Excellence concert series in Salt Lake City finds influential partner

Music Foundation links up with the city and Gallivan Center.

By David Burger

The Salt Lake Tribune

Published: November 16, 2011 04:31PM
Updated: November 17, 2011 04:51PM

Melissa Pace Tanner performs this weekend at an Excellence in the Community concert. Courtesy image

The Excellence in the Community local concert series began in 2005 on the simple idea that home-grown Utah talent deserves the spotlight.

Armed with a new slogan — “Music to Match the Mountains” — the nonprofit Excellence in the Community Foundation is poised to make its mark on downtown.

The concert series, which has bounced from venue to venue, has landed its biggest supporter yet in the Gallivan Center.

In January, the Gallivan Center, owned by the Redevelopment Agency of Salt Lake City, will begin hosting concerts by the foundation in its indoor terraced building. The hope is that future concerts would be held outdoors when the weather becomes warmer.

Programming of local musicians is in harmony with Mayor Ralph Becker’s vision for downtown, said Art Raymond, the mayor’s deputy director of communications.

“We always wanted to have an artistic home downtown,” said Jeff Whiteley, local musician in Lark & Spur and series founder. “We could not be more pleased.”

The news follows the successful summer Mondays in the Park concert series, sponsored by Excellence in the Community and the Utah Arts Council. Acts such as the Corcovado Band performed at Liberty Park’s Chase Home Museum of Utah Folk Art, drawing up to 600 people weekly.

The foundation was tireless in finding talented local acts for the series, said Jason Bowcutt, community and performing-arts coordinator for the Utah Arts Council. What [Whiteley] is doing is really smart,” Bowcutt said. “I like his whole theory, pulling from the talent around us. He was a great partner.”

The new partnership with the Gallivan Center grew out of the “Cultural Core Conversations” project, launched in April by Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County, that brought together cultural, business and government leaders for a series of meetings.

The group identified 11 strategies to promote cultural attractions, based on a landmark agreement between Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County to create a fund that will generate $500,000 annually for the next 20 years. The report, issued earlier this month, defines one measure of success as having “diverse content” that focuses on local art and artists.

“It seemed like a natural fit,” said Talitha Day, director of the Gallivan Center, about working with the Excellence in the Community Foundation. “I am committed to doing this.”

Day and Whiteley hope the new Gallivan-based concert series will offer free admission. So far, Excellence concerts have had to charge admission.

Having a backer like the city is a bonus for Whiteley and his volunteer staff (which includes GAM Foundation and JazzSLC series leader Gordon Hanks). As a local musician, Whiteley knows that local venues often seemed more focused on programming touring artists from out of state. Melissa Pace Tanner is a Utah jazz vocalist who this weekend will headline her third Excellence in the Community concert with the Jay Lawrence Quartet at the Salt Palace, singing classic songs from The Great American Songbook.

“I don’t think there’s enough venues for all of us,” Tanner said. “We have an exceptional talent pool here. It’s on par with any big city. People [from out of state] tell me players here can hang.”

Tanner said she believes in Excellence’s mission. “I think [Whiteley] has had a hard time finding a home, and it sounds like it’s happening.”


Salt Lake Tribune – October 15, 2006
Theme and variations — vision and venues — a modest proposal for improving downtown Theme: As the city plans for the future, smaller venues, (200 to 300 seat upscale performance spaces), showcasing the area’s best local musicians will invigorate downtown. The world class musicians are here. We host a steady stream of visitors year round. Let’s put the area’s finest musicians downtown where the hotel guests can find them, turn on the spotlights and, to borrow a phrase from Michel Legrand, ‘watch what happens.’ Why not consider downtown something like a music mall? We have the anchor tenants: The Utah Symphony and the Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra on Temple Square. Missing are the boutiques, the smaller, more intimate spaces. We don’t have celebrity, but we have excellence. Put excellence where people can find it. This will require vision and venues. We need to plan now for the spaces and venues.

Vieve Gore Hall at Westminster College is a good example of what I envision: 280 seats, a beautiful stage, a grand piano, sound and lighting systems. But it is not downtown.

Nevertheless we are proving the validity of our argument in this hall one concert at a time. Excellence in the Community was founded to close the experiential gap between what our top musicians know is possible and what their fellow citizens imagine. World class talent? I hope doubters say, prove it.

Come and see. Once a month we prove our point: the area’s best musicians are a world class resource. A common response to our events is amazement. People comment on their expectations being dramatically exceeded. They also mention their surprise that they could live in the area and be unaware of the depth of the local talent.

The French have an expression, ‘The presentation is half of the taste’. Reformulated for this discussion, architecture sets the expectations. We have world class musical talent, not diamonds in the rough, but polished jewels all along the Wasatch Front. Take them out of the sock drawer. Put them in settings worthy of their talent, turn on the lights and downtown will sparkle.

For example: The Salt Lake Jazz Orchestra is a world class big band, dazzling not only locals but the big names they back up at the SL International Jazz festival. It would be nice to hear them more than once or twice a year. Synthesis Big Band just returned from a successful European tour. It would nice to hear them more than once or twice a year. Two world class big bands all dressed up, well rehearsed and no where to go.

But not just big band. Sophisticated jazz, we’ve got it. Bluegrass, we’ve got it, Celtic, we’ve got it, western swing, we’ve got it, gypsy swing, we’ve got it, French cabaret, we’ve got it. Singers to rival or surpass those on Broadway, we’ve got them. Do we have the vision to find a way to put all that talent and variety in front of the tourists and business travelers?

Renaissance kings and princes realized it was to their strategic advantage to attract and keep the best artists. Modern movers and shakers will come to see that a vital resource is underestimated, underused, undervalued and right under foot. Isn’t one of the key aspects of management the effective use of resources? Why not be known as a center for world class music? In significant numbers the world class musicians are here. As plans are made for the future we hope local excellence will find its place. Places. Downtown. To skeptics I repeat ‘come and see.’

Jeff Whiteley was a street musician in Paris, the leader of Lark & Spur, and the founder of Excellence in the Community. He can be reached at