Interview with Jazz Impresario Danny Melnick

Gigi Brooks checks in with jazz event and tour producer about the challenges of presenting jazz

On Saturday, June 29 and Sunday, June 30, 2013, the Freihofer's Saratoga Jazz Festival will celebrate its 36th anniversary at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Springs, NY.; thanks to jazz impresario, producing partner and Artistic Director Danny Melnick.

Melnick's company, Absolutely Live Entertainment, LLC., has produced some of the greatest tours, concerts and special events throughout the world. Its extensive list of highly successful tours and events include the four month-long Blue Note Records 70th Anniversary tour; commemorating the 50th Anniversary of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue recording; Wayne Shorter's 75th birthday concerts in NYC and Boston; “The Rumi Symphony Project,” the first Persian headlining concert at Carnegie Hall; and many others.

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Danny Melnick, of Absolutely Live Entertainment
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Freihofer's Saratoga Jazz Festival

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Melnick also serves as Artistic Director of Carnegie Hall's “The Shape of Jazz”, series; now in its 10th season. In August 2011, he was chosen by Newport Jazz founder and producer George Wein to serve as Associate Producer for the Newport Jazz Festival. Danny Melnick has also played a major role in the production of such annual events as the JVC Jazz Festivals in Newport and New York; the Bermuda Music Festival; the Verizon Music Festivals; all in all he has helped to produce over 95 jazz festivals in the U.S., Japan and Europe.

Last week I had the distinct honor to speaking with somene whom I consider to be one of the most creative producers in jazz. In a time when jazz is now in need of more recognition and exposure to our youth and the world, Danny Melnick has done his due diligence to see that it remains in the forefront and has successfully exposed some of the now most accomplished musicians of our time.

In our conversation, we discussed the 36th anniversary of the upcoming Freihofer's Saratoga Jazz Festival and touched on his illustrious career.

Gigi Brooks: I want to congratulate you on the upcoming 36th Annual Freihofer's Saratoga Jazz Festival, I am so excited about it. Let's talk about it and your involvement.

Dan Melnick: The festival is June 29 and 30 at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Springs, NY. It is the 36th annual festival, we have two stages. The Main stage in the amphitheater goes from 12:00 p.m. until about 10:30 p.m., on Saturday and Sunday. The Gazebo stage, which is a smaller stage where we do a lot of showcase performances usually goes from about 12:00 p.m. to about 7:00 p.m.

Gigi: I'm looking at all of the wonderful headliners that will be there. I see Tony Bennett...

DM: Yes, Tony Bennett. There's also going to be on Sunday, June 30, Buddy Guy and a lot of really great, fantastic artists. The thing about Saratoga that's so cool is that we do a lot of different styles of music there. So we try really hard to do as much as we can a little bit of everything so that people who have all different tastes can come to the festival and have a good time and come and check out some artists that they really don't know a lot about. You know? So it's not one style of music we try to do all types of different things at Saratoga.

Gigi: Not just one style of music. We are talking about all of the different types of jazz correct?

DM: Yes. We do straight-ahead jazz, we do a little smooth, funk, soul, latin, avant garde, we have world music, blues.....we really try to give people opportunities to hear and experience all different styles of music.

Gigi: I just want to mention your background that you've produced many tours with your company Absolutely Live Entertainment and you're responsible for the continuation of the Newport Jazz Festival and Miles Davis' 50th Anniversary recording and tour of Kind of Blue. Just so many great events when it comes to jazz and I want to recognize you. One of the main focuses of my radio show and the work that I do in music is the continuation of jazz and I so admire your work and accomplishments in this same purpose and focus. I want to applaud you for all of the great things and the work you have done with the JVC jazz festivals, what you're doing as Artistic Director at Carnegie Hall, “The Shape of Jazz.” I want to thank you.

DM: Thank you. I really appreciate that. You know my goal is to keep it going too. I think the music is awesome and I think the guys and the ladies who perform are incredible and talented people and I have worked really hard over the years to allow them more and more opportunities to be heard and to turn more and more people on to the music; so that society can be a better place. [laughs]

Gigi: [laughs] Yes! I agree!

DM: At the end of the day for me...I enjoy it a lot...I love being a part of the scene and I like when people have a really good time at the concerts or the festivals, it makes me really happy! We do stuff that gives people a chance to get away from their daily lives and enjoy. They don't have to come to these events, you know? These are all optional for them and we really so appreciate the audience and we really love the musicians so we're just trying to bring everybody together.

Gigi: I love the line-up! I know the turn-out will be spectacular because of the the line-up and also due to what you're doing with the festival. I would like to name a few of the artists here: Arturo Sandoval, David Sanborn, Bob James, Gregory Porter, McCoy Tyner's Quartet, The Cookers ...so many great artists and even Carmen Souza! I wish I could be there!

DM: I appreciate that. I mean it's really a beautiful line-up and we have fireworks on Saturday night after the festival is over and on Sunday we're putting in a bronze star into the cement at the Plaza there in Dave Brubeck's honor and his daughter Kathy and grandson Daniel will be there to be a part of the celebration. Dave played the Saratoga Jazz Festival more than any other artist during the history of the festival. So we are going to honor his memory with a star in the Plaza there. And we have an amazing crafts section and we do a lot of CD signings with the artists. It's a really cool event where people can come and bring a lot of stuff in. We don't really hassle people. They can bring their own blankets, lawn chairs and umbrellas. We have reserve seating and lawn seating and they can park for free. It's a really fun and pretty amazing space up there in Saratoga.

Gigi: Can they bring their own wine and everything as well?

DM: Well, we have a huge bar there so they're not allowed glass containers, but we do have a really big bar area there and they can sit on the outdoor Plaza there and have drinks and we have different types of beer on tap and we have barbeque and other foods...so it's a pretty great scene. The Amphitheater and the Performing Arts Center is a historic place, they've been open now for more than 40 years and they are my partners and are fantastic people.

Gigi: Along with the festival I know sometimes there are buses that will transport people from New York and the DC area. Will you have something like that available to people who want to get transportation to the festival?

DM: The festival itself does not get involved in any of that. We tried in the past to do it, but it was really difficult for us to coordinate, everybody had their own agendas in terms of when they could travel and where they were going and coming from. I know there are companies that do it, but there's nothing official. People can take buses, Amtrak and there are cabs and other types of trollies available in Saratoga to get people to the festival site; but a lot of people get here on their own steam, because they are coming from all different places and the hotels are really spread out in Saratoga and towns surrounding Saratoga. We have a big local following as well. There are options, but we're just not involved with them officially.

Gigi: Understandable. Since this is your production, with your company what do you want most importantly for people to take away from your events? What is it that you want people to remember and bring more people back?

DM: Well, we work very hard to put on very high quality events. We're very cautious and conscious about sound and about the artist's equipment and we really want the audience to feel very comfortable at the events we do. Obviously we are fortunate that we work in pretty prestigious places so we know that there's quality control at places like Newport, Carnegie Hall, Saratoga and some of the other places that we work in. On our website homepage we have a line there that says..”Trust us..we know entertainment.” We feel really strong about that, we want the audience to trust us and we really want them to know that if they're going to an event produced by Absolutely Live that it will be the very best it can be....we really care about everyone's comfort and we're trying very hard to put on the best presentations that we can. Obviously we can't guarantee that they will love the music, but we are very careful who we present. We are very aware of the artists, we know who they are, we know what kind of music they play, what kind of bands they have and the sideman and stuff like that. We have worked really hard to get that across to the audience that we know what we're doing...and we really care.

Gigi: That's wonderful to have on the website. People will see that you bring them the best in music. I want to make note about your career and thank you for what you have done throughout the years. I going back to the years as a booking agent and your years at the Blue Note jazz club as Director of Marketing and your experience in PR. We need more people like you to do this around the globe, especially here in the U.S.

DM: Thank you! We're trying really hard to spread the love and keep the music going all over the place. We just did a very big Monterey Jazz All Stars tour that played four shows in Florida and we did 45 other shows around the country and we went to Calgary, Canada, we were up in Alaska, we did every part of America that you can ever imagine. It was really successful, it played in a lot of really great performing arts theaters and concert halls and we tried to get that out there as much as we could to get the music heard by as many different people in different places. The tours like the “Kind of Blue” tour, that for us is really cool stuff, because we get to send these bands out to be able to go play at different theaters and we work with some great agencies and try to have those agencies sell the products that we put together. That's how it works and it's really a very exciting thing for us.

Gigi: And the festival will take place on Saturday, June 29 and Sunday, June 30?

DM: Yes. It's the Freihofer's Saratoga Jazz Festival. Freihofer's is a really big bakery company up in New York State and they have been sponsoring the festival for a long time and they are great people. It's going to be fun!

Gigi: The festival has been going on for last 36 years. When did you actually take over the festival, its production and its artistic direction?

DM: I started working on the festival in 1991 and I started booking all of the artists in 1999 and I've been booking the festival ever since 1999, so every year since then I've been booking it. I became a partner and took over the festival in 2008, so it's been a long road and I've been there a long time and I really do love it very much and I have a long history there. For me...I've done a lot of things as you said, but this festival really is the “jewel in the crown” I really love it.

Gigi: Why is it so special to you? It seems like it is your baby so to speak.

DM: The festival is in a beautiful location, it's at the Performing Arts Theater and the audience is dedicated. I have the opportunity to book a lot of different types of groups and give the audience a chance to hear new groups and to learn about new music and to have the band get in front of a new audience and it also gives me the the opportunity to discover on the small stage a lot of new artists. The last fifteen years or so I have been able to introduce young artists like Esperanza Spalding, and Lizz Wright and a lot of other artists to that crowd and now they have become much more popular artists. I booked them years and years ago when nobody knew who they were.

Gigi: Exactly!

DM: Yeah! So because of that stage and the way that the audience is, they are so open-minded, it really gives me a chance to be creative and that's super important for me. So that's just kind of why...I really love it.

Gigi: That's beautiful, I wish I could be there! I have to ask...with all of the years of involvement in jazz for yourself and even for me, people always ask me if I play an instrument and I say when I was a child. So my question to you is do you play an instrument?

DM: I played clarinet when I was a kid from the time I was in fourth grade until I was a senior in high school and I really loved it and I was pretty good and I actually sat in the first chair in the high school orchestra; so the truth of the story is that I got in some sort of argument with the band teacher when I was a senior and he took my solo away from me for the spring concert and I had an attitude and I quit. So, I always loved music, I'm a big record collector and I spent a lot of money on concerts when I was in high school and college and I still do, but I gave it up. I gave up playing and I'm really sorry that I did that.

Gigi: I know what you mean.

DM: You gave it up?

Gigi: Yes! I could just kick myself! I wish I had stayed with it too! So what's next for you this year outside of Newport Jazz Festival?

DM: The first thing I am doing in a few days from now is John McLaughlin in Boston, I'm producing his concert and we have Saratoga of course and Newport and then in the fall we're staring up the jazz series at Carnegie Hall “The Shape of Jazz”. We're doing some “Treme” touring concerts and we've worked with HBO for quite a few years doing these “Treme” brand of New Orleans music celebrations at different performing arts centers, so we have some shows in September, October, November and we have some touring projects in 2014. A big thing that we do all year around which is a different brain if you will, is we manage the saxophone player, Rudresh Mahanthappa, he is really busy and has a lot of shows coming up. He's playing at the Winnipeg Jazz Festival, he's playing the Chicago Jazz Festival, at the Jazz Standard in New York City and in Europe. He's won a lot of awards and is a great saxophone player.

Gigi: That is fantastic! What website can we go to to find out what events you have going on around the world?

DM: It's AbsolutelyLive.net. You can go there and our calendar is there and you can read about who we are and what we do and the services we provide. Check it out!

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