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Free Concerts: In Washington D.C., They Happen 365 Days A Year

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Free Concerts: In Washington D.C., They Happen 365 Days A Year

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Free Concerts: In Washington D.C., They Happen 365 Days A Year

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Here's something that might attract attention in a bad economy. It's free. Over the next few weeks, we're going to hear about the business of putting on free concerts - how they work, what they might bring to their communities. We're going to begin in Washington, D.C. at the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage. Seven days a week, 365 days a year at 6 p.m. sharp, audiences can hear opera, jazz, folk, hip-hop. All of it free. NPR's Elizabeth Blair takes us there.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is funded with both public and private dollars. And it was always intended to be accessible to everyone. But the mammoth white building can be a little intimidating - immense chandeliers, red carpeting, ticket prices easily $50 or more. Or you could go for free and see, for example, OK Go.


OK GO: (Singing) Even more than an electric guitar. Just go buy out the sun. Try your future in the mashing(ph) (unintelligible)...

BLAIR: Or Thomas Mapfumo and his band from Zimbabwe.


BLAIR: Or a children's gospel choir.


WASHINGTON PERFORMING ARTS SOCIETY CHILDREN: (Singing) If you find anything, that's all I do, I ask the Lord to know what to do...

BLAIR: More than 300 people came to see the Washington Performing Arts Society's Children's Gospel Choir, including 74-year-old Jalil Mutakabbir.

JALIL MUTAKABBIR: There's not too many places that you can get a free show of quality.

BLAIR: Mutakabbir has been coming to see shows at the Millennium Stage for years. Tonight, she's here with four other women. They all live in a senior citizens community.

MUTAKABBIR: Most of the residents who are here with me can't afford to go out and see a nice show and pay for it, because it's so expensive where we're living. And so this affords people like us an opportunity to get out and see a good show.

BLAIR: For free, every single night of the year if you wanted to. Now, imagine what it's like to book all of those concerts. To do that you'd need someone with enthusiasm and tenacity, someone like Garth Ross.

GARTH ROSS: This one is super, super exciting to me.

BLAIR: In his cramped, windowless office, Garth Ross points to about a dozen large Post-It notes plastered along the wall - future projects he's working on for the Millennium Stage. One says What's Goin' On/John Legend. Another says Swing, Swing, Swing. There's one that says:

ROSS: Conservatory project. We are bringing opera into our conservatory project program, which is an exciting growth there. We were going to work with Lauryn Hill and that didn't work out. Whoops.

BLAIR: There's a big X on Lauryn Hill.

ROSS: I know. She's super fabulous. It just didn't work out for a variety of reasons.

BLAIR: When it does work out, it's often a collaboration between the Kennedy Center and another cultural institution. Garth Ross says they couldn't put on that many concerts without partnerships. Ross works with a staff of five and says the annual budget for the Millennium Stage is less than $1 million. Divide that by 365.

ROSS: We're dealing with a very small amount per show. So, if we were to try to produce this series, paying all of these expenses ourselves, it just wouldn't fly.

BLAIR: Ross says all of the professional musicians who perform on the Millennium Stage are paid, sometimes by the Kennedy Center, but oftentimes by one of their partners like the Library of Congress or the Smithsonian or one of the embassies. The Brazilian embassy, for example, sponsored a group called Choro Livre.



BLAIR: The idea for the free concert series originated about 15 years ago with two major Kennedy Center donors, Jim Johnson and Maxine Isaacs. Jim Johnson remembers when they were getting ready for their first news conference to announce the series.

JIM JOHNSON: The president of the Kennedy Center at the time, he said, Jim, he said, be careful. We're closed Christmas. And so I naturally said not anymore.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) Santa baby, put a sable under the tree for me.

BLAIR: For the past six years, it's been the All-Star Christmas Day Jazz Jam.


WOMAN: (Singing) And come on down the chimney tonight.

BLAIR: Around three million people have attended a concert at the Millennium Stage, says Jim Johnson. He believes this free series is what the Kennedy Center should be doing.

JOHNSON: I mean, this is a presidential memorial for John Kennedy, you know, who stood for the best in American life. And we didn't want to have any barriers to people being able to come and enjoy the best the Kennedy Center had to offer.

BLAIR: The Millennium Stage is also great promotion for the Kennedy Center as a whole. It gets a lot of people into that colossal building who otherwise might never go. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News, Washington.

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