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Janis Lane-Ewart: ‘Tell someone that you’re thinking of them, whenever that crosses your brain’

Sally Award winner Janis Lane-Ewart is currently the development officer for KBEM, the jazz radio station based in North High School.

Janis Lane-Ewart
Janis Lane-Ewart: "One of my greatest concerns is the ability to continue to have artists working in schools, introducing all forms of artistic expression to students.… I’m concerned that when schools reopen, the mechanism for bringing artists into schools may have dissipated."
Photo by Tommy Sar

Last November at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, Janis Lane-Ewart was honored with a Sally Award. The Sallys, if you’re not familiar, are a special kind of recognition. Based on the First Trust Award given in 1986 to Sally Ordway Irvine, to whom we owe the Ordway, they celebrate individuals and institutions that strengthen and enrich Minnesota with their commitment to the arts and arts education. Winners are nominated by the arts community – people whose lives they have directly affected.

Lane-Ewart’s award was for commitment, one of the original three categories (today there are five). She began her career as an arts administrator in Chicago in 1977, then moved to Minneapolis in 1989 and has worked ever since in community service, cultural activism and community radio.

She was KFAI’s executive director for 12 years and host of her own radio show, “The Collective Eye.” She has worked with many nonprofits locally and nationally, including the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in Chicago; the Rhythm & Blues Foundation in Washington, D.C.; St. Paul’s Ananya Dance Theatre, KRSM-FM in the Phillips Neighborhood; the Association of Minnesota Public Educational Radio Stations (AMPERS); and Powderhorn Park Neighborhood Association, among many others.

Currently, Lane-Ewart is the development officer for KBEM, the jazz radio station based in North High School. Development is a hot-seat occupation in non-pandemic times. She also serves on the boards of Artspace, American Composers Forum, Intermedia Arts and the Jazz Journalists Association. Her plate is always full.

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If you’ve been out and about at arts events, you’ve probably seen Lane-Ewart at the Walker, the Cedar, the Dakota, the Ordway, Crooners and/or the Twin Cities Jazz Festival, to name a few. She especially loves jazz and counts many jazz musicians among her friends. When asked which description she preferred, “jazz fan” or “jazz advocate,” she replied, “Advocate for all culturally relevant music,” not wanting to leave anything out.

We spoke by phone on Tuesday morning. This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Janis Lane-Ewart was KFAI’s executive director for 12 years and host of her own radio show, “The Collective Eye.”
Courtesy of Janis Lane-Ewart
Janis Lane-Ewart was KFAI’s executive director for 12 years and host of her own radio show, “The Collective Eye.”
MinnPost: What was your life like before everything shut down?

Janis Lane-Ewart: I was still keeping track of who was performing when and where, and based upon my capacity to afford events, I was going out as often as possible.

Access to artistic expression is important. We live in a place where national and international artists come to share their gifts. It’s imperative that we continue to remind each other of the value of the arts, and the support artists require in order to be creative. Based on the artists I know intimately, a lot of what they do comes from their own self-motivation. [They also need] some form of appreciation given back to them.

MP: What is a typical day like for you now?

JLE: I am maintaining my 9-to-5 hours as the development officer at KBEM. That includes keeping up on email, processing payments, and arranging for thank-you letters to be sent to donors. I am on Zoom a lot.

Because I’m also on several boards, I’m in Zoom meetings with those organizations as well. The word “zoom” is in my life so often that all I can think about is Aretha Franklin’s “Who’s Zooming Who?” I often sing that song before a meeting.

MP: When you look around at how the pandemic is affecting the arts landscape you know so well, what is your greatest concern?

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JLE: One of my greatest concerns is the ability to continue to have artists working in schools, introducing all forms of artistic expression to students. I know that has gone down to almost nil at this time. Not almost; schools are closed. I’m concerned that when schools reopen, the mechanism for bringing artists into schools may have dissipated.

At this juncture, there’s no way to tell if COVID is present or not. If an artist comes into a school setting and doesn’t know he or she is carrying the virus, it’s just disaster. That is on my brain.

[Having artists in the schools] is the starting point for many young artists. When I ask somebody who’s currently an artist what was the spark, they often say they met an artist when they were young, or something happened in their classroom, or they went on a field trip.

MP: What do you miss most?

JLE: Live performances! Live jazz performances. Not only because of the music, or the energy in the room. These are also gathering places to see who else supports live music, both the people you know and new faces. Having the artists come down off the stage and walk through the house. I also miss seeing dance performances at the Ordway.

2019 Sally Award honorees
Photo by Laura Alpizar
Janis Lane-Ewart, left, with the other 2019 Sally Award honorees: Chamindika Wanduragala, Kao Kalia Yang, Scott Lykins, and Saymoukda Vongsay.
MP: Before the virus hit, we were looking at a great spring for visiting jazz artists. Charles Lloyd, Kurt Elling, Benny Green, John Pizzarelli, Stanley Clark, Maria Schneider, Brad Mehldau – they were all coming through.

JLE: I called Pharoah Sanders a few days ago to find out his dates. He’s scheduled at the Dakota in late August.

MP: Do you think venues will be open by then?

JLE: I’m not well enough informed about all the issues related to COVID and what it will take to keep it from escalating into higher numbers. I don’t have enough information in my own toolbox. [Meanwhile] the back-and-forth, yes-no-maybe-we-don’t-know is traumatic.

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MP: What events were you looking forward to most?

JLE: Pharoah Sanders was certainly one. And, of course, José James. He’s like a nephew to me. I spoke with him when he was last in town with his Bill Withers concert [in March 2018]. That was lovely.

MP: In March and April, José and his wife, Taali, were sick with what he assumed was the coronavirus. He wrote about it on Facebook.

JLE: They’re recovering now.

MP: Is there a silver lining anywhere in this moment of history for you?

JLE: I’m constantly being introduced to new artists. There’s more visibility now from individual artists putting something up on Facebook. Far more than I ever experienced.

Because I’m working at home in my bedroom, at the end of every day, when I finish my assignment, I go and walk my neighborhood. That has been really refreshing. It’s a nice new addition to my daily life.

Janis Lane-Ewart presents jazz artist Charles Lloyd with a 2018 Jazz Journalists Association Award at the Dakota in March 2018.
Photo by John Whiting
Janis Lane-Ewart presents jazz artist Charles Lloyd with a 2018 Jazz Journalists Association Award at the Dakota in March 2018.
And I continue to remember how important it is to tell someone that you’re thinking of them, whenever that crosses your brain. I’ve taken more time to stop and call somebody and say, “I love you, and I hope you’re doing OK.” Not everyone reveals if they’re sick. You don’t always know if someone has the virus or not.

MP: Jazz has taken a lot of hits. Ellis Marsalis and Bucky Pizzarelli, Lee Konitz and Wallace Roney have all died from complications of coronavirus.

JLE: I know the Marsalis family. And I’ve seen Wallace Roney a zillion times.

MP: What’s the first thing you’re going to do when it’s safe to do whenever you want?

JLE: I’m going to go out to a park, with all of my special treats, and just sit there all day long and say hello to whoever comes by. I could do that now, but not without a mask. Sitting out in the park with a mask on isn’t the experience I’m seeking.