Concerts in the park: Donating has slowed but music will play on

Blues, folk, jazz, rock, roots, Celtic, zydeco …

A full schedule of 25 concerts is planned in Ballard Park this summer by CHIRP (Concert Happenings in Ridgefield Parks). But Barbara Manners, founder of the 16-year-old free concert program, says fund raising is proving quite difficult this year — perhaps a result of changes in the amount of deductions allowed under federal tax law.

“It’s so down,” Manners said of the response to her usual fund-raising letters. “Part of it, I think, is the tax changes.”

The tax bill passed by Congress late last year set a $10,000 limit on SALT, or state and local tax, deductions. Circumstances concerning deductions for charitable contributions were also tightened up.

“Maybe people who are taking the standard deduction now, because they can only take $10,000 in their property taxes, have cut back on their contributions,” Manners said. “I think that tax reform has altered some patterns of giving.

“People tell me they love the concerts,” she said. “People give during the summer, and hopefully that will pick up. But the numbers are just way down for the mailings.”

Tuesdays, Thursdays

Still, Ridgefield’s summer will be filled with music.

“We have a great concert series coming up. We have 25 wonderful concerts,” Manners said. “There’ll be a full-page ad in Arts and Leisure of the May 10 issue of The Press.”

The music begins with Tuesday night shows.

“Concerts start May 29, with a young group from Boston, Mile Twelve — a bluegrass group. And then every Tuesday thereafter. We’ve got zydeco. We’ve got Marcia Ball coming June 5 — she is a force of nature, she’s an incredible keyboardist, she plays Cajun. She’s played every year at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival,” Manners said.

“The Thursday night concerts start June 21 with the Fairfield Counts, doing big band music.”

The concerts are in Ballard Park, off Main Street. They start at 7, and end at 9:30.

Manners seeks artists in a wide array of styles and genres, while looking for originality and high quality.

“The artists have to be national touring artists who are creating largely their own music,” she said. “I don’t bring in cover bands.”

The one exception, she said, is the Fairfield Counts, who are local and play classic swing and “big band” era music.

Manners regards the Tuesday and Thursday night CHIRP concerts as a benefit to the townspeople who listen, and also a support for musicians who are trying to build careers.

“It helps keep them on the road,” Manners said. “And we get artists who normally on the weekends would get four times as much money. But because it’s a Tuesday or a Thursday night, they’re willing to play for us rather than playing in a bar or just sitting in their hotel. It becomes a good gig.”

Free, not really

While the concerts are free to anyone who wants to come and listen, there are expenses. Manners’ fund raising has to cover a considerable budget.

“At this point, with 25 concerts, it’s a little over $100,000 — $120,000, maybe,” she said.

“What is interesting is we get more contributions from outside Ridgefield now than we used to. I now do our townwide mailing, not only to Ridgefield, I do it to South Salem, and this year I added north Wilton.

“South Salem people have started contributing, but even so, the overall total is down,” she said.

“Usually it’s at least 400 families,” she said of a year’s contributors. “I have a running list from when I started. Over 1,200 families have contributed since I started in 2002.”

CHIRP also gets support from local foundations — the Leir Foundation, the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Foundation, the Wadsworth Lewis Fund.

“And this year the Thrift Shop was very generous, they’re underwriting two concerts,” Manners said.

CHIRP’s program has grown over the years.

“We’ve gone from nine concerts the first year to 25,” Manners said. “This may be the last year it’s 25.”

After 9/11

Manners began the concerts in 2002, following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which hit this area — with many locals working in the World Trade Center —  so hard.

“They were started after 9/11,” Manners said.  “I felt, after 2001, the community needed to come together. And the best way to bring people together was through free music in the park.

“But at the same time, I wanted to help make Ridgefield a destination,” she said. “I wanted people to come from other places for the music.”