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Meet Ari (ImpressARIo) Silverstein

Tessa Souter and Andrea Wolper By

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Sometimes the best moments come from mistakes. That realness seems to be missing from studio albums​. I rarely buy ​music unless it's a live set. I think people try to make recordings too perfect. It's jazz!
Some people are jazz aficionados. Then there's Ari Silverstein. Hooked from the moment he saw the light of jazz, was he content merely to listen? Not Impress-Ari-o! Once he was in, he was in all the way, from organizing concerts to getting his New York tour guide license in order to start shepherding tourists to his favorite New York city night spots. Read on to find how how Ari turned his love of music and musicians into a part-time professional calling.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I'm originally from Forest Hills, Queens. I actually live in the apartment where I grew up. I'm passionate about the community I live in. I'm sort of a local mayor. I originally worked in fashion. Then I started my real estate career about 11 years ago, which affords me the ability to support my jazz habit and music endeavors. Almost two years ago I got a New York City guide license and started offering a variety of live music tours around Manhattan with my own tour company, NYCJazzTour.com. Some of my passions outside of music include train travel, food, and following the sun (wink to my friend Michelle Walker, who wrote a song called "Follow the Sun").

How did you turn your love of jazz into a business?
In college I was elected to various student government offices and served on a number of committees. Through those relationships I started a faculty speakers series at the college, and started booking concerts with various musicians, including Sheila Jordan, Cameron Brown, and Mark Murphy. After college, I booked a jazz/cabaret series called High Standards: The Legacy of The Great American Songbook at the Burchfield Penney Art Gallery in Buffalo. In New York City, I produced and emceed three seasons of music at the downtown club, Pangea, as well as the Life Celebration for legendary vocalist Mark Murphy. That's how I got my nickname impress-Ari-o (Ed note: coined by Tessa Souter).

How old were you when you got your first record, and what was it?
I think it was Alvin and the Chipmunks, and it was a 45 played on a kid's record player with a built-in speaker. I also remember wearing out a 45 of Michael Jackson's "Bad" on that same purple record player.

What was the first concert you ever attended?
When I was growing up, my mother took me to many of the pop acts of the day, like Barry Manilow, Neil Diamond, and Barry White. The first one that really made an impression was Gloria Estefan's "Coming Out of the Dark" concert at Madison Square Garden. I was 10, and this was her comeback after her devastating bus accident. It seemed like the whole arena had their lighters ignited on that song, and I'll never forget that incredible moment; so many emotions were there: sadness, happiness, perseverance. It was quite something.

Was there one album or experience that was your doorway to jazz?
Probably the most significant experience was taking a Jazz and Rock Foundations course at Buffalo State College, taught by my now life mentor and great friend, Professor Chuck Mancuso, who offered a multi-media approach to teaching the subject matter. He used three large screens displaying his collection of over 100,000 slides, audio recordings, and video, in addition to occasional live performances. Mark Murphy was a frequent guest and co-teacher, and back in 2000, he told Professor Mancuso: "If you don't donate these slides to the Smithsonian, I'm going to kill you; no, I'm going to come back from the dead and haunt you!" People come from around the world come to audit his courses, and he welcomes them with open arms.

An advisor had warned me that the class was challenging, but if I applied myself, I would get a lot out of it. Well, she was right, it sure was difficult. But I was rewarded with this great music. That class saved my life! We got to Chapter 10 of the course, "Creme de la Creme: Cabaret," and the first thing I heard was Mabel Mercer. I was blown away. I thought, "Whatever that was, I need it in my life!" A little later on he played Blossom Dearie—again, instant love. On my breaks from college I would go back to Manhattan and try to look up as many of the artists as I could. Keep in mind I was a broke student, and cabaret and jazz clubs aren't inexpensive. Many of the artists had such generous hearts they would comp my admission and allow me to see their shows. In return I would interview them and write about what I saw and report back to Professor Mancuso. One in particular stands out in my mind: Steve Ross in his "My Manhattan" show at the Stanhope. Anyone who sees me at their gig really has Professor Mancuso to thank.

How long have you been going out to hear live music?
About 19 years now.

How often do you go out to hear live music?
As much as possible; usually four to five nights a week, multiple gigs per night.

What is it about live music that makes it so special for you?
The experience of being there, being in the moment, seeing the artists interacting with their instruments and their audiences, the audiences responding. It's also the vulnerability of the artists. They are putting themselves out there on stage in front of people. It's really an emotional experience. Sometimes the best moments come from mistakes. That realness seems to be missing with studio albums. I rarely buy music unless it's a live set. I think people try to make recordings too perfect. It's jazz!

What are the elements of an amazing jazz concert?
The emotional ride that the artists take you on. Really, to hook you in, make you feel good, sad, bring you back to that high again. To me, the instrumentalist who really does this better than anyone is Dr. Lonnie Smith. Among vocalists, it's Freddy Cole.

What is the most trouble you've gone to getting to a jazz performance?
Well, blizzards! I like snow, though. I used to chase Mark Murphy everywhere—Toronto, Montreal, Miami—to see him perform in different venues. It was just awe-inspiring to be in front of such artistry.

Is there one concert that got away that you still regret having missed?
There are a few. Shirley Horn, Nina Simone, and Carmen McRae.

If you could go back in time and hear one of the jazz legends perform live, who would it be?
I'll say Charlie Parker. My musical inspirations, Mark Murphy and, especially, Sheila Jordan adored Bird so much. Seems like everyone wanted to play like Bird. I think of Mark Murphy singing "Parker's Mood," which he merges with an excerpt from Jack Kerouac's "The Subterraneans": "We went to the Red Drum to hear ... Bird, whom I saw distinctly digging Mardou several times also myself directly into my eye looking to search if I was really the great writer I thought myself to be as if he knew my thoughts and ambitions or remembered me from other night clubs and other coasts, other Chicagos—not a challenging look but the king and founder of the bop generation at least the sound of it in digging his audience digging his eyes, the secret eyes him-watching, as he just pursed his lips and let great lungs and immortal fingers work, his eyes separate and interested and humane, the kindest jazz musician there could be while being and therefore naturally the greatest." I often think of what it would have been like to look into the eyes of Bird as in the above scenario.

What makes a great jazz club?
Great staff. A welcome environment where you feel at home. A non-corporate vibe where you don't feel they are trying to squeeze money out of you. A good late set. And hopefully something to eat.

Which clubs are you most regularly to be found at?
I try to make the rounds a lot! For the larger clubs, Birdland is my number one home away from home. Gianni Valenti and the staff treat me like a king. JC Stylles and John Merrill always are welcoming at Mezzrow (as is Hannah and her "West End Ramble," my favorite cocktail). I love Zinc Bar, and door manager Ansel Matthews' great chats always make it a fun hang. I love the ambiance at the 55 Bar, and look forward to bartender Kirby's insane announcements almost as much as the set; you never know what he will say, but it always makes my night. I love the pizzas and intimate feel of the Bar Next Door. Uptown, I like Showman's, as I am big fan of jazz organ. Sunday nights at the The American Legion Post with Seleno Clarke, and the Nate Lucas All Stars at the Red Rooster. I would be remiss if I didn't mention the Knickerbocker, which isn't a jazz club per se, but it's a great jazz restaurant, and my go-to place to hang. Finally, St. Peter's for the Midtown Jazz at Midday series. My friend Ronny Whyte books the acts there, and it is really top notch.

Is there a club that's no longer here that you miss the most?
The Garage, because you could wander in for no cover, have a drink, and listen to three bands a night. Yes, it had its issues, but I miss it, especially Sunday nights with David Coss with the Danny Mixon group. The Cafe Pierre, not a jazz club in its last 20 years, but an elegant bar with a piano. It was really one of the last vestiges of "old" New York, an international room that included everyone—from streetwalkers to debutantes, they were all there! Also, the Lenox Lounge. There was a great vibe there and plenty of history. Especially for the Wednesday night jam with Nate Lucas and his father, the late Max the Sax Lucas.

How do you discover new artists?
I am in the clubs constantly, so I get to hear new people that way. I have to admit I am very loyal to a core group musicians and try to get to as many of their gigs as possible, and often I will hear a new instrumentalist on the gig or we will go out and hang after. I also like to go to the singers jam at Rue-B, and there is always someone there I haven't heard before.

Vinyl, CDs, or MP3s?
I have all three. I love vinyl the most, but taking it with you when travel is prohibitive.

If you were a professional musician, which instrument would you play and why?
Hammond B3 organ. I feel that it is most human of all the instruments. It really emotes as a human does. It sings, dig it!

What do you love about living in the New York area?
All the live music all year, and the free shows in the parks in the summer. Just the feel of New York—some nights it puts on a show for you just walking down the street. The characters, the crazies, the scents, the smells, the subway.

What do you think keeps jazz alive and thriving?
The music is so hip and timeless. There's nothing like it. Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin will never go away.

Finish this sentence: Life without music would be...
Not worth living.

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