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The Jazz Emcee: Marcus Goldhaber

The Jazz Emcee: Marcus Goldhaber

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It's a real thrill to be able to be a part of something that enhances the deep cultural history of Harlem and honors that remarkable legacy.
—Marcus Goldhaber
In this episode of Chats With Cats, I caught up with Marcus Goldhaber who lives in a place with a very storied jazz history, the Harlem neighborhood in New York City. To pin Marcus down to one job title is impossible because he does so many things. He's a singer, an actor, a club manager, an activist, an entrepreneur, and as of late, a podcaster. But because I had to narrow it down to one title for this article I'm using "emcee;" master of ceremonies. Inherent to all the things he does is bringing people together and guiding them through different experiences. Throughout our conversation he uses the word "connection" very often. He's someone with a great ability to help people find common ground using music as his vehicle. He opened a jazz club and serves as host, connecting audiences and musicians. He has a podcast and is emcee for his viewers and his guests. He's also an advocate of veteran's organizations where he helps bridge the divide between civilians and military folks. Marcus has a very positive energy and is always trying to uplift those around him. He shared with me some of what he's up to.

About Marcus Goldhaber

Acclaimed singer & songwriter, Marcus Goldhaber is best known as an all around entertainer! His unique approach to The Great American Songbook have garnered acclaim from Jazztimes, labeling Marcus as "Wonderfully imaginative," while Jazziz says he is "exciting and fresh" and Marcia Hillman (All About Jazz) simply proclaims, [Marcus is] "like a plate full of comfort food!" His five CD's on Fallen Apple Records have all received noteworthy press, including a 4-star review from People Magazine saying, "Goldhaber will have you giddy one moment, melancholy the next and loving every note." Marcus has also been featured on Sirius XM and his original songs have been performed by many awardwinning musicians. Currently, Marcus is the host/emcee & Creative Director at Room 623, a brand new speakeasy Jazz club in Harlem. He also hosts a weekly live stream/podcast called "Mondays w/Marcus—a live stream of consciousness."

All About Jazz: I know you do a lot of different things but you seem to be first and foremost a musician and singer. Would you agree with that?

Marcus Goldhaber: Yeah, that's what I come to this life as and that's definitely where I branch out from.

AAJ: Could you give me a little background about yourself as a musician?

MG: Absolutely. I was born and raised in Buffalo, New York. I got here [New York City] in 2000 after graduating from SUNY Fredonia. I came here and started working in theater primarily as an actor and began going to jam sessions after rehearsals and after gigs. I grew up hearing the American Songbook and all these songs from the 20s, 30s, and 40s being played by my mom on this beautiful 1928 Ivers & Pond upright piano which was the piano that my grandmother taught my mom to play on, which is kind of cool. So my mom raised me in the same way she was raised, just kind of playing these songs around the house.

So, I grew up with thousands of tunes in my head not really always knowing what they were or who wrote them. I always had that in the background of my life. I was a huge Doors fan and I got into the 90s Grunge scene too but it was through the American Songbook that I fell into a lot of the great singers of the day. And that led me to a lot of young Frank Sinatra., then eventually Sarah Vaughan, Chet Baker, and Erroll Garner was a big one for me. Those were my idols growing up and getting into more of the jazz world.

So I got here and, like I said, and always had this music in the background of my mind. I felt like something was missing, like I wasn't answering a call inside me. That's when I put all my energy into putting an album together which ended up being a demo. We laid down seventeen tracks and ended up being able to use about five of them. So I used that demo to get work and that's where I met John Davis. We became fast friends, started working together, and put out my first record in '06. From there it was, ya know, shedding on the gigs, meeting cats, and moving around.

I was always trying to do things a little left of what everyone else was doing. That led me to curate a lot of different concert series at unconventional, non-traditional venues and led into what I'm doing now

AAJ: Yes, and I definitely want to get to that. But you've put out some albums since?

MG: Yea, I have five albums out on Fallen Apple Records which is my own label. Four of them are jazz and the fifth is a project for veterans that I recorded in 2016-17. The first album was all standards and when I put that one out the reaction was, "Do you write? Do you write? Do you write?" I was still feeling so green to it and I didn't know if I could do it. Then I started writing and was just throwing it out there, working with some other songwriters. and I really found a deep connection with songwriting. I started adding original tunes on subsequent albums. The fifth album was a departure into a different style and answered a passion that I have for the relationship between civilians and Veterans.

AAJ: That leads into my next question. I did see that you're a big supporter of military and veteran organizations. Why is that cause so close to your heart?

MG: In 2013 I was asked to write a song for this compilation album. It was a 9/11 tribute and the guy who was producing the album had been to a bunch of my shows and dug what I was writing. He said, "I would love for you to write a song for this album." I had stigmatized the type of music that meant. I thought that military music, or veteran music, or 9/11 tribute music has to be in this genre sandbox that I don't know anything about and don't really connect to. So I turned him down a couple of times. The third time he asked me he's like, "Come on man, please put a track on this record." I said, "You know what? Fine. Let's do it. I'm just going to go outside of my comfort zone." I said, "When do you need it by?" He's like, "Next week." [laughs] I was like, "ahh ok."

I dug deep into a research rabbit hole, and not necessarily book research, but about my connection to that type of an album, which included the military community, first responders, what was going on at the time of 9/11, and what had happened since 9/11. I finally came to this song that spoke to this idea of coming back to each other, coming back to caring for each other and, when I realized that, it led me down to all these crazy statistical findings about how lopsided the population is between civilians, veterans, and active military personnel. I also learned about all the pain and hardship that military families go through that people don't talk about as well as all of the great success stories you never hear on the news. You'll never hear, "Sylvia Veteran is doing well today." You only hear these super traumatic and tragic stories which, unfortunately, occur too often.

So, I wrote this song called "Come Home America." It was sort of inspired by this acceptance speech of the same title from over a decade ago. I put it on the album and the guy freaked out over the song and got me hooked up with a bunch of different nonprofits. We went on this small local tour performing this tune. Once that album came, I thought it needed to be shaved down. I gave it a focused effort and released it as a single. I continued that idea and began meeting people in the military community whenever I performed that song live. People would come up to me afterwards and we'd have these deeply meaningful conversations and were connecting. I was learning so much and thought, "There's so much music to write here."

One thing that really stuck out was that there is this disconnect between civilian and military families living these parallel lives, on the same planet, next to each other. You have these folks who want to help and you have these folks who are in need but are having a hard time connecting with those who want to help. It was through music where people could come together and hear a song and it would help them start a conversation with a veteran dressed in uniform that they would normally feel uncomfortable approaching. Or they would, and I hate to say it this way, hide behind the words "Thank you for your service." Those are wonderful words to express but there are a lot of veterans who express that there's a voice inside of them saying "I don't want to sound ungrateful but what do you know of that? What are you grateful for?"

AAJ: It's easy just to say those words, right?

MG: Yea, so I began writing a ton of music and started a campaign that was based on this message of going beyond "Thank you for your service." The idea was to bridge this disconnect between military families and civilians, so we hashtagged the project "bridge the gap." I had these songs and started doing concerts at The Cutting Room but we could never really get a budget together to record an album and tour. So, we did this massive Kickstarter campaign and raised over $70,000 to do everything; all of these different events, create merch, and make donations. We linked up with an organization called Iraq Afghanistan Veterans of America and to this day we still donate 50% of all of the album sales to them. It's been beautiful. I continued writing music and got to team up with the album's incredible musicians and it was a deeply meaningful situation.

AAJ: It's amazing how your career took this unexpected turn you probably never could have predicted.

MG: I never expected it and I couldn't have anticipated it. All it took was being open to discomfort and, comparatively speaking, minor discomfort. In terms of songwriting, it was stepping outside of your comfort zone and just saying, "ok, let me try this."

The best part has really been when civilians show up at the concerts and they talk to veterans that they wouldn't normally go up to. I've had that experience myself. I've walked through Penn Station so many times and have seen troops with guns and uniforms and I'm filled with so many questions and feelings. I never used to know how to approach them and what I should say. Having music be that vehicle for this third party energy is really cool.

AAJ: You're very entrepreneurial. I've seen that you do a podcast and that you've hosted a bunch of different jazz series around the city. But, in particular, I want to ask you about the current one that's going on in Harlem. Could you tell me how that got started and about its progress?

MG: Yes. This is such an exciting story. Again, it kind of came out of the blue. When I first came to New York I would hang out at these sessions at St. Nick's Pub, Lenox Lounge, Cleo's, Smoke Jazz & Supper Club and all of these great uptown spots. Of course, we don't have them anymore and the Harlem jazz landscape has changed a lot. It looks a lot different than it used to from those days, and I'm only going back to 2002-2005.

I had always been wanting to recreate this positive music vibe like when you walk into the room, everyone just feels great, are treating each other well, and the music is killing. I always wanted to shepherd that back in some way and be in that position to communicate with the audience throughout the night about whatever is happening in the moment. I want to facilitate that energy and be a part of it at the same time. So, I did a couple of series at some different places around the city. I was at Symphony Space and a bunch of different hotels, again, trying to just look for some non-traditional gathering spaces that people would naturally gravitate to. They were great. Some lasted a year or a year and a half. But, they never totally saw the full light of day that I believed they could because, you know, logistics and stuff that shouldn't get in the way but that do get in the way.

I'm walking down the street in December 2018, it's Winter, it's cold. I'm walking with a buddy of mine and I have an inspiration. I really want to make this happen. I need to just find a spot. Just then, I'm walking in Harlem, look down 119th Street and see some lights and an awning that I had never seen before and I live up here. It's late but I'm like, "let's see what's going on. What is that place?"

So, we walk down the street, we look in the window, the stools are up on the bar, the lights are all the way up, and someone's at the bar settling up bills and things. I'm like, "Oh bummer, alright, well, we'll come back." Then I see a sign on the door and it says, "Are you naughty?" I looked at my friend and said, "Yes, I'm naughty." So, let me see if I can open that door. I pull on the door and it's open. The owner is sitting at the bar and she's counting checks and she says, "Hey, what's going on?" So, we started talking and I told her what I was looking for and what we were doing and she said, "Well, we have had music here in the past." and pointed to the restaurant upstairs. I said, "That's nice but I'm not really looking for a restaurant, I'm looking for more of a venue." She said, "Well, I do have a space downstairs." I said, "Really? Well, I'd love to see it. I'll come back sometime to look at it" She said, "Well, how about now?" I said, "Ummm.... Sure, I'll go into your basement at 11:30 at night" [laughs] What could possibly go wrong?

But, we head downstairs and she shows me this place and it's icy cold. I'm from Buffalo so you know it must be cold. We look at the space and, I'm telling you, I saw everything. It was this beautiful speakeasy space that she had named Room 623 because she had bought the space on June 23rd. I'm standing there in this reverent haze.

AAJ: Was it being used at the time or was it just empty?

MG: No, she had just been using it as an overfill area, maybe for private events but there was no PA and no club setup. There was this beautiful Art Deco bar with these mirrored doors on the outside that are still there. I just saw it all. I saw everything. I saw figures of musicians playing and it all came to me. I said, "Ok, we need to have a conversation at some point. I'd love to put something together and send it your way." She said, "Absolutely."

So, I put a proposal together, sent it over, and she loved it. She was like, "Okay let's do it." Fast forward a couple of months and I'm going around the neighborhood doing some reconnaissance and figuring out if there is a hunger for my concept of late night jazz in Harlem as I believe there is. A lot of the shows up here are traditional 8:00 and 10:00 shows now. There are some late hangs if you go further up but that real, late night, vibrant hang is hard to find. It turns out there is a deep hunger for it and I zeroed in on Friday nights at 10:00. I wanted to call it The Late Set and to brand it as something we talk about all the time and to encourage that vibe of boisterous, vibrant positivity.

I came back to her and we needed to figure out how to make it happen. It was tough because she is a sole proprietor, she's the only owner, and she started her restaurant from scratch. So I had to do some creative thinking outside the box. I was chatting with a buddy of mine who runs an outfit called Big Apple Jazz Tours and his name is Gordon Polatnick. Gordon is amazing and has been around forever. He used to run a club up in Harlem called EZ's Woodshed that has since closed down. Now he takes jazz tours around the city. He'll take ten to fifteen people to five or six clubs. I've known Gordon forever and he was a big go-to for me when I was telling him what I wanted to do. I told him we were running into some struggles in trying to make it happen.

He called me up one day and he said to me, "I have a show booked and I need a venue. Are you ready?" I thought to myself, "Hmm, we're not really ready yet." and I told him, "Absolutely. We are one hundred percent ready" [laughs]. So we had a little proof of concept. He had a killing band. We just made it happen and everyone was so in love with the experience. I was like, "Okay, this has to happen." And, the owner said the same thing. So, here we go.

In the next two weeks I booked six months of bands, got social media pages set up, got all the ticketing and branding set up, and everything happened so quickly. We opened on April 5th 2019 with the John Davis Trio. It was killing. We had this party vibe and people came and sat in. It was wild. It was exactly what I had envisioned at the very beginning.

From there, we ran every Friday with the late set starting at 10:00 and it was that same vibe where it was a little more casual but deeply respectful. It was all in the spirit of high energy, and fun, and celebrating live jazz, and artists, and spontaneity, and respect. So, things kept growing and growing and I thought I really wanted to get a vocal energy in it as well. I teamed up with a friend of mine named Jocelyn Medina. She has this great outfit that is called the Sunday Vocal Jazz Jam. She came in and brought her thing in on Sundays so now we had a Friday and a Sunday vibe going. This was cool. We had a nice contrast because we weren't really doing a lot of singers for the late night set.

That would happen until the fall of 2019 when I knew I wanted to build on top of that and get a solid heavy jam going that was more on the instrumental side, but open to singers who are accustomed to that vibe. So, another good buddy of mine Peter Brainon came in and we created the Harlem Jazz Session that he hosted on Wednesday nights. Then that started catching on. They each had their own personalities but it was all under the umbrella of fun spontaneity, love of jazz, and respect for each other. Now we have three nights a week and the momentum just started to build and grow. Then we started doing one-off events and all these different creative opportunities were coming up. Then, of course, the pandemic hit and we thought, "Alright, we're going to figure something out. I'm not sure how but we're going to figure something out." We thought we'd be like the musicians on the Titanic. We're going to play as things go down.

Of course we had to close the doors on March 15th and that really pulled the rug out. I didn't know what I was going to do. I just said to Adrian, the owner, "Let's keep meeting every week anyway and we'll figure it out. None of us know what's going to happen but we have this great momentum since we started this amazing journey, so let's keep going and keep talking."

A couple months went by and she was able to reopen the restaurant upstairs called B Squared. She was able to keep that open with takeout and eventually built a structure outside. We started revamping everything that we have done the previous eleven months. It gave us a good amount of time to start rethinking what we did and what we were trying to do. We did a little Monday morning quarterbacking for about a year and, being this intimate space with a brand based on immersive jazz, it was really hard for us to even consider reopening. But that has recently changed. Not only did we not now the scientific facts regarding the virus, we're also dealing with a multitude of audience comfort levels. So we didn't know how we would be able to mitigate that in an underground space. We knew that, if we were going to reopen, perhaps the most important factor was going to have to be safety. So that really became the goal, safety before anything else.

I connected with this company out west that has a new technology for ventilation that is called Blue Zone. It's not unique, there are a couple other companies that do it but this is just a newer one on the scene. They take the air in from the room, hit it with ultraviolet technology, kill all the viruses, and it circulates out clean air. I thought that this was the ticket. If we can get this in then we can go from there knowing that this is an anchor to let people know that this is a room that is committed to your safety and we're not just putting it on a poster.

We were able to work it out to get units installed downstairs and upstairs that cycle 24/7 to give clean air into the room. We don't have windows or anything to get ventilation. That started to give me a light at the end of the tunnel. Now we can make this happen. We started building and building until, eventually, we were able to pick a date and make this happen. There were all these ideas that came up in my mind during the 2019 run that we just couldn't actualize because there was too much going on. Now that we're reopening I was able to gather a team together to build out other things that we weren't able to create before: merchandise, expand our ticketing platform, building a robust website, and the most exciting part, we're launching a Room 623 membership program so that people will be able to get in for various different levels and have different benefits which really speaks to that tightening of the net, and creating that family and community.

AAJ: Well, congratulations. That's great that you've made it back and I'm really impressed with your business savvy. Do you find it hard as a musician to be on the other side as host and businessman?

MG: Yea, what a great question. It's a constant wrestling match to remember which hat I'm wearing and which hat I want to be wearing. The connector for me is that both have a connection with an audience. I get to connect with my community in both capacities. In the host role, I'm getting the crowd into the night as a start. Sometimes I'll pop back in to sing a tune but I do wrestle with that frequently—I have to be disciplined when I'm not there to carve out time for writing, carve out time for my own arrangement work, carve out time for everything that waters the musician plant. There is a side of that musician plant that gets watered by someone sending me a text message like six months ago randomly saying. "Man, I was just thinking about how much joy I felt being at the club when it was open. I really hope you get things back open again." An unsolicited outreach like that really feeds the artistic soul in me because it's a creative venture above all else.

AAJ: It sounds to me that, in your experience, one side helps the other. Often, the artistic side and the financial side are at odds but you've found a way for them to work together. Is that fair to say?

MG: Yeah, I think there's really very little daylight between the two and I don't know if it's by necessity or just how I'm built. Maybe that's why I gravitate towards jazz and the American Songbook, and that organized chaos, and the structure of a brilliantly written song that paves the way for that intangible connection. If everyone is comfortable with the chart, the tune, the lyric, and story then you can completely let go and the artist in you can just take the leash off. It's very organic and beautifully primal.

AAJ: Did you find a lot of support in the community for it?

MG: There really is. There's support and excitement. It's a real thrill to be able to be a part of something that enhances the deep cultural history of Harlem and honors that remarkable legacy. And with jazz being so much a part of that history obviously— you hear people talk about that a lot— our mission is to live that and to promote a diverse community of artists. We also welcome a diverse audience to that very open-minded and accepting space. We're trying to hearken back to a lot of that nitty-gritty, late night jazz vibe and also pay homage to where we are. The community seems to really be embracing it.

AAJ: You seem to be doing it in the right spirit which is the most important thing. Tell me about your livestream that you started during the pandemic.

MG: It was a livestream that I turned into a podcast. I'm not a big livestream guy. I'm not one of those musicians who was like, "Alright, pandemic, my whole life is on camera now." I didn't really take to it immediately. It was quite a process holding space for other musicians who were having similar struggles and trying to figure it out. It was cool to have that conversation on camera for non-musicians.

I had a lot of friends who were doing great live streams and they were telling me all about it. I wasn't even that much of a voyeur because the screen time is just heavy on me. But, eventually, I was missing community and needed to find my access point. I didn't want to just turn the camera on and sing a bunch of songs to a track. That works for a lot of people and a lot of people love it. it's just not my rhythm. I wanted to come to this authentically. I wanted to find something that was a little bit more me.

So, it was in the spirit of connecting with other artists that I found a real deep connection and came up with this idea called Mondays With Marcus, a livestream of consciousness. Basically, I would bring in a guest and start with an opening theme song. I wrote a theme song for it which is crazy fun. It's called Everyone Love a Perfect Theme Song, which is paying tribute to the great TV show theme songs of my life. So I do a little opening, check in with people, we chit chat, and then I welcome in a guest and we have a chat about their life and what their process has been. They perform, we do some Q&A, some people would shout in and some other fun stuff. Then we take a little break and I would come back with what I call The Afterparty. I was just playing off of the idea of, here's where we'd be at the bar after the gig. Then I'd sing another tune, have a chit chat with the artist, we'd do a tune as well, and then we'd close.

We had this moment of connection to find out what their life was looking like. It was really cool to build community that way too even as we were isolated.

AAJ: Do you have any interests outside of music?

MG: Sure. I love running. I dig yoga and I try to call upon these and meditation practices pretty readily to be my guides. I'm a big Red Sox fan which is very popular in New York [laughs].

AAJ: Ouch. You must get a lot of abuse.

MG: I used to say, "I'm a Red Sox fan and I'm proud of it, but it's not my fault." I grew up in Buffalo, yes, but my dad used to go see Ted Williams play. He grew up in the Milton Massachusetts area and all of my extended family is pretty much from the Boston area. When you grow up you're pretty much a fan of what your dad tells you most of the time anyway. Growing up in Buffalo I was a Sabres fan, a Bills fan, and a Red Sox fan which is like the trifecta of frustration. I would say that if it weren't for the Red Sox ... there have been some key times in my life that the simplicity and organization of baseball could help me find an answer.

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