Thomas Ferrella's pedigree in town is as a photographer, sculptor and painter, not a musician or events organizer. So it's perhaps a bit curious for him to be a driving force behind a series of jazz concerts on Madison's east side.
The thing is, someone has to do it, he says.
"The jazz scene in Madison has always been this frustrating thing," said Ferrella. "It's really up to the DIYers."
The jazz series at the Arts+Literature Laboratory on 2021 Winnebago Street is certainly on the DIY side of the spectrum — the shows are volunteer-run, and space itself is a far cry from a state-of-the-art concert hall.
But the series has been landing some big names. Jazzheads crowded the Atwood neighborhood studio and gallery space last June to catch a show by Roscoe Mitchell, the iconic jazz saxophonist and Madison resident. The musician Ken Vandermark swung through town to play in the space soon after.
The shows keep on coming. Next up is Trio Mokili, a jazz trio from Chicago that specializes in West African roots music. Their energetic, dance-y and highly improvisational music comes to ALL on Friday evening. Tickets for the 8 p.m. show are $10 in advance, and $12 at the door.
Ferrella said that the ALL series is filling a niche in a town where jazz shows are fairly scarce. Now, he said it's a question of pulling in an untapped audience he feels is out there.
"I think there's a lot of people out there who want to go to these venues," he said. "It's a question of 'How do we reach out to them to let them know that this is happening?'"
Ferrella, a retired emergency medicine specialist known for his avant-garde artwork, has always been a jazz nut. When a couple of local artists started a jazz series called "Surrounded by Reality" — a reference to the famous quote about Madison by former state Gov. Lee Dreyfus — he decided to pitch in as a volunteer.
Ever since that series faded, Ferrella has been looking to keep up jazz programming around town. Eventually Jolynne Roorda, the founder of ALL, caught wind of his interests, and ever since, the two have been collaborating on the jazz shows
"The actual hard work — the dotting the I's, the crossing the T's — Jolynne has all those skills," said Ferrella.
The stars aligned with Ferrella got a call from a friend of his last year who works on home remodeling. The friend told him that he was working in the basement of a house whose owner happened to be playing some mean jazz saxophone upstairs.
"And he goes, 'You know a guy named Roscoe Mitchell?' And I'm like, 'Are you serious? Of course I know him!'" laughed Ferrella.
Ferrella coaxed his friend into passing along his contact information, and the very next day, Ferrella got a phone call from Mitchell wanting to hear more about Ferrella's scheme.
After that initial stroke of kismet, Ferrella said it's been easy to bring top-notch jazz talent to town. It helped to have names like Mitchell's on past bills. Plus, Ferrella said that when artists feel respect for what they do, it makes all the difference.
"You treat these people the way you would anybody else," said Ferrella. "There's no smoke and mirrors here."
Ferrella said he's excited about other activity in the jazz sphere he's been seeing around town, such as saxophonist Hanah John Taylor's new jazz club on Monroe Street, Cafe CODA. Now, it's a question of sustaining that energy. He doesn't want Madison to continue missing out on what he sees as a renaissance of jazz bubbling up around the Midwest.
Meanwhile, he hopes that if the ALL series builds up momentum, he can eventually secure some funding to build things out.
"If I could dream, I would dream of a little bit bigger space with a piano, a drum kit, a system where the musicians could walk in and perform," he said.
That momentum is there, at least for now: Ferrella said the series is booked through June.