In 1981, Danny Bensusan opened a small club in Greenwich Village, decided to champion jazz musicians. In the process, he named his quaint 250-seat venue after the classic jazz recording label, Blue Note — a name equated with quality music from the likes of Herbie Hancock, John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley — that had been founded in 1939, but at the time lay dormant. The Blue Note Jazz Club stumbled for a few years businesswise before the programming took hold, with the booking of big name talents like bassist Ray Brown, the chamber jazz ensemble Modern Jazz Quartet, pianist Oscar Peterson, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and vocalist Sarah Vaughan beginning to attract locals and tourists to see stars in an intimate, though cramped space.
Since that time, Bensusan and his son, Steve — who now serves as the president of the Blue Note Entertainment Group — began to think bigger and wider, using the Blue Note brand as a magnet for providing elevated business opportunities that stretched beyond the confines of jazz. The Blue Note portfolio today includes 12 owned or operated jazz clubs worldwide — from Japan and China to Brazil and Italy — including two additional venues in New York City: B.B. King’s Club and Lucille’s Grill in New York’s Times Square, with groups that range from blues to classic soul, which opened in 2000; and the Highline Ballroom, which presents pop and rock with a hint of jazz, which opened in 2007.
Now, the company will be adding a fourth venue to its hometown collection: Sony Hall, a joint partnership with the Sony Corporation designed with capacities of 1,000 (standing) and 500 (seated) that is slated to open this spring in New York City’s Theater District. If all goes well, the new concert space could also become a milestone in sponsorship convergence, with the latest of Sony’s technological advances on display in the 6,000 square-foot event space that enhance the listening experience with sound, video and lighting integrations. Sony Hall will also serve as ground zero for the annual month-long, genre-agnostic Blue Note Jazz Festival that will celebrate its seventh anniversary this year from June 1-30 with close to 100 musicians performing throughout the city in some 15 venues.
With the Sony Hall announcement, Blue Note has upped the ante on its already-impressive dominance as a presenter. “Please don’t call it an empire,” says Steve Bensusan, speaking to Billboard from his command post at BNEG. “I prefer to refer to it as another piece of a collection. We’ve expanded a lot in the past five years, and hopefully we’re going to start up more new clubs this year.” And he added, please don’t call Sony Hall just a jazz space. “We’re looking at all kinds of different styles of music,” he says. “We aim to hit diverse demos.”
The booking emphasis will skew towards a younger generation, says BNEG’s vp strategic marketing and business development Jordy Freed. “That’s an important note for people to be aware of,” he says. “Sure, there will probably be legacy sets of jazz musicians, but most of the shows will focus on all genres and be geared toward a younger audience.”
Freed also bristles at the notion of a “Blue Note empire,” but embraces the mindset of the brand’s appeal as a universe of possibilities. “The Blue Note club is a destination for jazz fans throughout the world,” he says. “But its brand awareness can also leverage an opportunity to reach new audiences and new partnerships.”
As an example, Freed cites the Blue Note’s 2016 brand partnership with the Intel Corporation, which experimented with 360-degree video, 3D audio content and live-streaming music in virtual reality from the New York club. Blue Note worked with startup Rivet Music’s mobile app in linking up with the then-new Intel Xeon processor E3v5 family, which powered the experience. The club provided the act — Living Colour, which delivered their fusion of rock, funk and jazz — and Intel did the livestreaming. “That was an eye-opener on the power of branded corporate partnerships,” Freed says. “Since then, we have become more aggressive with building these kinds of partnerships.”
Freed says that one of the most successful of these partnerships has been with the worldwide distilled beverages company Pernod Ricard, which was rebranding its Seagram’s Gin in Europe in 2016. Blue Note took over a hotel in Madrid, created a mini club and produced pop-up shows with different artists, which all sold out. “It was so successful that we have become long-term partners,” Freed says. “It’s all about what our brand brings to the market and their push to reach new audiences.”
Also in 2016, Blue Note worked with the Japanese national broadcasting company NHK to create high-resolution 8K video events to be broadcast in Japan, including a duo piano show featuring Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea.
As for the Sony-branded partnership with the Blue Note Media Group (the sponsorship arm of BNEG) for Sony Hall, Freed says that after initial conversations, the idea to integrate tech and entertainment developed. Key to the agreement is the space itself on West 46th St. in Manhattan, at the Paramount Hotel’s downstairs supper club Diamond Horseshoe. The Horseshoe opened in 1938, featuring vaudeville-style revues, and shuttered in 1951, laying dormant until 2013 when the venue was refurbished to host the off-Broadway immersive theater show Queen of the Night, which ran for two years from New Year’s Eve 2013 through New Year’s Eve 2015. Since that time, the ballroom had been rented out for special events, but was largely dark.
“The live music community doesn’t know this space,” says Bensusan, who notes that Sony Hall has a long-term lease, without going into detail. “We’re going to make a few cosmetic changes but keep the interior intact. Sony liked the space and the idea of having naming rights. Like other venues, we’re following the classic jazz club model — good food, good drink, world-class music.”