PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
October 3, 2006

Jazz on Granby Goes on Hiatus

by Jim Newsom

Local jazz fans and music lovers in general have been asking, “Is there going to be a Jazz on Granby series this year?”

The answer, according to promoter Blake Cullen, is “No, but…”

“We’re doing one show,” he told me the other day, “the Four Freshmen on January 19th. A lot of people have said they’re disappointed that we’re only doing the one show. And I say, ‘No more disappointed than I.’ But you know the old story that you’ve got to take a step backwards to go forward.”

After five seasons of bringing some of the top artists in jazz to the Roper Performing Arts Center, Cullen is taking some time to regroup. Since his first show with vocalist Mark Murphy in January, 2001, he’s been basically a one-man operation—making the decisions, booking the acts, doing his own promotion and taking all the financial risk himself. It’s been a labor of love, but even a labor of love needs to pay for itself. Consequently, Cullen is in the process of recreating Jazz on Granby as a non-profit organization.

“We’ve had 24 concerts,” he said, “and what we’re trying to do is reorganize our financials and become a non-profit corporation, which will make some funding available to us that hasn’t been available in the past. This will allow us to do maybe a few more concerts in a season, and perhaps bring in some bigger names—though I’m not sure who I’d bring in other than people we’ve had!”

He’s had some of the biggest names and best performers in the genre—Kurt Elling, Jimmy Smith, Cyrus Chestnut, Freddie Cole, David “Fathead” Newman, Joey DeFrancesco, Ken Peplowski, Randy Brecker. But last year, attendance seemed to be off from the first four seasons.

“Everybody was down last year,” he explained, “the ballet was down, the opera. Everybody was off a little bit, so it wasn’t just me. What’s the reason for it? I think there’s too much. It’s great, because there are so many attractions. But, I think that’s a big part of it.

“The year before, we had the good fortune of having Jimmy Smith and the Carnegie Hall Benny Goodman concert. Those two things together, plus Fathead—they were the best shows I’ve ever had.

“Last year wasn’t that different, but the shows weren’t grabbers. Kevin Mahogany was as good as anybody, Grady Tate was great. But they didn’t draw as well as they should have.”

One of the problems Cullen faces is the fact that the older legends of jazz are dying off and the younger ones—other than the Marsalises and a select handful of others—don’t draw well outside of New York, Chicago and San Francisco.

“We’re not on 52nd Street in New York,” he mused. “I think around here, the actual real jazz fan is somewhat limited—I’d say only about 100 or 120. But if you do a Duke Ellington tribute or bring in the Four Freshmen, then you’ve got something. Maria Muldaur did very well because she had that hit record.”

Also, when you’re fronting the money yourself, it limits the size of the act you can book. That’s one of the reasons he’s going the non-profit route. He jokes that he’s “not making a profit anyway.” But, he notes, “there are grants available through various arts organizations, both in Norfolk and statewide, even the mid-Atlantic region. There are a couple that actually sponsor jazz!”

Cullen says he may do a second show next spring if the Four Freshmen concert is successful. In the meantime, the former major league baseball executive and original Admirals owner remains busy with his other love, sports management. Besides being an in-demand consultant, his 1997 college textbook on the subject is being reprinted in a revised edition. I asked him the title of the book.

The Complete Book of Sports Management,” he laughed, “very modest title. I did it with Mike Holtzclaw of the Daily Press. Mike did a great job—he just asked me questions. It’s not just hockey; it’s got a lot of baseball too. Nineteen schools picked it up last time.”

With a well received textbook, he spends some of his time visiting colleges and universities to speak with students about the realities of the sports business.

“I really enjoy that,” he said. “We do a formal talk if they want, or just meet with the so-called ‘kids’ informally. In one place I did both—I gave a speech to a couple of hundred and after lunch I met with the graduate students and they just asked me questions. You feel like a king.

“The problem is that a lot of the professors haven’t done any of those things. In one place they were doing designs for a ballpark, and the students asked me if I’d look at them. I said ‘sure.’ It was a minor league ballpark in some fantasy town; I said, ‘Where are your advertisements on the fence signs?’ They all said, ‘Professor So-and-So says that spoils the look of the ballpark.’ I said, ‘Professor So-and-So is gonna be holding the shorts real quick, kid. You put fence signs—that’s your main source of income, advertising-wise, both in hockey and in baseball!”

It’s a major source of revenue at the big jazz festivals too. But here in Norfolk, Blake Cullen has no desire to clutter up the Roper with billboards. Instead, he plans to re-emerge next fall with a non-profit organization devoted to the preservation and presentation of America’s home-grown art form, jazz. Music lovers throughout the region can’t wait to see what he comes up with.

copyright © 2006 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.