Article: Composing community – Levy vote supports Coyle concert venue

Viviann Kuehl article, Port Townsend Leader

Norm Johnson is proud to host free concerts by visiting musicians every month at the Coyle Laurel B. Johnson Community Center. Photo by Viviann Kuehl

Norm Johnson is proud to host free concerts by visiting musicians every month at the Coyle Laurel B. Johnson Community Center. Photo by Viviann Kuehl

5-15-13

Norm Johnson, the smilingly soft-spoken impresario of his chosen neighborhood, is in high spirits after the passing of a levy supporting Coyle parks and recreation.

It makes it easy for him, along with several community groups, to continue to serve local residents.

Technically, Coyle isn’t recognized as a town. There are no stores, gas stations, restaurants or even a post office.

The 200 or so people living on the Toandos Peninsula look to the Laurel B. Johnson Community Center as the only public gathering place and the hub of community activities.

The center, which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, supports a weekly food bank day with lunch and a produce exchange for everyone (not just those in need), club meetings, a Jefferson County Library bookmobile stop, special events, a potable water source, garden space with deer fencing and free concerts.

“So many good things happen here because of the community center,” says Johnson.

Judging by the 75 percent approval of the replacement maintenance and operations levy for the Coyle Community Center and Jefferson County Park and Recreation District 1 (Coyle/Thorndyke) on April 23, the community agrees. The 164-to-56 vote approved a property tax increase of 15 cents or less per $1,000 valuation to raise about $20,000 to keep the center open for the next six years.

That means Johnson, a retired analytical chemist, can continue putting on free monthly concerts for anyone who cares to come.

Unlikely artist

Johnson came to music as a nonmusician during his 37 years of residence on Bainbridge Island. He became interested while sitting at his young daughter’s piano lessons and later he got involved with the Island Music Guild, eventually becoming the only nonmusician president of the group.

“I didn’t know anything about music, but I was baking cookies, taking tickets, running the PA system, setting up and folding up chairs at concerts,” says Johnson. “I enjoyed helping musicians perform their music and I realized there’s a need for that.”

He met a lot of musicians, learned about publicity and composing press releases, creating advertisements and promotional posters, and compiling mailing lists.

During this time Johnson and his wife Sol, a nurse, found the perfect weekend getaway on the Coyle. But when they bought it, they didn’t know about the Community Center, Johnson says.

“When I finally figured out what it was, I asked the building manager, ‘Does anybody ever do music there?’” Johnson recalls. “He says, ‘We’d love to have some music.’”

That’s all it took. Johnson began to book musicians.

The original intention was to provide entertainment for friends and neighbors, but people have come from as far as Port Angeles and Keyport to hear musicians perform in a space with good acoustics and none of the distractions of food/drink service.

“One of the things I really like here is the audience that comes is a listening audience,” says Johnson.

Coyle hospitality

The first free concert in September 2009 had an audience of 14. By spring 2010, Johnson had settled into an “every third Saturday” schedule. Now a small turnout is 20, he says. Last February, Abby Mae & the Homeschool Boysplayed to a standing room only audience (more than 60) and on April 20 about 40 people were on hand to hear award-winning musical duo Montana Skies.

“Amazingly, we do we get a good audience,” says Johnson. “You wouldn’t think you would get that good a turnout, but we do. For a little community center in the middle of nowhere, to get that kind of turnout is really amazing.”

The musicians are appreciative, he says.

At first he had to call out favors from old friends, but after artists and audiences began sharing stories of their experiences, that changed.

“Most of my bookings now are people who call me,” Johnson says.

Classical cellists, blues bands, country western style, folk singers and others have enjoyed the setting and Johnson’s hospitality.

He provides a meal with the show, and if needed, free lodging as well.

“I have the space, so I can do that,” says Johnson, who is nearly finished building a home where he and his wife plan to retire.

The couple keeps their getaway cabin for housing visitors.

“I always enjoy meeting the people,” says Johnson. “It’s always interesting to hear their adventures and I enjoy meeting new friends.”

Johnson gives help, along with advice, on their journeys. Sometimes musicians stay a few days because of travel plans, or to work out lyrics, or even to catch up on sleep and laundry during a tour.

Now even agents ask if Johnson would like to have their clients at Coyle.

“Nationally recognized bands come out here in the middle of the forest just because it’s a good place to perform,” says Johnson. “Oddly enough, the center has good acoustics. It’s a live space.”

Attentive audience

An appreciative, listening audience is also important, and there is always a donation jar, and perhaps CD sales, to make the economics work, Johnson says. “People out here are very generous, and make it worthwhile for musicians to come.”

Johnson very much appreciates the way people help each other and know each other in a rural setting, as they do on the Coyle, and where he grew up.

To show his appreciation, Johnson always has cookies and coffee at intermission, knowing that people like to get together and see their neighbors, especially in the context of beautiful music.

“This feels like home now,” says Johnson. “It’s the best venue of anything I’ve ever done.”

Article: Composing community – Levy vote supports Coyle concert venue

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