Harmonizing the Flathead Valley

By Beacon Staff

Since arriving in the Flathead Valley from New York City in 2012, renowned flautist, saxophonist and composer Erica von Kleist has set about transforming the local music scene.

Although Northwest Montana might seem like an improbable place for a Julliard-trained, Grammy-nominated jazz musician like von Kleist to foster her career, she says it’s a thriving home to a heady stock of talented musicians and supports a range of musical genres.

That glut of diverse talent was the thrust behind her decision to start the Northwest Artist Syndicate, a booking agency and database of local artists and musicians based mainly in the Flathead Valley.

The aim of the Northwest Artist Syndicate (NAS) is to become the go-to resource for talent in the region.

“The goal is to create more performing opportunities for musicians just by gaining them exposure,” von Kleist said. “I moved here a year and a half ago with some goals in mind. I wanted to start new and fresh and just kind of see where the energy takes me businesswise, but also I wanted to create some sustainability for myself and others in the artistic community. It’s a small valley and there’s only so much opportunity to go around.”

When von Kleist realized there was no booking agency or database to catalog the talent pool, she designed a website at www.northwestartistsyndicate.com and launched the for-profit company.
The organization has been gaining exposure not just locally, but also nationally.

Von Kleist, 32, spent 12 years in New York playing and performing with an array of talented jazz musicians, including Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society ensemble, and touring with the likes of Chris Potter, Wynton Marsalis and the JLCO and Seth MacFarlane, among scores of others.

Her network of talent in the Big Apple and across the nation is proving to be a boon in this remote corner of Montana.

“Musicians are moving out of cities right now because the East Coast is so crowded and people are getting sick of the daily grind, so places like Montana are becoming more popular,” she said.

Von Kleist has also invested in the performing arts by launching a nonprofit organization called Groove Trail (groovetrail.org), which is geared toward introducing live music into the lives of people who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to appreciate it.

Through Groove Trail, von Kleist will sponsor music lessons for children who can’t afford them and provide them with musical instruments, put on concerts at veterans homes, retirement communities, hospitals and hospice centers.

“Anywhere someone might not have the means to go see live music,” she said.

“Music heals, music enriches and music communicates,” she continued. “Some of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had as a musician have been through education and outreach.”

Originally from West Hartford, Conn., von Kleist said her family didn’t have the money for her to study music at the level she desired, and programs like the school’s jazz band and its passionate instructors laid the groundwork for her ambition to take off.

“It was an incredibly enriching experience for me in my formative years and it was a huge springboard for me to go to New York City and Julliard and learn a strong work ethic,” she said. “It really set me up for success.”

To get Groove Trail off the ground, von Kleist has set up an online fundraising campaign through Indiegogo (links to donate are on groovetrail.org) with the goal of raising $5,000.

She’s also organized a kickoff concert on March 23 at the Whitefish Performing Arts Center, where she’ll perform with Grammy-nominated jazz pianist Gerald Clayton.

“He is hands down one of the best pianists or musicians of our generation,” said von Kleist, who is currently recording her third album.

Launching the nonprofit, von Kleist says, is the greatest investment of her career, and she’s confident it will pay off in big returns as she puts stock in the community personally, professionally and artistically.

“It’s easy to live here and be creative. I couldn’t have started two businesses and be recording an album in the span of six months in New York,” she said. “There are things about it that seem fresh and new. I think it’s a place of opportunity.”