Touring

My First Show Back: Blue Note Jazz Club Owner Steven Bensusan on Hosting Robert Glasper

Steven Bensusan
Taylor Hill

Steven Bensusan

"It was the most comfortable Blue Note experience ever, actually."

For the first time in 15 months, live music is returning nationwide after the global coronavirus pandemic ravaged the industry. Billboard’s “My First Show Back” is a series dedicated to sharing stories from throughout the touring ecosystem about what’s happening now, what has been forever altered and what will never change.

In this installment, Blue Note Entertainment Group president Steven Bensusan describes Robert Glasper's six-night run at his venue the Blue Note Jazz Club in New York City. All together, Bensusan hosted Glasper and his band for 12 electrifying shows, attracting a star-studded audience that included Chris Rock, Questlove and Dave Chappelle, among others.

In May, we're looking at the rules and we're only allowed to open with 60 seats. We had the socially distanced tables and the Blue Note is a small club, 200 capacity. We said, 60 seats are better than nothing. Let’s try it.

[Robert Glasper] was my first call. I said, Look, we can't think of anybody better to open. He has a history of bringing in a lot of special guests and he's the future of jazz. We said we need to confirm shows in the next two weeks to get everything on sale and booking shows at 60 seats was not easy. [Musicians] were really doing us a favor and taking a quarter of what they typically make.

As we're dealing with all that, the rules keep changing. They told us, you don't have to space out all the tables, you can put Plexi in between. Then our capacity goes up, so we went on sale with 130 tickets per show in mid-May. We had to sell complete tables, because we couldn't see people next to each other like we normally do. But the demand was so high that people were just buying them. [All six] Robert Glasper shows sold out in a week. Tickets were $65 per person, we tried to keep it true, as close to the regular price -- $45 -- as possible.

Then the day we open, New York City lifts all restrictions. We bought all this plexiglass -- I could build a house with plexiglass. We opened our doors at six o'clock, at 5:45 we removed all the plexiglass. We then opened up tickets for the rest of the week to full capacity and everything sold out in a day.

I was very nervous about [opening night] at first. We knew that if Robert’s on stage, he's going to draw people. But we had no idea what anything was going to be like, especially since New York lifted all the restrictions. Were people going to to come out? Were people scared to sit next to each other in a small club?

But it exceeded my expectations. We still had the energy of an exciting Blue Note show, where people aren't as crowded. It was the most comfortable Blue Note experience ever, actually. Nobody was really scared of anything and it was a lot of fun. And what happened that week was incredible in terms of the number of musicians [and celebrities] who came through.

Dave Chappelle was all over the place. He was helping New York reopen and was at the Blue Note, two or three nights. Friday night's performance was pretty surreal. That was the first time I sat and saw a show at the club since the first couple nights I was making sure everything was was okay and dealing with our staff. I'm sitting in the audience and Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock walk up and start the show off. They were going back and forth about vaccine --, [Dave] got on the piano and started playing around midnight. He wouldn't leave the stage. He got up, really egging everybody on, and just keep kept the party going until two or three in the morning.

Questlove sat in that show. We had jazz musicians Keyon Harrold and Maurice Brown who got up on stage. Then throughout the rest of the weekend, we had Common, Talib Kweli, it was just a big hang. Celebrities were coming through and that's typically what happens when Robert’s in the club. That's been the history of the Blue Note since we started.

It was very high energy. You [could] feel that the musicians were appreciative of actually performing. Every song was something special for the audience and for the musicians.I felt like it was back before the pandemic. Afterwards, it was a big hang in the dressing room for a long time. It was cool to see everybody together.

Right now, we cannot find staff. Maybe a quarter of our staff is back. We lost a lot of people who just left the city. We lost people to other industries. That’s been our biggest challenge. But everything is selling really well, which I'm excited about. Ever since we started booking, we just haven't stopped. Everybody made good money, including Robert. He was very happy.

As told to Neena Rouhani.