As a follow up to JazzTimes’ October article on house concerts, I interviewed Andy Rothman — a Detroit area home-concert promoter — on his own jazz series: the Detroit Groove Society. Andy is possibly the most passionate jazz fan I have ever met. Earlier this year we hung out in New York when Andy and his wife Diane flew in (during the dead of the winter) on the day of pianist Gerald Clayton’s debut/opening night at the Village Vanguard. We met for a quick beer after the concert, and they headed back to Detroit first thing the next morning. Now that’s hardcore. The article was written for the blog at Wine and Jazz, and the full interview with Andy appears below.
Brady: How did you get into jazz, and the Detroit scene specifically?
Rothman: I’ve been a jazz fan since junior high school. I played piano from age six, and was always pulling out records from my parent’s collection (mostly classical, but a few jazz albums as well; I particularly remember Ella In Berlin, and some MJQ albums). My parents took me to my first live jazz concert when I was about 14 years old (Errol Garner’s trio), and it just hit me like, here was this revelation — a music I never knew existed that was wonderful. Then a year or so later, my sister brought home a Miles record (“Basic Miles,” a compilation of his mid-‘50s stuff), and I put that on. That was like an epiphany, being struck by lightning. As for the Detroit scene, as every serious jazz fan knows, our city has produced many of the greatest musicians in history. And it never ended with the ones that left for New York in the ‘50s and ‘60s. There have been new generations of great jazz artists coming out of Detroit and southeast Michigan ever since, like yourself and Evan and Carl. The truly great thing is that there is plenty of great music still here on any given night. Not every musician leaves Detroit for New York or elsewhere. Many find they can earn a decent living right here.
Brady: How and when did you decide to begin your home concert series?
Rothman: The idea for Detroit Groove Society was born out of frustration, actually. My wife Diane and I love going to clubs and other venues to hear live jazz, but too many times we found ourselves being distracted by loud talking, smoking, drunks, etc. The smoking isn’t an issue anymore thanks to the new law, but you still find clubs where despite paying a cover charge for music, you can hardly hear the band even when you’re at a table right next to the bandstand. The seed for our series was planted about 20 years ago, when we went to a club to hear Tommy Flanagan, who was one of my all-time favorite pianists. Two couples at the table next to us talked incessantly throughout the set, and not in a whisper, as if this was mere background music for them. Fast-forward to 2004, and I got the idea of having a concert in our home, if we could find enough like-minded people who wanted to participate. So, I contacted pianist Jessica Williams, who is one of the greatest pianists in the world, and she readily agreed to do it. She is a veteran house concert performer. I then rounded up friends and family who were interested, and we scheduled the concert. This was in April of 2004, and it turned out to be a tremendous success. So, we decided to formalize it as a series and present another concert in the fall. I came up with the name Detroit Groove Society and formed a limited liability company with that name. We then sent a letter to everyone who had come to the first concert, along with other friends of ours, and asked them if they’d be interested in hearing more concerts like the first one, and they were enthusiastic about it. We presented Jessica Williams again in an encore performance that fall.
Brady: Can you tell me, in chronological order, all of the artists you have presented so far?
Rothman: If I can remember all of them:
2004 – Jessica Williams (twice)
2005 – Steve Kuhn (May, 2005); Patti Wicks (August, 2005)
2006 – George Cables (February, 2006); Jessica Williams/Paul Keller duo (May, 2006); Paul Keller Ensemble (June, 2006); Mark Elf Trio (July, 2006); Bill Mays/Paul Keller duo (November, 2006)
2007 – Steve Richko (February, 2007); George Cables (February, 2007); Bill Charlap (August, 2007); Cedar Walton Trio (September, 2007); Dobbins, Krahnke & Weed (September, 2007)
2008 – Patricia Barber (March, 2008); Richko/Keller/Siers trio (March, 2008); Carl Cafagna and Northstar Jazz (August, 2008); Geri Allen (September, 2008)
2009 – Bill Mays (January, 2009); Anat Cohen (January, 2009); Grazyna Auguscik and Eastern Blok (March, 2009); Patti Wicks (May, 2009); Gerald Clayton (September, 2009); Tim Ferguson/Tom Dempsey duo (November, 2009)
2010 – Legends All Star Quintet — Billy Harper/David Weiss/George Cables/Billy Hart/Cecil McBee (January, 2010); Paul Keller Trio (February, 2010); Anat Cohen/Howard Alden duo (March, 2010); Los Gatos (March, 2010); Michael Weiss quartet (September, 2010)
Brady: How did you go about deciding how much to charge at the door and how to pay the musicians?
Rothman: Regarding the admission charge, that was a worked out by trial and error. We have never been out to make any profit whatsoever; all proceeds from the concerts go to the artists. In fact, since we provide refreshments, we actually usually lose money on each concert. It’s strictly a labor of love. Perhaps the best way to answer your question is to share with you the mission statement we came up with early on, when we formed DGS: “To enjoy jazz music in an intimate environment among a small group of jazz enthusiasts. To provide a venue for artists to perform to a hand picked audience of respectful and enthusiastic jazz lovers, for a respectful fee.” We sent a letter to the first concert attendees early on that further explained: “This concept of enjoying jazz music in an intimate environment is exciting and fun. It is a labor of love, and not for profit. This is an opportunity to bring great music “up close and personal” on our own terms, without ticket master, smoky clubs, obnoxious disturbances, and exorbitant drink minimums.”
I knew that in many cases, musicians (even many of the best-known jazz artists) were not being paid much more than “chump change” in many of the jazz clubs around the country. I figured that we could probably pay people as much or more than they would get in a club, and at the same time provide a better atmosphere and a dedicated, more enthusiastic audience. I wanted to try to keep the admission charge reasonable, however. So, I wanted to try to keep the admission charge at around $50 or less, if possible, for two sets of music. This would include refreshments (wine, soft drinks, hors d’oeuvres, etc.). If you compare that to the cost of going to a club, paying to park, paying for drinks (with a 2-drink minimum, whether you drink or not), the cover charge, food, and realizing that you have to pay these charges separately for each set (as opposed to getting two sets for one price at our concerts, with refreshments included), ours is a much better deal. Plus you are hearing these musicians in an unbelievable, unmatched intimate, living room setting, literally inches away from the performer. With no drunks, no distractions, and no bartenders constantly running the blender or tumbling ice around in the ice machine. Every single musician who has performed here has remarked how much they have loved the atmosphere and the audience.
As to the actual artists’ fees, that varies. Usually, I’ve been able to deal directly with the musicians. Sometimes I’ve had to deal with managers or agencies. Obviously, if I’m presenting someone local, it’s relatively simple, because there is no travel or additional considerations to worry about. With musicians from out of town, so-called “national talent,” we have usually not brought them in simply to do a DGS concert. Instead, if we know that that musician or band will be in town for some other performance, we may contact them (or they may contact us) and talk about having them stay over and adding a house concert while they are already here. It cuts out travel expense and makes it feasible for us to have a wider array of musicians in concert. A good example is the second solo concert we did with Bill Mays early in 2009. Bill contacted me to let me know he was coming to town with Phil Woods’ quintet as part of the Thursday night Orchestra Hall jazz series. He asked if he could stay over and do a solo house concert on Friday night. Fortunately we were able to work it out. It turned out to be one of most successful concerts, and the house was packed on a freezing cold January night. Another great example is the duo concert with Anat Cohen and Howard Alden this past spring. They were playing a short mini-tour with you and the Hot Club, and we did a Sunday afternoon house concert after their Saturday night concert with you at Cliff Bell’s in Detroit. Sometimes the fee is a flat fee, sometimes it’s a percentage of the house with a guaranteed minimum. It varies. The idea is always to make it a win-win for the musicians and our audience, and by that I mean again that we never make any profit on these concerts, we just try to break even and want to be able to bring in great talent for our audience to hear and enjoy. The musicians equally enjoy performing in this unique setting. I should also mention that we encourage CD and DVD sales, and we never take a percentage on those sales.
Brady: How do you go about selecting the beer, wine, food, and how did that play into the production of your concerts?
Rothman: That has evolved over the approximately six years we’ve been doing this. We always provide a few basic items, like a basic red and white wine (nothing you would find in your cellar, I promise you), cheese, etc. But over time, many regular audience members have frequently brought food and beverage items to share with everyone, from wine and beer, to wonderful hors d’oeuvres, desserts and even sushi. There is a real communal feeling at these events.There’s nothing nicer than sitting back and relaxing with a nice glass of wine in the living room and listening to live jazz. That’s what Detroit Groove Society is all about.
Brady: What are your thoughts on the current Detroit jazz scene, and beyond that, the international jazz scene? How do you feel the music is progressing?
Rothman: Regarding the international scene, the music has evolved beyond the purely myopic view that if it isn’t American, it can’t be “jazz”. Or that you have to be American to know what jazz is about. That’s bullshit. You can go to a university and study music theory and history and learn about diminished chords and d-minor sevenths and Congo Square and Jelly Roll Morton and Pops and Bird and Prez and Lady Day and Monk, Miles, Trane, Ornette and every other musician who you’ll recognize by naming only their first or last name or nickname. But at it’s heart, jazz isn’t about school, it’s a feeling. You hear elements of Western classical music, avant garde music (whether American, European, Asian, “world” or whatever) fused with what we have traditionally thought of as jazz (be it swing, bebop, hard bop, etc.). You have always had European players (Django, Martial Solal, Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen, Enrico Pieranunzi, Arild Andersen, the Mouton brothers, Christian Jacob, Michel Petrucciani), African players (Bheki Mseleku, Abdullah Ibrahim), and Asian (Toshiko Akioshi, Ayako Shirasaki, Sadao Watanabe, Hiromi, Terumasa Hino). Hell, Yusef Lateef was incorporating world music sounds and instruments into his music back in the 1950s and early 1960s! His Eastern Sounds album is still a classic, and it’s remarkable to think that Barry Harris is on that record, when Barry Harris is always arguing that if it ain’t Bird, it ain’t jazz. And, anyone who listens to Randy Weston play African Cookbook and isn’t excited and thrilled by it, simply isn’t alive. I love hearing not only the “meat and potatoes” jazz that many people consider the foundation of a jazz listener’s education, i.e. “classic 1950s bop and hard bop and 1960s further developments of that, but things that are developing today. I heard Jason Moran in Ann Arbor a couple of years ago and was blown away by his creativity. You could clearly hear and see his influences, from Jaki Byard and so on, but what he did with this and where he took it was so different and new that it was incredible. Same with Vijay Iyer. So, not just internationally, but here as well, I see the music just progressing and evolving together as one, not separately. I’m looking at it from 50,000 feet up. And I think we’re seeing and hearing some really interesting and great new music, while still holding onto and not forgetting our past.
Thanks to Andy Rothman for his time.