleasure to feature an interview with Rachel Gary, Communications Manager for Hartford Public Library in Hartford, Connecticut. We talked with Rachel about the fabulous Baby Grand Jazz music performance series at the library, continuing this library’s long tradition of making art available to their community. Enjoy. ~ Laura

Photo courtesy of Hartford Public Library Communications Department.

Photo courtesy of Hartford Public Library Communications Department.

Library as Incubator Project (LAIP): Tell us a little bit about your community, and about the library’s history and present role in the community.

HPL: The Hartford Public Library mission is to provide free resources that inspire reading, guide learning, and encourage individual exploration.

Photo courtesy of Hartford Public Library's Communications Department.

Photo courtesy of Hartford Public Library’s Communications Department.

The Library traces its roots back 235 years to the founding of the Library Company in 1775. By the late 1800s, the people of Hartford recognized the need for a free public library and after an ambitious fundraising campaign, the doors to the Hartford Public Library were opened in 1892.  In 1998, to meet the fast growing needs of the community, the Library embarked on an ambitious 145,000 square foot expansion and renovation of its Downtown Library resulting in a modern, innovative and state-of-the-art facility.

Hartford Public Library’s facilities include a Downtown Library, nine neighborhood branch libraries and a Library on Wheels available to serve customers of all ages throughout the capital city. All services support the mission, and are a response to the needs and interests of the primary service population (Hartford residents), and customers from surrounding communities.

Core services include: providing safe, hospitable and free community centers to residents and new arrivals; access to existing and emerging technologies; access to a collection of over 515,000 items; information in print and media formats that educate, enrich and inspire; critical early learning programs and materials; expert assistance in reference and reader’s advisory; programs that deliver key literacy, computer and life skills; job training and career guidance; assistance to the immigrant and non-English speaking populations, and community outreach to engage those who live and work in Hartford with vital issues and local decision-making.

Hartford Public Library plays an important role in Hartford’s cultural, social and economic development.  The Dowtown Library is a frequented destination and contributes to the stability, safety and quality of life in downtown Hartford attracting tremendous foot traffic with approximately 485,000 visits a year.

LAIP: So – the Baby Grand Jazz series. Can you tell us a little bit about the program – what it is, who it involves, and how it started?

HPL: Baby Grand Jazz is a series of 16 free jazz performances held in our Downtown Library Atrium on Sunday afternoons, January through April. Our lineup includes a great mix of some big jazz names and local favorites. At first, performers were only pianists – hence the name. Since then, we’ve incorporated a huge variety of musicians, groups and vocalists that perform jazz of all types – Latin jazz is a particular favorite.

BGJ began in 2003 as a project of our then-Head Librarian. At the time, it took place in the Children’s Department and drew in about 25-30 people per performance. Since then, the program has continued to grow, and popularity skyrocketed three years ago when we caught the eye (ear) of a jazz reporter for the Hartford Courant, who began covering the series.

We’re also lucky to have recently received generous funding from the Kaman Foundation, which has enabled us to keep the program alive during difficult financial times, and to grow its reach. BGJ attendance in 2013 reached 4,873! Lines for seating can begin an hour or more before each performance.

Photo courtesy of Hartford Public Library's Communications Department.

Photo courtesy of Hartford Public Library’s Communications Department.

LAIP: The program is quite successful. What is it about this program that appeals to members of the Hartford community?

HPL: Hartford has a rich, historic jazz culture that our community is very passionate about. Indeed, newspaper articles about free jazz concerts in Hartford public parks date back as far as 1919. This program in particular appeals to the city residents and Library customers of all backgrounds and from all walks of life, because it is free, open to all, and easily accessible. We offer a diverse mix of performers that appeal to jazz lovers of all types, and each performance is an opportunity for folks who may never encounter each other during their daily lives to come together and appreciate great music.

LAIP: How does a program like Baby Grand Jazz fit the mission of the library?

HPL: Our Library CEO, Matt Poland, has said it best: “A public library in the 21st century is really the quintessential place to do this kind of work because the library’s role is to bring a broad range of literacy to the public –  literacy in its broadest definition –  art, music reading, digital literacy, you name it. The public library, one of the last remaining truly democratic institutions in our nation, has to be an instrument of civic engagement.  Baby Grand Jazz provides a swinging gateway and getaway, free and accessible to all, to listen to this fundamentally American art form”.

In a recent article about the series, jazz columnist Owen McNally wrote: “With its wide-sweeping, populist appeal, ‘Baby Grand Jazz’ has been called ‘the soundtrack’ for the library’s visionary CEO, Matt Poland, and the innovative programs he’s initiated to bring the venerable institution into the 21st century, expanding its relevance to the entire community and opening wide its electronic portals to the brave, new world of digital knowledge.”

LAIP: On a related note, the Hartford Public Library is also home to the ArtWalk, an impressive gallery space. Can you speak a bit about these programs and spaces, and how they fill needs/wants in the Hartford community?

Our ArtWalk, and the other gallery and exhibit spaces throughout the Downtown Library present the public with the ability to enjoy incredible art at their leisure, for free. Our programming is incredibly diverse – for instance, our ArtWalk recently hosted an exhibit of moving cultural photography from Africa, Europe and the Americas, followed by an exhibit of the costumes of our award-winning theater company, Hartford Stage. There is truly something for everyone. We’re a unique art space, because the library is so public – all of our exhibits are free and open during regular Library hours, in an atmosphere that is welcoming and friendly.

LAIP: What is the reaction from members of the community to these programs/spaces – library users, musicians, library staff, etc.?

HPL: Andres Chaparro, artist and jazz aficionado, considers Hartford Public Library’s downtown location as one of the “hippest joints in town” with Baby Grand Jazz at the center of its free cultural offerings.

According to Chaparro, “there is something unique about the setting at the Baby Grand Jazz series. The full house, the love for the music and the great performances create a vibe that doesn’t always necessarily happen in other venues. If you’ve been to the Library I am sure you can relate to what I am saying.”

“Hartford Public Library’s Baby Grand Jazz series in 2013 kept its promise to be transforming with new musicians and past favorites adding their own unique spin on the art of the improvisers,” said Maurice Robertson, host of the University of Hartford’s WWUH 91.3 FM and program committee chair of Hartford Jazz Society.

Photo courtesy of Hartford Public Library's Communications Department.

Photo courtesy of Hartford Public Library’s Communications Department.

Learn more about the Baby Grand Jazz 2014 season on the Hartford Public Library website. And read an article about the ArtWalk at Hartford Public Library on the Library as Incubator Project.

Check out some recent press about Hartford Public Library’s Baby Grand Jazz series:

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