For nearly three decades, Zumix in East Boston has been more than just a refuge for young people—it’s been a place for Bostonians from all walks of life to become part of the music scene, learning everything from how to record properly to marketing and digital distribution. We caught up with its events coordinator Jake Gilman and co-founder and executive director Madeleine Steczynski to ask about their progress over the years and the event series they’re hosting from now through April.
How would you describe where Zumix is now compared to where the organization was 10 years ago?
MS: This is a cool question because 10 years ago at this time we were packing our boxes and preparing to move from our scrappy little rental building to the building we now own and operate out of. That was a very big moment in our history and it was necessary for a bunch of reasons, but also challenged us on how to grow into the new space. Our intentions with that move were to provide long-term stability to our organization and to meet the growing need for service—at the time we had approximately 450 students on our waiting list. So when we moved into the new building, we intended to grow slow, from 350 students to 500 students in the following five years to now being almost 1,000 with outreach to public schools. We are the same organization in our core mission in our commitment to asset-based creative development, but I think we are a more mature organization and we do bigger and more elaborate projects simultaneously because our space allows. In the last 10 years, we’ve become a beehive for music activities for young people and have increased opportunities for young people both at and after Zumix.
How has the radio station and increased footprint helped your team develop and execute events like these?
JG: Zumix Radio 94.9 FM has helped us because it consistently brings new, interesting people into the building for interviews and gives us a platform for people to plug into outside of our building. It also allows us to live broadcast all of the Big Worlds performances and artist interviews on the air. As far as our increased footprint, the past two years have yielded the most fundraising in Zumix’s 28-year-old history. This both increases our budget for events and provides us the opportunity to engage our students with new projects and experiences. It’s a cyclical process—as we continue to grow our community and network, we are afforded the ability to do more unique events like Big Worlds, which in turn grow our community and network—I hope that continues because a lot of pivotal moments occur at these events.
The Boston area nonprofits the Loop Lab and Brighter Boston are collaborating with Zumix on the production of this event. What exactly are they contributing? And can you speak to the importance of involving other orgs that are working in similar and intersecting areas?
JG: The Loop Lab is livestreaming each event on Zumix’s YouTube page with three high-quality video cameras, and Brighter Boston is both enhancing and running Zumix’s performance lighting to create synergy with the event’s flow and musical performances. Both orgs are working with their young interns on this, so along with Zumix’s “Z-Tech” youth audio technicians, it creates a really beautiful team effort for the event production. This collaboration is sparking the beginning of a bigger conversation about our intersection with these organizations and how we can work together to create a pipeline from Zumix to their programs—as Zumix’s student age demographic is 7-18-year-olds while the Loop Lab and Brighter Boston continue to work with teens as they age into their 20s. It’s an important collaboration because it shows how our organizations can complement each other and create more connective, meaningful experiences for our young people.
How do you select artists for these events? What kind of connection to Zumix do they typically have?
JG: This year I wanted to strengthen worlds that were already floating around Zumix, so all of the artists selected were already connected to Zumix, but not necessarily with each other or our young people. For example, Ali McGuirk and the Paulding brothers of Kotoko Brass are Zumix teaching artists, Tim Hall is our 2019 Artist Luminary, and Jaw Gems is musically adjacent to Pangea, a band led by Zumix alum and staff member Omar Sosa. We also have student bands in all of these genres—so it felt natural to bring all these people together in their respective genres. It started with me wanting to work with all of these people, and the genre choices followed. Once that initial match is made, then I’m able to plug in great vendors and research others that make sense with the theme. For instance, Dzidzor has been doing amazing things with Black Cotton Club and came to one of Zumix’s Summer Concerts last year, so I wanted to plug her in, and it turned out she loves Kotoko Brass—she was then able to refer me to Jojo’s Pies, who will be popping up at the World Music Night. I’ve also been working closely with Chris Antonowich of Light of Day Records—so he will be bringing vinyl curated to the given theme of the shows on Feb 15 and April 18. Navigating the degrees of separation and bringing all of these interesting people together is what excites me about this series.
You mentioned that one of the goals of this series is to bridge generational gaps, which is something that, from what we have seen, Zumix does every single day you open the doors. Can you explain how these shows aim to work on that divide, though?
JG: Big Worlds is a different type of gap bridging than our day-to-day programs because it puts our young people on stage next to artists they look up to in front of relatively large audiences. Our young people are extremely talented, so when they excel on the Big Worlds stage it opens both the attendees’ eyes and their own to what they are capable of doing. For example, Johanna Affeln performed solo for the first time at our singer/songwriter night on Jan 18 and blew the crowd away with her original songs and compositions—she impressed the room to the point that she was seen as an artist, not a “youth artist.” The second part of bridging the generational gap is the relationships that can be forged between our young people and the professional artists that we book. As our students graduate from Zumix and enter the Boston music world, these artists become a reference for success and people they can reach out to for advice in navigating the music world/industry.
There are four nights in this series—singer/songwriter, experimental jazz, soul, and world music night. How much of the interest of Zumix participants do those genres represent?
JG: We have long-running singer/songwriter, jazz, and world music culture here—with a lineage of solo student performers, a former jazz concert series, and an African drumming class and ensemble. Soul is an overarching theme as well with our students interested in hip-hop/R&B/pop because of its influence and incorporation within all of these genres. Our students tend to have eclectic interests and don’t seem to discriminate by genre. There’s a solid, engaged population of young people that attend these events and listen with open ears. That being said, these genre selections are also targeted at our greater community and potential new supporters, as people of all ages attend Big Worlds and our other community arts events.
Are the young people who walk into Zumix increasingly interested in performing across multiple genres?
JG: Zumix students are encouraged to take a wide range of classes that we offer, but their personal interest usually becomes more focused towards a specific area as they progress towards graduation. Students form bands and individual performance monikers with specific styles as they find their voice and enter the realm of performing at Zumix related events. But there are absolutely students like Johanna Affeln who write solo material that is totally different from the music they perform with a Zumix ensemble, and enjoy doing both.
And finally, what involvement does the whole crew there have in putting on these events? From what we’ve seen in the past, things there are typically a group effort.
JG: As far as our community arts events such as Big Worlds, the Block Party, and our Summer Concert Series go, I drive the planning, booking, marketing, and event production process with assistance from the development team and support from the admin and program staff—every Zumix staff member ends up contributing in one way or another, whether through promoting to their students, co-hosting with a young person, helping with day-of event operations, or providing support on a specific technical area—shoutout to Ed Emerson, our creative tech manager. It becomes more of a group effort as the events grow closer and more help is needed. We also bring in alumni and volunteers from our community to assist when needed. The Zumix community is amazing that way—it’s incredibly responsive when people need to come together, so it makes for a special experience when the event comes into fruition.
Upcoming Big Worlds installments include Experimental Jazz Night: Jaw Gems, Pangea, Jazz Ensemble (2.15); Soul Night: Tim Hall, Rayel, DiverCity Band (3.21); World Music Night: Kotoko Brass, Dzidzor, African Drumming, Origination (4.18).