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The Festival Presenter: Danny Melnick

The Festival Presenter: Danny Melnick
B.D. Lenz By

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The thing about artists, particularly when they're doing it independently, is I appreciate when an artist does his or her homework, and knows what I'm doing, and understands what the timeline is and how it all works. —Danny Melnick
For this edition of Chats with Cats I interviewed a festival presenter and was lucky for the opportunity to speak with someone who really has seen and done it all. Danny Melnick has booked the biggest names at the most prestigious of venues. As a musician always looking to better my own booking skills I, of course, wanted to get some pointers about things I could do to get the attention of presenters and he gave me some sage advice. He also provided a candid depiction of the challenges and rewards of his occupation. Lastly, I wanted to get a prognosis on the state of live jazz from his position on the front lines. He answered all of my questions with some interesting anecdotes to illustrate his points. I think you'll find his journey quite fascinating.

About Danny Melnick

Danny Melnick has seemingly done it all in the presentation of live jazz. He's worked at clubs such as The Blue Note and Blues Alley. He's worked as a booking agent for some of the biggest names in jazz. But perhaps his most notable efforts is his work as a concert and festival presenter. Danny Melnick has produced festivals, tours, concerts and special events worldwide since 1989. He was a Artistic Director and Senior Producer at George Wein's Festival Productions. He played a central role in producing annual events including the JVC Jazz Festivals in Newport and New York, the Bermuda Music Festival, the Verizon Music Festivals and the Hampton, VA Jazz Festival.

In 2007 he formed his own company, Absolutely Live Entertainment LLC, whose list of events include the Freihofer's Saratoga Jazz Festival, which celebrates its 43rd anniversary in 2020; a four month-long Blue Note Records' 70th Anniversary tour (2009); a world tour commemorating the 50th anniversary of Miles Davis's Kind of Blue recording (2009); 25th & 30th anniversary concerts in NYC and in Boston for Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock, Jack DeJohnette; Wayne Shorter's 75th birthday concerts in NYC and in Boston; eight Keith Jarrett solo piano improvisation concerts at Carnegie Hall; the Afro Cuban All Stars at Town Hall; the reunion of Gary Burton & Pat Metheny in Boston; the opening night concert of the Honor! Festival at Carnegie Hall; "The Rumi Symphony Project," the first Persian headlining concert at Carnegie Hall; the 80th birthday concert for Sonny Rollins in Boston; and the NYC debut of AfroCubism.

All About Jazz: I found it interesting that you were an economics major in college. How did you end up in the jazz world?

Danny Melnick: Well I grew up in Long Island and I was a big music freak as a kid. I'm 52 now so I grew up in the late '70s, early '80s. I played clarinet as a kid from fourth grade to when I graduated high school. I didn't continue to play once I got into college and I'm sorry I didn't. But I played clarinet, I could read music. I was really into it. But in addition to playing I was just always really into music. Even as a kid my parents were into Doo-wop, Simon and Garfunkel, and Billy Joel, and a lot of the singer songwriters from that time. By the time I learned about The Beatles, The Who, the The Rolling Stones, and Pink Floyd, I was off to the races.

But I learned about jazz really through the rock bands I was into. When I was in junior high school and high school I was, and still am, really into Yes, and King Crimson, and Genesis. The progressive rock bands really became my thing. I was reading magazines, and going to record stores, looking at people's names on the back of albums. I started to learn about John McLaughlin, Chick Corea, and Pat Metheny. Those kind of guys that were somehow, somewhat related to what else I was listening to. From those guys I learned about John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Charles Mingus and I was like "whoah." It was this extremely direct connection for me.

So I was really into music and was playing a lot of records. When I was in 11th grade I got a job at a record store at a big shopping mall on Long Island and I was in heaven. I was getting records at a discount. I was just super excited to be there to help people buy music. It was such a glorious time for that. Then I went to school at American University in Washington D.C. and I just really felt like I wanted to work in the music business. I was really into it. I was definitely focused on figuring out how that was gonna go. And I actually made a pretty conscious decision back in those days that, even though I liked many different styles of music, I really want to do stuff with jazz because I really liked the music and I didn't feel that working in the pop or rock world was going to be that impactful and I didn't know if I could deal with it. I just felt like they didn't need me. Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Bruce Springsteen, all these huge artists, they didn't need me. I felt like maybe I could make a difference and I could really get involved in doing this.

So I started following that path and one thing led to another. In college I went to London for my second semester junior year and wound up doing an internship at Wembley Stadium and Wembley Arena which was a huge and amazing experience for me. Then I came back from school and got an internship at Blues Alley in Georgetown. That year working at Blues Alley I met all of these incredible cats that were coming through the club. I thought this is what I want to do. I couldn't help myself basically.

It was really exciting and it was a really interesting time, and I got to meet some of the artists, and get involved in what was going on at the club. I graduated college in 1989. I came back home to Long Island and I really had nothing. I had no job. I didn't know what I was going to do. I kind of wanted to take the summer off but I worked at a record store that was around at the time. I was working part time making a little money and hanging out. I was living back at my mom's house. I started to poke around New York City with some of the contacts I had made while I was at Blues Alley.

I wound up going for an interview, totally cold, at S.O.B.'s and The Blue Note. Neither had anything for me and then a week later Bob Golden, who was working at the Blue Note back in those days as in-house publicist, quit. He left. Blue Note called and they were like "do you have a job yet?" I said "no." And they said "you should come back here." So I went back there and they hired me.

I worked at the Blue Note for a little less than a year. But I really got into it. It was just so epic to be with all those artists in New York City and doing all that. And then I got sick of it. And totally cold, without really knowing who he was, or what I was doing, I sent George Wein a letter with my resume, basically saying that I really wanted to work for him, and I wanted to do festivals. I called to follow-up and the receptionist put me in touch with this guy named John Schreiber who is now the CEO of New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) in Newark. At the time he was the Vice President of Festival Productions. John said to me, "we're hiring a couple positions for the JVC Jazz Festival for the summer. It's April through the beginning of July and then the job's over but we do have a position available at the box office. You have box office experience on your resume from your internship in London." And I said, "yeah, part of my job in London at Wembley was to work at the box office." He said, "I'm going to put you in touch with George Wein's assistant and she'll talk to you."

Deborah Ross called me and said, "I'm interviewing people for the job and I actually have somebody that I like who I think is older than you and has more experience but why don't you come in?" I went into the interview and I got the job. I was supposed to stay there for three months and, to make a very long story short, I worked for George for 27 years. One thing led to another and I just never left. I left for a couple years and came back. In the late '90s he sold his company and then I started my own company. But I started with him in 1990 and I worked with him pretty much most of the entire time until 2017.

It's just been a crazy journey. I have had amazing personal touring and presenting experiences with Sarah Vaughan, Ray Charles, Dave Brubeck, Aretha Franklin, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. I've been very lucky. And the thing for me is I just love it so much. I love the music. I love the cats. I love the community.

AAJ: And you still love it?

DM: I have tremendous respect for musicians who take a chance and say, "this is what I'm going to do. I have to do this," not knowing what life is going to be like or what your money is going to be like. I mean I have the same thing. I have no idea what any year is going to be like financially but I have to do it. And the respect I have for the musicians and the community of musicians who have all put their asses on the line to try to do this is just mind-blowing to me. And then you have all the people who work in the community, and I use that word very strongly. It's not really a business.

If you're involved with jazz as a presenter, or club owner, a record label person, or a manager, and you don't dig jazz and you don't respect the artist, then why the f*** are you doing this? That is the stupidest thing ever because there's not a billion dollars in it and you need to know about this music and you need to know about the musicians. You need to respect and understand everything about it. I can't imagine not loving it.

AAJ: When you're programming a festival how much is based on what you think your audience tastes will be and how much is based on your own personal taste?

DM: It's definitely a mix. So what I've learned is that every festival that I've worked on is totally unique to itself. Every festival that I've worked on has its own history, obviously its own geographic location, and whatever type of format it is. Sometimes there's a vibe and a genre that's either been given, or took on, or demanded. So what I mean by that is, the Newport Jazz Festival for many years was two days, two or three stages a day, and shutting down at 7 p.m. And it has this amazing history and pedigree of Newport. But when I started working for George, JVC was the sponsor and JVC wanted names. They wanted crossover names. They wanted jazz but they also wanted names. So in those days, in the '90s, we had Aretha, and George Benson, and Tower of Power, Ray Charles and Grover Washington Jr. We had all these legitimate, amazing artists but it wasn't like at bebop festival, or a swing festival, or a jam band festival. This was a festival that had a pedigree that demanded us to book amazing jazz, but also other types of artists who were going to sell tickets and that JVC was excited about.

When we got into the 50th Anniversary festival in 2004 JVC was still a sponsor and I was the Artistic Director at that festival. George and I had a series of deep conversations about what the 50th anniversary of Newport meant. Like where did Newport stand with all the other festivals around the world? Even though it was the granddaddy, and even though it was a very famous event, as time went on, Montreux Jazz Festival, North Sea Jazz Festival, Festival international de Jazz de Montréal, and New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and a lot of the other festivals were now around, were bigger, had more days, more stages, and had bigger budgets and could draw more people. New Orleans draws 100,000 people a day at the Fairgrounds Racetrack. But at Newport the capacity was 10,000.

So George and I spoke a lot about that and talked about how he felt. He said to me, "I want to live or die with jazz. I really feel like now is the time to book more real, authentic jazz artists. There's all these new, up-and-coming artists from all over the world that are making this music now, all of these incredible young artists. I want to book them. I want to support them. I want to book more of these people and really support them and make a statement to all these other festivals that you should be supporting these artists. This is where jazz is today." And it was a very important thing that we did. Even though it was a bit risky, we did feel that when you looked at North Sea, or Montreux, or New Orleans, they were booking Eric Clapton, Prince, and hip hop artists. They were booking anybody they could get their hands on. It just didn't matter. These guys had their crossover headliner shows with whatever big names they could get and then filling in the rest of it. We didn't want to do that, and we really couldn't do it because we didn't have a budget for it, and we didn't have the ticket selling capacity to gross the massive amount of money to cover those artist fees.

So that festival, like a lot of things I've worked on, had its own personality. They all have their own vibe. They are all in a certain place, in a certain way, so it really is a mixture of what I believe the audience is going to want, what I believe the audience kind of knows about. At the same time, I want to book artists that I like, artists that I feel deserve to be heard, artists that I want to put into a front of a larger audience to teach the audience a little something.

So it's always a mixture of all different types of artists that I feel makes up this jigsaw puzzle of what the festival should look like. And every festival is different. There are certain artists that belong at certain festivals but, for one reason or another, just might not fit at another festival. I found there a lot of artists out there that I really dig but I feel like, particularly in Saratoga, my audience is not going to get it. I feel bad but I also feel like I'm protecting the artist because I don't want to put somebody in a situation where the audience is literally just going to be like, "I can't deal with this. This isn't my music." It's not good for the festival either because it doesn't make for a good experience. I think the curation of a festivals is a really delicate art form and you really need to know what you're doing and who your audience is.

AAJ: You actually alluded to my next question which is how do you feel about pop acts headlining jazz festivals?

DM: Well I definitely have mixed feelings about it but I know what the economic realities are about these events. And the truth is that every festival has some sort of economic reality in terms of how many tickets they could possibly sell and at what price. And then the expenses of putting on the festival that includes everything from renting a venue, to artist fees, to insurance, to sound and lights, to backline, and catering, and marketing, and security. So whether you're working in a 200 seat theater or in a 20,000 seat Amphitheater type venue like Saratoga, there's a budget. The festival really needs to be scaled towards a particular budget and particular type of sustainable reality about what we think will work in certain places. So it is what it is.

When I started booking the Saratoga festival in 1999 the festival had already been 20 years old. Even though George and Marie St. Louis had booked every amazing jazz artist known for those first 20 years they also had Ray Charles, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Bonnie Raitt, BB King, some smooth jazz, and definitely some other soul R&B crossover music. I guess they felt throughout the years that they really needed to do that. George did it in Newport in the '60s. He always felt that if the music was legitimate, and the artist was authentic, and they had a unique and important voice, and their music was somehow related to jazz, then it had a place.

And so I have been following that model, particularly in Saratoga, for all these years because I believe that it's true. I think the audience really digs it and it certainly has been successful for us because we kind of need it. We need these artists to help us bring the rest of it along. Now there have been plenty of other festivals around the world that have booked purely commercial rock, pop, or hip-hop artists that I might not feel have any relationship to jazz, but they're doing it. And they don't care. They're standing by their decision and they need to sell their tickets.

Look at the Rochester International Jazz Festival by one of my dear friends John Nugent. He has this model where he's doing these ticketed shows at the Eastman Theater which is over 2,000 seats a show. Then he does this whole club series and some free concerts on the street. The truth is, he can't do those ticketed shows without booking other types of groups. He can't sell tickets. If he's going to do these premiere ticketed shows in the most beautiful venue in Rochester, he needs to book those types of artists. But his whole thing is, "I'm doing these artists here on these nights, and they're ticketed, and they're unique concerts, and it's very possible that somebody might buy a ticket to one of these shows and not go the rest of the festival and that's fine with me. But there are people that are out there going to the jazz club series, or hearing the jazz bands on the street for free, or going to see the piano series. Those are the jazz people, and they're out there, and they're loving it."

He's got all these phenomenal artists playing on the festival and he's doing it in a way that makes it work for him financially. But he needs to do these big shows too. So it works out and I don't begrudge him for that. He needs to do what he needs to do.

AAJ: Has presenting festivals changed over the years?

DM: Yeah I think the biggest issue for us is three things. Number one, as we've all gotten older and the artists have all gotten older, and jazz has really changed and evolved, there's this last generation of headliners that have all passed on or aren't playing anymore. That's a big issue for us.

The next biggest issue for us is the fact that, even though a lot of amazing young people are playing and there's definitely a bit of a young audience out there, it's not like this music scene is mass culture and mass consuming. So that is obviously a huge issue as well because the audience is definitely older. It's really hard to reach people. It's really hard to get a 20-something year old person to pay attention to what you're doing to make a commitment to buy a ticket because how do you reach them? Back in the day you could buy advertising in the New York Times, print advertising. We would buy an ad in the New York Times for the JVC Jazz Festival New York and that day we'd sell a hundred thousand dollars worth of tickets to a whole bunch of different shows. So you can see that the ad is working. But, now it's like, how do you get to people? how do you market and promote? How do they know about these artists? How do you reach people? It's really tricky.

AAJ: Is it more social media now?

DM: Yeah it's social media, online buying, and trying really hard to get in front of people digitally. Some festivals do more traditional advertising because they have to. Like in Saratoga, because I'm in a tertiary market north of Albany, people still read the Albany Times. They still read The Saratogian. They still listen to WAMC radio. So we're still buying radio spots. We're still buying print ads there because we know people are still consuming it.

AAJ: You talked about how all these greats are leaving us or not playing anymore. Are you suggesting that people's tastes are changing and maybe younger generations are into that music anymore?

DM: Well I think it's both. I won't say that people aren't into jazz but, clearly, if you look at the sales of jazz recordings, or Spotify streaming, compared to what it was like 30, 40, 50 years ago, it's dramatically lower compared to everything else. And the household name that a lot of people knew about have come and gone. There are only a few left.

As an example, when I started working for George in 1990 we were doing JVC Jazz Festival New York at the end of June. We're doing like seven or eight shows at Carnegie Hall, six or seven shows at Avery Fisher Hall (now called Geffen Hall). And we were doing a few things at Alice Tully Hall. And we were doing things out and about in the city. Occasionally, we would have a B.B. King night or a Ray Charles night. We did Joe Cocker once. All these other types of artists but we did Sonny Rollins, and Ornette Coleman, Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, and Joe Williams with the Count Basie Orchestra, and Billy Eckstine, and Carmen McRae. The list goes on and on. We presented all of those people over and over again. Big ticketed shows at all of these venues, major concerts. That is all gone. You couldn't create a festival like the JVC jazz festival in New York City because you wouldn't have enough artists with any type of gravitas, any type of audience base to sell tickets at those venues. You would get crushed.

So in the last twenty or so years that's been a radical shift in the reality of jazz presentation and the festivals themselves. So here I am in Saratoga with the same venue, in the same sort of structure that George started in 1978, and I'm still trying to figure this out. Everything is so different now. Sometimes an audience member will call me or email me to tell me all these stories about seeing Dizzy and Miles and all this great jazz. And they tell me that the festival isn't the same as it used to be. And they're talking to me like they refuse to acknowledge that all of those people are gone. I tell them I can't compete with that. Everything is different now. When you compare how all the other things in life have changed, it's still interesting to me that sometimes the audience doesn't fathom why it's not like it used to be.

AAJ: Can I ask you a few questions from the musician perspective? Do you think a musician needs a booking agent to be seriously considered for a festival that you produce?

DM: I mean it kind of helps because we do so much business with booking agents and we have good relationships with agents but the answer is "no." In this day and age DIY is obviously out there at every single level. Whether you have your own label, recording your own stuff, doing your own marketing, or whatever. So, no, I don't really give a crap that an artist has an agent or not. A lot of cats I've known for a long time don't have representation.

The biggest thing for me, and I'm thinking specifically of Saratoga right now, the timing is really important to me on how to reach out to me because I book during a certain time period. The big thing is that I always wish a lot of independent artists did more research on their own about the festival and about the lineup of the festival before they reach out.

What I mean is this. There are a lot of cats who I'd love to book but just can't fit in to the festival because I only have 20 sets every year. And every year I want to do some different things. And out of those 20 sets I have a couple big headliner sets at the Amphitheater and some other bigger sets right before the headliner on the main stage. And then I have a way I fill out the rest of the program. On my second stage is where I can really introduce younger artists or cats that have been out there for a few years. So I have like 10 sets and 300 bands that I'd like to book. I want to make it really interesting, really diverse. I also want to book artists that I feel belong there and have a bit of a history, a bit of a resume, a bit of cred, or artists I know are going to kick some ass, or artists that other colleagues of mine have presented.

So those bookings are really important because you want to offer the audience the best possible array of talent you possibly can. For me, the most valuable thing that I have is time on stage. So every minute that I have to offer an artist on stage is the most valuable thing that I have. So I never just toss away a set. I just don't do that.

I get a lot of inquires from a lot of musicians. Any my thing is, "no I'm done already. You're six months behind schedule. I'm sorry I can't fit you in." I'll get emails from cats who are like, "I'm a jazz saxophonist from Vegas and I would like to come out to your festival." I read about this person for a minute in their email and this person has never left Vegas. Maybe they've done a couple regional gigs in some small clubs in Texas, or Nevada, or California but have you ever played Fat Cat, or Smoke Jazz Club, or Smalls Jazz Club? Have you done anything in this area at all? So a lot of those cats who are just out there looking for a gig, I can't book. It just doesn't make sense.

AAJ: Do you have any suggestions for artists and how they present to you in a follow-up some things that might help them get gigs?

DM: This is what I would say. It used to be that people actually just mailed CDs and press kits. I used to have cardboard boxes in my office filled with paper and CDs. Sometimes I would go through everything and sometimes not. Thank God that doesn't happen anymore because it's bad for the environment and it's a waste of money. It's really just crazy for artists to do. I think, nowadays, that emails are seemingly the most professional way to communicate with someone. I sometimes get pinged through Facebook Messenger which I find a little annoying because I feel like it's more of a social experience than a business experience. My website has my email address on it and everybody can always find me.

I feel like email is good. Short and sweet is good. Not a ton of attachments is good. Not a mega amount of links is good. I think that as much as people aren't replying I don't even know if they're looking at it. Your emails have to be straightforward.

The thing about artists, particularly when they're doing it independently, is I appreciate when an artist does his or her homework, and knows what I'm doing, and understands what the timeline is and how it all works.

As an example, I left Festival Productions in 1996 after six years there and I worked for the Ted Kurland Agency as a booking agent in Boston for two years. We had Metheny, Chick, Sonny Rollins, Dee Dee Bridgewater, John Scofield, Kenny Garrett, and Al Di Meola. I really did not know if I wanted to be a booking agent— I wasn't really sure I could deal with it as I'm not much of a salesman. But Ted really wanted a presenter to come up to the agency. He didn't want to bring in another agent from another agency. He wanted another perspective. One of the things I learned was that the way to communicate with club owners, and the way to communicate with festival people and the other presenters, was to find out what they're doing. Ask them what they're up to. Ask them what was working for them.

This is the thing I learned from Ted that has really helped me my entire life and it's the attitude I have with artists getting in touch with me. I would call a club in Atlanta and get this guy on the phone. I would say to the club owner, "what's going on this week? Who do ya got?" He would be like, "Oh I have Steve Vai" or something. I'd say, "anything selling lately? What's hot?" And he'd say, "I always do great with guitar players." So I'd say, "Oh, I have John Scofield or I have this one..."

So I just wanted to know what they were doing. I always wanted to know what worked. I always wanted to learn about who they were booking because I felt guilty by association and working within in their wheelhouse was going to help me get some deals done.

So what I wish the guy from Las Vegas would do is research the last few years of Saratoga and see that every artist in this festival is a nationally, or internationally, known artist. They might be young and up-and-coming but they are known. Magazines are writing about them. NPR did a story on them. Every artist I have at Saratoga is to some degree known and that is a big thing because there is a level of expectation from the audience. There is a bar that was set for me with the history of the festival. It has to be like that because, again, the most valuable thing that I have is those minutes on the stage.

So it's certainly about the music but it's also about the level of things and the business of things. So if you said to me, "over the last three years you had this guy, this guy, this guy, and I've played with all of them. They've all been in my band, or, I've been in their band." That's all real. There's a reality to that which brings more value to you as an artist and which makes me, hopefully as a good presenter, open up my mind to booking you. I think the cats have to learn the process from the presenter's side to figure out what the timeline is and also be wise about how they're presenting themselves.

The presenters have a million options. Hopefully they'll be impressed by the leg work that the artist has done and not feel like they're just throwing Molotov cocktails at me. It's all about timing, the presentation, being concise, and doing your homework on the other side and seeing what's happening there.

AAJ: Clearly you worked with some of the greatest names at the most prestigious venues, is there a particular show or shows that stands out as most memorable for you?

DM: Oh well I don't even know where to start. I mean I've been very lucky. I produced all of Keith Jarrett's solo and trio shows at Carnegie Hall from '99 until he stopped playing a couple years ago and they were all epic. I also say that, not just the bigger things, but some of the emerging artists that I've had a chance to work with and see come up over time can really affect people in a way.

I think one of the coolest things now is seeing younger cats like Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, Theo Croker, and Gerald Clayton. Some of these guys have really put themselves out there and the audience is just flipping out and really digging it. You could tell that this gig is really important and the artists are really starting to get better known and making a bigger impact. You feel like you're participating in the career trajectory of young artists and also turning the audience on to the artist which is a whole social thing.

I just feel like so many of those steps that I've been able to be a part of over the years has been super important and really exciting for me because you feel like you're doing something meaningful. That goes back to what I said at the beginning about not wanting to work for Madonna, or Bruce Springsteen, or not feeling like that world had a place for me because I didn't think I'd have any impact. I just felt like I should do something in jazz that's going to be impactful. That's been my goal all along so when I see up and coming cats do that it's really exciting for me.

AAJ: Here's my last question. What is your prognosis for the future of live jazz?

DM: I think it's extremely healthy. Obviously there are challenges in terms of large-scale venues, the mass appeal of the music on a large-scale like at Carnegie Hall or what have you. But I think the music is incredibly brilliant right now. I think when you look at it Winter JazzFest and you see the depth of artistry on display and you see all these incredible cats who are coming from all over the world and bringing their rhythms, and their culture, their personal experiences, and their sound to the table, I think it's totally mind-blowing. The fact that, right now, I can name 20 or 25 really amazing, important musicians from different countries around the world, and they're all so kick ass, and so brilliant, and are really bringing it, and being recognized, and sharing their music, I think it's so exciting.

So I think the music is in good hands and I think we all need to do what we can to help musicians by presenting them. I'm trying to make a difference because I want these cats to be heard.

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