OAKLAND -- The Chapel of the Chimes popular "Jazz at the Chimes" concert series returns Jan. 20 for the 2013 season, featuring Bay Area jazz luminaries pianist-composer Larry Vuckovich, vocalist Jackie Ryan and five-time-Grammy-nominated percussionist John Santos.

Since its inception in 2006, the concert series has gained in popularity as a local attraction for its support of top Bay Area musicians and for its unusual venue.

The well-known crematorium and columbarium, considered a great example of funerary architecture in the United States, was redesigned by famed architect Julia Morgan in 1928. Morgan worked to incorporate the chapel with an array of gardens, cloisters, alcoves, stairwells, fountains and chapels, all lit by natural sunlight.

"The chapel is like no other venue," concert producer Mary D'Orazi said. "It adds to the experience because it's visual as well as audible."

For many, the chapel itself is a main attraction and guests can take tours of the building before and after shows. As a way of bringing community members together in support of local artists, the chapel's management originally developed a marketing department and assigned it the task of building a music program. D'Orazi became the concert producer and guided the series through a rough patch.

"The chapel is just so beautiful," D'Orazi said. "I did a few recitals there when I was a kid. There was always music there; I thought it'd be a waste not to use it for concerts."


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An average of about 125 people show up for concerts, up from a modest handful of about 10 back in 2006.

The recipe for success, D'Orazi said, is straightforward: keep the series accessible, keep it community-oriented and keep the roster packed with top Bay Area artists.

"I wanted to make it an affordable alternative venue for jazz artists," D'Orazi said. "Most of the available spaces for quality local artists are restaurants and cafes, which is fine. But it's a more intimate atmosphere at the chapel. No one is making lattes in the back."

In 2009, the concert program fell victim to budget cuts. After a three-year hiatus, jazz performances returned last year to the chapel under new management. D'Orazi again spearheaded the program.

"The concert series brought the community together," D'Orazi said. "People loved it. Even during the jazz program's layoff, people kept calling about it."

On opening night this past January, D'Orazi was nervous, to say the least.

"I didn't know what to expect, especially since it had been three years since the chapel was used for concerts," she said. But her worries evaporated and turned into delight when 235 guests attended that night. Having set up 170 chairs, staff members had to improvise to accommodate as many guests as possible.

There are six concert dates scheduled for this season, starting this month. After that, the series continues on alternating months up until November. Many community members, though, would like to see a more robust schedule.

"It's kind of hard working with six dates," D'Orazi said. "It's difficult figuring out what to put in, what not to put in, but the day-to-day of the chapel remains focused on end-of-life services. In the past, the chapel was being tied up when funeral services were going on, so we were forced to limit the dates."

The upcoming series will treat listeners to an array of musical selections, including swinging bebop, contemporary jazz, modal-on-the-edge/Balkan-Middle Eastern-Roma (gypsy ethnic fusion), flamenco, Afro-Cuban, Brazilian, down-home blues and jazz tango and more.

Local businesses are also supporting Jazz at the Chimes. Piedmont Groceries, along with other local merchants, sponsor the series.

"We usually sell out," D'Orazi said, "so people tend to arrive early. It's really cool to know this program gives back to local businesses that support us, because concertgoers are very active before shows and after. It brings more people into our neighborhood."

D'Orazi pointed out that some of the best jazz artists in the nation are based in the Bay Area. Among the artists the chapel will welcome this year is multi-Grammy Award-winning violinist Mads Tolling, who is set to perform March 17.

D'Orazi forecast continued success for "Jazz at the Chimes."

"You've got to have music -- no matter what the economy is like," she said.

IF YOU GO
What: "Jazz at the Chimes" kicks off its 2013 season with a concert featuring Larry Vuckovich's "Beyond Category Quartet" with vocalist Jackie Ryan.
When: 2 p.m. Jan. 20; ticket sales begin at 12:30 p.m. and doors open at 1:30 p.m.
Where: Chapel of the Chimes; 4499 Piedmont Ave. Oakland; plenty of free parking
Tickets: $15 general; $10 seniors (60 years and up) and students for concert and reception; purchase tickets at the door; cash only.
Information: chimesjazz@gmail.com; 510-654-0123; for a list of concert dates, artists, and prices visit www.jazzatthechimes.com.