The entry of JAZZIZ into the New Orleans nightclub scene has as many intriguing facets as a Lester Young sax solo. For starters, the club is displacing current tenant Werlein's For Music, whose last day for business on Decatur Street is this Saturday, July 20. It signals the end of an era for Werlein's, resulting in the first time since 1850 that the venerable music instruments retailer won't have a downtown New Orleans location. However, Werlein's President Bitsie Werlein helped pave the way for the blockbuster deal, accepting a buyout of her longtime lease after JAZZIZ and a group of investors bought the building for approximately $2 million. Realtor Dorian Bennett says that negotiations for the sale of the four-floor, 28,000-square foot building have been underway for a year, with the JAZZIZ group ultimately winning a bidding war for the property.
JAZZIZ magazine has considerable clout in the jazz world and publishing industry, with 90,000 subscribers and a monthly press run of 193,000. JAZZIZ publisher Michael Fagien also co-founded the I.E. Music record label with jazz guitarist Lee Ritenour, releasing albums from artists like vocalist Al Jarreau and saxophonist Eric Marienthal, as well as the tribute albums A Twist of Jobim and A Twist of Marley, featuring contributions from heavyweights such as Herbie Hancock and the Yellowjackets. Fagien's well-connected in the music industry and has a track record of thinking big and executing his visions -- and this is his biggest venture yet.
"I've been looking at jazz clubs for 20 years, and never understood the (traditional) model in a practical business sense," Fagien says in a phone interview from JAZZIZ's Florida headquarters. "Everyone wants small intimate clubs with big-name acts, and someone with a little business sense can see that's destined for failure unless you create a consumer-friendly attraction and environment.
"If you go to jazz club X in some city, and make reservations and buy tickets, it's pretty pricey. And patrons often say, 'Let's go to eat dinner first somewhere else,' since the club's not known for the food. Or half the patrons might eat and won't enjoy the experience because the sound isn't good. Or the performance is good, but everything else failed. At JAZZIZ New Orleans, the restaurant is going to drive the business. It's going to be a five-star, top-rated culinary enterprise."
To achieve that goal, Fagien has tapped the esteemed Restaurant August team of owner August "Duke" Robin and Executive Chef John Besh, who was recently named one of the "10 Best New Chefs in America" by Food & Wine magazine. "Between John and Duke and some other people, we're guaranteed that the restaurant and food is not just taken care of, but it's top quality," says Fagien. "Then we can focus solely on the entertainment and music side of the club."
Fagien is currently finalizing design plans for the club, with hopes of JAZZIZ New Orleans opening in time for the 2003 Jazz Fest season. The club hasn't hired a talent buyer yet, but Fagien envisions a mix of New Orleans artists, mid-level touring acts, and at least once a month, top-flight national touring acts. The focus will be on contemporary and traditional jazz, with crossover acts also in the mix. "Coming from a media background, we're going to have the highest quality sound stage, and the ability to capture the performance of those artists on audio and video -- after getting appropriate clearances, of course. This gives us an opportunity to work with local acts and becomes a bonus for them, if you will, for the acts who don't get that kind of treatment elsewhere."
It's somewhat ironic that JAZZIZ New Orleans will be located across from House of Blues, as Fagien's business model, including the possibility of franchises, sounds strikingly similar to the House of Blues blueprint -- with Snug Harbor-esque bookings.
"New Orleans is the first club, and the prototype for a model that will be replicated in other cities," he says. "We want to take a New Orleans feel, with New Orleans cuisine, albeit in a modern, commercial, jazz-themed restaurant, and strategically place them in other markets ... Being across the street from House of Blues, I think there will be a nice synergy there, although some people see them as our biggest competition. Maybe they will be, but I think we're going after a different demographic market, one that's definitely older."
How the arrival of JAZZIZ New Orleans will affect the other jazz clubs in New Orleans, particularly Snug Harbor and Funky Butt, remains to be seen. Defunct jazz clubs Charlie B's and Rosy's brought in national jazz acts, and didn't survive. But JAZZIZ New Orleans brings with it an established brand name and the marketing muscle of a media enterprise. Eight years after House of Blues came to town, life on Decatur Street -- and in the New Orleans nightclub community -- is about to change once again.