Discord at Unity Temple

For the last two years, the Creative and Improvised Music series at Unity Temple and its organizer, Scott Black, have improved the city’s jazz and

improvised-music scene on multiple levels, showcasing local performers like Tatsu Aoki and 8 Bold Souls, up-and-coming national acts like pianist Matthew Shipp and guitarist Joe Morris, and legends like saxophonists Steve Lacy and Sam Rivers in a beautiful, quiet, smoke-free space. But even as several of those performances are about to be immortalized on CD, the series’s future is in limbo.

In 1995, after 15 years in corporate sales and marketing, Black came to Unity Temple as director of tourism: the Unitarian-Universalist church, erected in 1908, is the last public building from Frank Lloyd Wright’s early Prairie period. The following year, pleased with his ability to market the architectural treasure, the board of the building’s restoration fund made him its first-ever executive director.

The church currently needs about a million dollars’ worth of work, most urgently a new central air and heating system to control moisture. But in more than two decades the board had managed to raise only $750,000, and most of it had already gone into the building. Black needed to figure out how to raise the landmark’s profile among prospective philanthropists, and in Wright’s own writings he found a partial answer: the architect had designed Unity Temple to serve not only as a house of worship but also as a venue for secular events like lectures and concerts.

“I had heard a classical trio play in there, and I thought to myself that it would be an incredible place to feature music with a more experimental bent,” Black says. “It was kind of in keeping with Wright’s ideas of experimentation in architecture.”

All 18 members of the board, which includes a retired teacher and a retired law-office manager as well as several architects and design buffs, didn’t share Black’s enthusiasm for the music, but they gave him the go-ahead for that fall. The first season ended in July with a packed performance by the Bill Frisell Quartet; it capped off a schedule that also included Sun Ra’s Arkestra, pianist Myra Melford, and trombonist Roswell Rudd. “We were actually able to show a net operating profit, even though it was small,” says Black. The second season has been considerably more ambitious, with 32 shows to last year’s 14 and more national and international performers. Unfortunately, heading into the homestretch the series is $5,000 in the red.

Though the series isn’t supposed to be a primary source of funding, neither is it supposed to lose money, and as the deficit accumulated, support for the series waned among board members, says president Greg Thomas. “They didn’t think Scott was spending his time in the right areas.” Black says only eight members have been to even one of the concerts, and he is tired of fielding well-intentioned but uninformed suggestions from those who haven’t: After Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter played a sold-out show at Orchestra Hall, one board member asked him why he hadn’t booked them at the 400-seat Unity Temple. Another commented that maybe if the series became successful Black could get the acts he really wanted. Nor has the congregation been as accommodating as Black would like, forcing him more than once to reschedule shows that had been confirmed months in advance.

It became evident to Black that as committed as he was to raising money for Unity Temple, he was every bit as committed to the music series, and last week he respectfully tendered his resignation as executive director. The board accepted it by a narrow margin. At the same meeting the board voted to hire a capital-campaign consultant, something Black had been pushing for since the beginning of his tenure. Thomas says the board didn’t approve it earlier because it couldn’t afford to pay both Black and a consultant.

This Friday, Black will meet with Thomas to discuss the possibility of using Unity Temple for a music series that Black would fund independently, but so far he’s done no booking for the fall. The current series will end in July with a performance by Fred Frith, Larry Ochs, and Miya Masaoka. “It might be reincarnated in a different form,” he says. “But if we can’t do it properly–and this is a horrible thing to say–it makes more sense for the series not to go on.”

Niche, Niche, Niche

When I reported on Dusty Groove America over the summer, the on-line mail-order company specializing in used Latin-jazz, soul-jazz, R & B, and hip-hop vinyl had set limited retail hours at its space on Milwaukee Avenue. Last week owners Rick Wojcik and J.P. Chill microscopically broadened their business once again, reissuing the third album by Brazilian singer Gal Costa, Gal Costa.

Lately Dusty Groove has seen a dramatic increase in demand for Brazilian music, particularly from the late-60s movement called tropicalismo, in which artists like Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil fused various native traditions with rock, studio trickery, and far-out lyrics. Os Mutantes, who broke up in 1973, were the movement’s psychedelic rock band; all five of their albums have recently been reissued by Brazilian Polydor, and Luaka Bop plans to put out a best-of later this year.

“Everybody’s crazy over Os Mutantes, and they’re slowly getting into Veloso, so we’re hoping this will sell too,” says Wojcik. The Costa CD, a remarkable, twisted mixture of prettily cooed vocals, fuzz-tone guitar, overripe strings, pinched horns, and seductive rhythms, was manufactured exclusively for Dusty Groove by Philips in Brazil, where it’s been out of print for several years.

Wojcik is also interested in overlooked gems by Gil and Jorge Ben, but future projects depend on the fate of the Costa release. “The minute this works,” he says, “we’ll do more.”

Dusty Groove is open noon to 8 Friday and noon to 6 Saturday at 1180 N. Milwaukee; it’s open 24-7 at www.dustygroove.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Scott Black photo by Dorothy Perry.