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Japanalia's Dan Blow Expands His Empire With Jazz Brunches At Atheneum

Owen McNally

November 20, 2011

Dan Blow, the flamboyant Hartford fashion designer, continues to radically re-design himself into one of the area's busiest, boldest producers of live cabaret performances featuring sophisticated celebrations of the Great American Songbook, urbane modern jazz, profane blues, propane-powered Latin music, funky rock and rocking R&B, all served New York style in cozy, intimate local venues.

With three successful cabaret series already running, the showbiz ringmaster expands his multi-venue ventures today by launching a new Jazz Brunch Series at The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art.

Blow's premiere offering at the downtown museum is the noted baritone saxophonist Norman Gage, a jazz artist whose artful solos, arrangements and ensembles have been exhibited in venues throughout the region, always to excellent reviews.

Gage, a much respected figure on the Hartford jazz scene, leads his quartet in two separate brunch seatings today in the museum café, the first at 11 a.m. and the second at 1 p.m. His colleagues are pianist Sam Parker, bassist Alex Tremblay and drummer Ben Belillo.

Blow, an impresario with ecumenical musical tastes, doubles down with modern jazz in his second concert brunch offering at the museum café on Nov. 27 when he presents yet another Hartford jazz legend, bassist Nat Reeves.

A globe-trotting musician who has performed and recorded with such jazz giants as Jackie McLean, Sonny Stitt and Kenny Garrett, Reeves also is a noted educator and pivotal faculty member at the Hartt School's Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz at the University of Hartford.

Reeves serves a saucy mix of chamber jazz for the brunch crowd featuring a tastefully different kind of trio instrumentation with himself on double bass, the much respected Mark Templeton on piano and Josh Bruneau on trumpet.

Tickets for each performance in Blow's new jazz brunch series at the Atheneum, located at 600 Main St., are $25 for museum members, $35 for non-members. Reservations: 860-838-4100 or purchase online at http://www.wadsworthatheneum.org.

Blow has been inspired to expand his growing showbiz mini-empire by the success he's experienced this year with his ambitious cabaret series at his Café Eiko, an improvised venue he sets up at night within his West End boutique, Japanalia Eiko. Blow runs the prominent fashion house with his business partner, co-designer and ex-wife Eiko Sakai

Moved by, if not also ecstatically surprised by the enthusiastic crowds that have been consistently packing Café Eiko this season, Blow earlier this year expanded his live, high-quality music operations by kicking-off a new jazz brunch series at the Murasaki Café at the venerable Mark Twain House & Museum.

When his presentations at the Murasaki also skyrocketed, the budding cabaret czar launched yet a third performance series, this time at the Dirt Café, an old forge building at 50 Bartholomew Ave. converted into studios, galleries and living quarters for local artists

So with the fourth series debuting today at the downtown museum, Right now, the designer/impresario is juggling some 30 musicians and singers, of both local and national repute, whom he plans to hire in the upcoming 2012 season as all four of his venues are alive with his diversified sound of music.

"This is a trial run this year at the Wadsworth. We haven't yet planned an entire season for 2012, but the intention is to do at least one or two brunches there a month," Blow says of his latest expansion into the classy museum café.

"At the Mark Twain House, we already have scheduled, but not yet named all the acts, for one brunch a month beginning in February. So between the Mark Twain House and the Wadsworth Atheneum, hopefully, you'll have the opportunity to see at least two jazz brunches every month in Hartford. And part of the goal for me is to get as many Hartford players and combinations of old jazz players and young, new players together in collaborations, as well as in individual concerts," Blow says.

The hallmarks for Blow's Café Eiko series — aside from the variety and quality of the live music include a breezy informality (local artists like Anne Cubberly may pour your BYOB wine, even check your coat); a party-like atmosphere and comfy, yet virtually cheek by jowl rapport with the performers who are elevated only slightly above the festive groundlings on a mobile mini-stage. From this cornerstone creation, Blow has built his other series.

Café Eiko this season presented well-established cabaret heroes Baby Jane Dexter and rising young jazz stars from the Hartford such as vocalist Dana Lauren and tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger.

For next season at Café Eiko, Blow opens his series Jan. 21 with a typically off-beat but on-the-money selection as he presents the splendid, but long obscure West Coast jazz vocalist Ed Reed, a singer who could have been a heavyweight contender but for his heroin addiction and society's draconian drug laws.

If you've never heard of Reed that's because he didn't make his recording debut until a few years ago at age 79. His long, nearly life-long delayed debut was caused by his 40 years of addiction to heroin and lengthy stretches in prison and psychiatric wards for drug-related offenses.

"Reed somehow read about the Café Eiko cabaret series on the Internet and called me from San Francisco and asked if he could be part of it. He's going to be in Boston a few days before the Eiko gig, singing at a CD release party for his new album," Blow says.

At the Twain House "jazz brunch" series vocalist Kitty Kathryn, another big name in Hartford jazz history, winds down the 2011 series on Dec. 11.

Blow has special affection for Hartford-based singers like Kathryn, Nicki Mathis and, particularly, Dianne Mower, a special Eiko favorite, and is keeping them and a number of other entertainers in mind for next season in his multiple venues.

Mower likes to show up at Blow bashes with surprise guests in tow, such as radio personality and Courant columnist Colin McEnroe who has exhibited his vocal chops at Café Eiko. Blow is enamored of her as a jazz singer, her main claim to fame throughout New England, but also loves her versatility and willingness and ability to sing just about any kind of vocal style from bop to Broadway and beyond.

"I've already got nine dates at the Twain House for next year. We're going to start with people who were most requested," Blow says.

Among possibilities on track for his busy Twain schedule, Blow says, are the young, phenomenal guitarist Sinan Bakir, the pianist and master arranger Jim Argiro with vocalists of his choice; jazz diva Nicki Mathis, who scored success at Café Eiko this season; and the singer Tony Allen, who, Blow says, was "a huge hit" in his recent premiere performance at the Murasaki Café.

"Tony was terrific and drew a big turnout including Tony Allen groupies," Blow says of the popular, 83-year-old crooner/entertainer.

At the Dirt Salon in the city's Parkville neighborhood, Blow is experimenting with Wednesday night fare, a risky mid-week approach in marked contrast with his commercially safer weekend productions at Café Eiko, The Twain House and the Atheneum.

"I'm doing mid-week stuff, really trying to convince Hartford that this is a 24-hour, seven-day a week city. It's a wonderful venue and it's on a night when there's not a lot of stuff going on," he says of his series called "Only Wednesday@The Dirt Salon."

Coming up next at the artfully nitty-gritty Dirt Salon is a giant, post-Thanksgiving Day jam on Friday, Nov. 25, at 7 p.m. featuring the Mexican-born guitarist/bandleader Carlos Hernandez Chavez and a talented troupe of Latin musicians. In an appearance earlier this year at Café Eiko, Chavez, an ebullient performer who is also a noted painter and muralist, kept the place rocking way past closing time, Blow says, charming the in-crowd at the café with genuine Mexican folk music.

"It won't just be a concert on that day after Thanksgiving," Blow says, "since Carlos is bringing a bunch of his buddies with him to play. So it will have more of a jam feeling. We want people to bring their Thanksgiving leftovers, so there's also kind of a potluck theme attached to the evening as well

"It's going to be like having music in your living room, sitting around with a whole bunch of friends, eating and drinking. There's an admission charge, but it's on a sliding scale, depending on what you bring," Blow says. (Admission: $20, BYOB; $15, BYOB and a holiday side dish. Reservations: 860-232-4677.)

Blow readily acknowledges that his rising star role as a producer might help his fashion business a bit, through publicity or just by getting people to discover his shop when they go through the door at 11 Whitney St. to hear the music in the café set up for the evening's performance.

But the real reason is more physical than fiscal, he acknowledges.

"I do it because I want to do it. There's no hope in hell of ever making a dime doing this as a producer," he says.

"Do I have a natural talent for this? I really can't tell you because I'm not a good critic of my own work. I'm a good critic of what I make with my hands. I can edit everything I make with my hands," he says, speaking as a veteran fashion designer.

"The saving grace here is that I have another job. But producing concerts is like — I don't want to call it a glorified hobby — is really another vocation," he says.

"It would be nice to make some money in the end of it, but, you know, I get to be the ringmaster here. I get my party. The performers get to perform and people get to come to hear the music. It's just a win-win situation."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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