Citizen Green: Jack Bonney (mostly) signs off from the Triad music scene

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by Jordan Green

The house on Tate Street where Jack Bonney has lived for 11 years echoes with the absence of thousands of records and other belongings — crated up and moved to his new place in Durham.

There’s not much left, just some hardbound art books, drawings and assorted tchotchkes on this rainy Sunday evening. His girlfriend, the artist Beka Butts, will give the house one last cleaning, the key will be returned tomorrow and this chapter of Bonney’s life in Greensboro will be finished.

With his thick, red lumberjack beard and flannel shirt, Bonney has been a ubiquitous presence on the music scene in Greensboro for the past 17 years, typically giving a quiet appraisal from the side of the stage. It would be hard to imagine what the scene would have been without him, and what it will become as his new chapter picks up in Durham.

He’s managed radio stations, sold records, DJed parties and booked shows, first as general manager of the campus station at UNCG, and then in a variety of entrepreneurial modes after the university cut his position in 2011.

“It’s always been a struggle to get venues,” he muses. “I’ve worked with all kinds of spaces, including some that weren’t legal. I’ve worked with Artistika, Green Street and the Flying Anvil.”

During his run with the UNCG campus station, the “WUAG Presents” tag that announced free shows at Square One, Artistika and other venues became a seal of good housekeeping for the Greensboro scene. Later, when he started booking shows and selling vinyl out of CFBG Records, “CFBG Presents” developed the same reputation for quality and thoughtful curation. Likewise with the monthly Dance From Above parties at the Crown that launched last year.

Bonney’s stewardship of the scene and the varied activities that have allowed him to patch together a livelihood have flowed out of his love of music, starting with his involvement with WUAG when he arrived in Greensboro from Baltimore as a freshman at UNCG. After earning a bachelor’s degree in 2002, he landed the job of general manager at the station.

“A motivating force behind booking all these acts is that I want to see these acts,” Bonney says. “At WUAG I would get a CD, and I would say, ‘Whoa, this is fantastic! I want to see them.’”

He booked the Magnolia Electric Co., led by the late Jason Molina, on the lawn behind the Stone Building on the campus of UNCG in 2005, and showcased Beach House for 40 people at Square One in 2008 shortly before they started selling out arenas. Sometimes his tastes were a step ahead of the crowd in Greensboro, but other times, as with his booking of Akron/Family, Tobacco, the Budos Band and Dam-Funk, Bonney’s instincts dovetailed brilliantly with the enthusiasm of the local audience.

He admits to being ready for a change of scene, but ultimately it’s a job that’s pulling Bonney away from Greensboro. When Jason Perlmutter, the founder of the Carolina Soul website, mentioned in April that he wanted to open a record store in Durham by the same name, Bonney found himself unable to resist the offer of a position as general manager. He’ll continue to host “Jazz On Wax” every Friday at WSNC FM in Winston-Salem and will commute back to Greensboro once a month to help produce Dance From Above. But for the past couple years he’s paid attention to what’s happening in other North Carolina cities, and says he can’t help feeling that Greensboro and even Winston-Salem are a little behind.

“One of my biggest frustrations is that I would put on a show and there would be fewer people than I expected, or than I had hoped to see,” Bonney says. “I feel like there’s all these great things happening here, but it’s taken for granted. People talk about how great it is to have five colleges in Greensboro, but what are you doing with it? What is the city doing to connect with the colleges, and what are the colleges doing to connect with the city?”

With Carolina Soul projected to open on Dec. 1, the crew already has plans to set in motion next year. They’ve got agreements to DJ parties at Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in April and to host in-store performances during the Art of Cool jazz festival in May, and they’re in early discussions with Moogfest about the potential for a similar partnership.

So now it’s time to pass the torch in Greensboro. Whoever picks it up will need to carry the flame within.

“The music is my passion,” Bonney says. “Experiencing a vibe is a passion, too. My advice is to make sure you’re passionate enough to know you’re going to have to work very, very hard with minimal rewards. Put a good team in place because you’ll burn out on your own; believe me, I’ve been there. Start small, and build from there.”