With so many jazz festivals offering R& , bluegrass or smooth jazz nowadays, it’s not so easy to find the real innovators and top names in jazz music without knowing where to look. However, thanks to a local nonprofit organization called the GAM Foundation, seeing a great show isn’t that hard after all. Dedicated to increasing awareness and appreciation of jazz within the community through its monthly Jazz at the Sheraton concert series, the foundation has ushered in some of the biggest legends and personalities in jazz since 1995, including Dave Brubeck, Gene Harris and Ahmad Jamal, to name a few.
Putting on such an impressive slate of concerts takes more dedication and hard work than one might imagine, especially for Holladay Pharmacy head pharmacist and GAM Foundation co-founder Gordon Hanks (the “GAM” stands for “Gordon, Amanda, Michael,” the latter two being Hanks’ partner Michael MacKay and daughter Amanda Lufkin). When he’s not filling prescriptions or on the telephone with doctor’s offices, Hanks is rearranging schedules and moving shows around, making sure each year’s lineup offers something truly unique and special.
“It’s hard to balance time between the pharmacy and constructing contracts with executives, artists and agents. Luckily, I have [MacKay and Lufkin] with me to keep the series going,” Hanks said from the neighborhood pharmacy. “Over the years, we’ve developed relationships with all the musicians, and they always call and ask how soon they can come back. We’re doing all we can to let people know what jazz is all about and to keep the art form alive.”
In addition to the monthly shows, Hanks and the GAM Foundation have expanded the series by co-producing concerts with Kingsbury Hall. While the performances are not actual Jazz at the Sheraton shows, they are recognized as bonus concerts. This year, two of those upcoming dates for the 2004-05 series include The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis and the Pat Metheny Group.
Over the past nine years, Gordon Hanks and the GAM Foundation have also contributed $850,000 to music departments of more than 30 high schools, middle schools and colleges participating in jazz education outreach programs—and that’s only the beginning. There are also benefit concerts to raise money for the University of Utah’s Jazz Studies Scholarship Fund.
With a chance to receive discounted tickets to each concert and free admission to clinics and workshops, students not only learn about jazz fundamentals, but also real world stories and experiences about making a living as musicians. More often than not, the artists teaching programs are recognized advocates on jazz education, and enjoy working closely with students.
Serving as jazz director at Utah’s public radio station, KUER, Steve Williams has worked closely with Gordon Hanks and seen how valuable the GAM Foundation is to artists, students and jazz enthusiasts alike. “I like to call Gordon ‘The Good Shepherd of Jazz.’ These guys come into town for a show and absolutely love him,” Williams said. “Unlike promoters, he’s not in it for the money; he just wants to break even. Just walk into his pharmacy, and you hear the music and can tell it’s expanded into something meaningful. I believe there couldn’t be a better person behind the GAM Foundation.”
One thing Hanks tries to secure every year is not only a mix of quality artists but also a package where people can experience living legends before they pass away. He referred specifically to a time when he couldn’t work out a deal with Gerry Mulligan, who later died never having played the Jazz at the Sheraton Series.
“If you notice what’s going on, a lot of the really amazing guys are dying and, if you can’t book them now, you may never get to see them again,” Hanks said. “Seeing a guy like Toots [Thielemans] on stage giving it all he has—it gives you goose bumps. When you’re so close, it’s like having your grandfather in the living room. You just want to go up and give the guy a big hug.”
As someone who has followed the jazz scene since the early 1960s witnessing Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Kenton and George Shearing at venues like the Terrace Ballroom or Lagoon Pavilion, Hanks knows what’s good and has found a niche over the years. And, unlike the fixed crowds of the symphony, ballet or opera, the Jazz at the Sheraton bunch is such a diverse collective of young and old, it makes him feel good about what they’ve done the past nine years.
“I look out at the audience,” Hanks observed, “and I’ll admit it’s strange seeing the mix of people. But the one thing I’ve figured out is, these people get it. When you walk through the doors, there’s no social strata whatsoever. Everyone’s there for one reason, and it’s to love the music.”