- Lex B. Anderson
If someone told you a local live stream series had gained 8.5 million views worldwide over the past year, who would you guess they were talking about? This has been a strange year for some to prove themselves and others to go quiet—and on the "proving themselves" side, there's Excellence Concert Series. Just as they have been adapting to and spotlighting jazz, folk, big band, soul and basically every other foundational genre for the past 15 years, they quickly adapted to a new presentation format online in 2020, one that's garnered virtual recognition from all over the world.
A Salt Lake City institution since 2005 and a free one since 2012, the Excellence Concert Series has long enriched the downtown area, while also providing opportunities to local artists in a cultural landscape that doesn't always value their achievements. "It was immediately obvious the musicians were in great need of hope, payment, employment, a chance to exercise their artistry," says Excellence founder Jeff Whitely of the early days of the pandemic. "It was also immediately obvious that the public was traumatized and in need of healing."
Though Excellence is non-profit with a staff of just 10 people, Whitely says the "scrappy, resilient, nimble" group found quick support in their collaborators—including the Gallivan Center, Taylor Audio and Daynes Music—as well as from the Salt Lake City Council, Mayor Erin Mendenhall and the Redevelopment Agency. The result has been a bi-weekly series of live streams up on the Excellence in the Community Facebook page, in place of the usual free, live downtown gatherings.
While some things have changed—like encouraging artists to put their best songs first, to keep easily-distracted virtual viewers interested from the get-go—most things haven't, including the high quality of production, easy access and payment for all artists. And though 8.5 million views might seem a stunning stat for a local channel of videos featuring only Utah artists who are largely unknowns nationally, the success comes as no surprise to Whitely.
Whitely's appreciation for Utah's artists came from experiences as a musician himself, playing on the streets of Paris in his younger years, where he and friends received not only pedestrian attention, but invitations to big festivals like the Montreaux Jazz Festival. "The French were very interested in quality, even when they stumbled across it," he explains. "Does America have kind of ... too much of an obsession with celebrity, to the point that people need the media to point them to quality? I've had people here in Salt Lake City say, 'I don't buy your argument, if the musicians [here] were as good as you say they are, they'd go to New York and get famous and then we'd be interested.'"
Excellence has not only been Whitely's attempt to prove that assumption wrong, but gives Utah artists the fanfare American audiences require to pay attention, while putting them smack-dab in the middle of downtown, where they can be stumbled upon. "People like to get together," he says. "Business owners, people of all ages want a beautiful, lively downtown. Our answer is great Utah musicians, put them where people can find them and let every sector of the economy contribute."
And like a downtown sector, the internet is also a place where things are easily found, where access expands—so they're going to keep the live-stream aspect when Excellence hopefully returns to the Gallivan Center stage in July, for in-real-life shows. But Whitely isn't satisfied to stop there. He also hopes that with the reputation Excellence has built for Utah's music scene, they can do more outreach programming in rural Utah communities, bringing music there and providing pathways for musicians in those areas to perform in Salt Lake City.
He shares a story of taking a Celtic group to a Duchesne high school auditorium, where after the performance concluded to a standing ovation, he realized the man next to him had tears in his eyes. Taken aback, Whitely said something lighthearted about how the show hadn't gone that badly. But the man responded seriously, saying, "I've never heard a harp before." Misunderstanding and thinking he meant a Celtic harp, Whitely, said "Oh yes, you don't see Celtic harp often." The man shook his head, "No, I've never heard any harp before." While driving home from that performance, Whitely thought to himself, "I've got to work harder."
Since then, Excellence has managed to put on performances in Price, Gunnison, Brigham City, Grantsville and, of course, smaller cities outside SLC like Provo and Ogden. "The idea is that maybe all of this talent could be used to make life more interesting or more lively for many cities. Certainly we can do this, we can help people hear harps before they die," he says. It was, after all, at Whitely's own junior high school auditorium where he heard his first electric guitar, which sparked a passion for music that led him where he is today.
While Excellence is still hoping to find funding for the rural outreach effort, they're going ahead with their online streams, and with plans to pick back up downtown in July, if everything keeps trending safely. Keep up with them and find their archive of past streams at facebook.com/excellenceinthecommunity and at excellenceconcerts.org.