Frog Island Jazz Series Finds Groovy Success Amid Pandemic

frog island jazz series
Founder and curator of the Frog Island Jazz Series John E. Lawrence walks through the crowds during a series performance. Photo courtesy of John E. Lawrence.

Five days before the first installment of the Frog Island Jazz series, John E. Lawrence found himself in front of a lake that was meant to be the series’ stage. Heavy rain had flooded Frog Island Park in Ypsilanti. A family of ducks swam by and he knew he needed to find another place for his musicians to play. 

“I am a believer in God and I think God made it rain for five days straight, or however long it took to flood because he had a better vision,” Lawrence said. 

Frog Island Jazz Series was off to a Rocky Start

The series started out as a way for Lawrence to give back to the community. After arranging musicians and working out a plan with the mayor of Ypsilanti, he was ready to give it a go. The original vision was to have one show every Friday all throughout the summer and make it free to the public. With the move from Frog Island to neighboring area Riverside park, Lawrence faced new challenges, particularly with acquiring funding. 

“I had originally budgeted $30,000 to the series. I was prepared to invest $30,000,” he said. With the move to Riverside park, Lawrence now needed to pay for a stage. “The stage costs us an additional $3,000 per concert, doubling the cost of the series. Fortunately, the sponsorships started coming in.”

Lawrence and his team of volunteers worked around the clock to prepare for the series. They were especially focusing on acquiring deals with local business owners. Some of the businesses he contacted were through mutual friends while others were introduced to him by a sponsor. As of the ninth show, he has not had to pay anything out of his pocket due to his sponsorships with Sesi Lincoln, Bank of Ann Arbor, Gene Butman Ford, and more. 

Treating Artists with Respect at the Frog Island Jazz Series

Regular Frog Island Jazz attendees also donated to help keep the show going. On average, each of the 10 shows cost $7,000 with the stage fees, performer compensation, sound, and lighting. 

“You gotta treat people with respect so when I called the musicians I said, ‘number one, I want you to play and I am going to pay you more than you would normally pay to do a set like this, and we are going to supply you with your own parking lot very close to the stage,” Lawrence said. He also ensured breaks with free food for the performers and the musicians can sell their merchandise during intermission and after the show. “You should see the smile on their face when they get there and see that. They are just so grateful that they are treated with first-class treatment.”

All of these accommodations were extremely important for Lawrence, as he is a world-famous musician himself. Lawrence knows what good treatment for a musician looks like and he doesn’t just want that for his friends. He wants to instill a culture where musicians are treated with respect. He has also planned accommodations for the attendees. Lawrence arranged for shuttles and golf cart services to pick people up and take them to the performance. 

Looking Forward to Next Summer

Based on the response that the series received, with 5,000 people coming to the later shows, Lawrence plans to hold the series every summer. During every show, Lawrence plays at least one song with the musicians. Afterward, he will roam the crowds and talk to the audience members. He knows that if every attendee paid $10, he could cover the whole show. But he is also building something for the betterment of the people around him. 

“I think what is drawing people to this series is that they see we care and that we are trying to make this as nice as possible, and they are grateful,” Lawrence said. “They also take ownership in the fact that this is happening in their backyard and I see the pride in their faces.” 

Come check out the last night of the Frog Island Jazz series on September 3.