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AUDIO Passport

Northeast Florida arts impresario Keith Marks takes his Avant Music Series to the airwaves

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It was just over a year ago when Folio Weekly’s John Citrone last caught up with multifarious local arts promoter Keith Marks for a cover story about the launching of Marks’ new venture, the Avant Music Series [Free Radical, May 2016]. At the time, Marks was donating hundreds of CDs and DVDs from the catalog of New York-based multi-instrumentalist and experimental composer, John Zorn’s Tzadik record label to Jacksonville Public Library’s Main Branch in Downtown, and putting together a series of concerts featuring an array of unconventional artists from around the globe.

“I want each concert to bring a diverse audience,” Marks told Citrone then. “Which, when they walk out, wouldn’t know how to tell somebody what they just saw.”

Ambitious, sure, but Marks’ words now read prescient—an audience of more than 400 showed up to see pianist Uri Caine play Avant Music Series’ inaugural concert just days after the story was published. Subsequently, through a grassroots fundraising campaign, Avant was established as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, and has since hosted performances by a variety of heavy-hitters from across the musical spectrum, from American Jewish World Music ensemble Pharaoh’s Daughter to Afro-Venezuelan singer Betsayda Machado, fulfilling the promise of Avant’s tagline “Curious Music for Curious Minds.”

And just as the music series has found its footing, the ever-ambitious Marks is already expanding the concept, taking Avant to the airwaves with a weekly program on the local NPR station WJCT 89.9 FM, appropriately titled Avant Radio.

“Avant Radio is absolutely an extension of the music series,” Marks tells FW. “The radio show always seemed like a natural fit, if WJCT were interested. Being able to be a weekly presence serves our mission of exposing Northeast Florida to dynamic, diverse and engaging music.”

With 12 episodes now in the can, Marks’ program is unlike anything currently available on local frequencies, with varied themes for each show and a roster of local guest curators lined up to lend his or her voice and eclectic listening tastes—including FW contributors Citrone and Daniel A. Brown. The first episode aired on Thursday, Oct. 12, featuring music from New York-based Fania Records, a label known widely for its promotion of salsa music and releases by artists like Willie Colon, Celia Cruz and Bobby Valentín.

While it’s an extension of the concert series, Avant Radio is as much a progeny of Mark’s own heterogeneous interests and talents. The 38-year-old father of two has, over the course of two decades in Jacksonville, created a regional nonprofit events series (called PB&J), hosted a children’s puppet show, released a local band compilation album, produced a sketch comedy show, staged a haiku/art show with local artists and writers, and sporadically contributed to this publication.

It’s no surprise, given his jack-of-all-trades pedigree, that the new program isn’t Marks’ first foray into the world of radio. Years ago, Marks served as the assistant music director at University of North Florida’s Spinnaker Radio, and even hosted his own shows. This time around, he’s enlisted noted Jacksonville-based audio engineer, Maurice “Moe” Ricks, to produce.

“When I talked with Moe about the radio show, he jumped in immediately,” says Marks of his longtime friend. “It’s amazing working with a master of his craft. He knows my quirks and compulsiveness, and he gets it because we’ve been friends for so long.”

Marks says each show comes together differently, with themes often emerging organically from music within his and Ricks’ individual wheelhouses.

“Some show themes highlight an artist, others a specific catalog, some a geographic region, others are looser like a nod to friendship and sharing music,” Marks says. “Moe and I listen to the songs, figure out how the shows should open, how they should close, and how the sequence flows.”

As expected, the shows are music-heavy, with Marks (sometimes accompanied by a guest curator) interjecting occasionally to add context, supply biographical information about a song’s artist, or offer tidbits about the song’s historical significance.

“To be perfectly honest, I think Moe and I are still working out our process, our style, and what the show will feel like,” Marks admits. “For people who listen early on, I think the process will be an enjoyable one.”

Though Marks is still fuzzy on the program’s format, he’s crystallized Avant Radio’s goals.

“Avant is all about exploration and getting people to expand their ears,” he says. “If you can get people to leave their biases at the door with music, maybe it’s possible for them to do the same things with other aspects of their lives. Music is a passport; it allows us to enter other cultures, other time periods, other ways of living and thinking.”
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Avant Radio is broadcast at 11 p.m. every Thursday on WJCT 89.9 FM.

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