Iceland’s famous Jazz-Funk act Mezzoforte. Photo: im
In early 2002, I came to Sofia/Bulgaria from the U.S.. On one of the first days of my stay, I found a local radio station which played jazzy and funky stuff of the kind I have been into since my teenage years: Jazz FM Radio. Since I am a radio guy as well, I contacted the station. What followed, was a cooperation which lead to a radio show I did as well as the Sofia Jazz Peak festival, which I co-organized from 2002 to 2008. In the early days of this endeavour, today’s cultural overkill had not yet kicked in. Bulgarian lovers of what I call “real music” were very eager to experience bands of this kind live. Before 2002, there were two concert promoters who organized gigs with international acts. But none of them concentrated on Jazz and Funk much. That was were we came in. This is a recount of the fun we had and the issues we ran into while doing the festival. (Excerpts from my blog entitled “How to Piss off Jethro Tull”).
Incognito was the first band I got to come down here. We were actually lucky they came at all since a South African gig they were supposed to do right afterwards, had been cancelled and it took quite a few discussions to save our gig. I believe bandleader Bluey was the one who made it happen. I had met him in Washington D.C. twice and knew he was the nicest guy on Earth. Also, I knew Incognito was going to deliver exactly what my business partner Vasko wanted, since he was a die-hard Earth, Wind & Fire fan as well. A compatible species.
Since we were not too experienced yet, regarding large, international gigs, we teamed up with one of the other promoters for this one concert. On the day Incognito arrived in September of 2002, people were lining up in front of the ticket office. But we still needed some TV promotion in order to fill the hall completely. Bluey was the first who agreed to take part in the “Slavi Show” on BTV. Xavier Barnett and Tony Momrelle had no problem teaming up with the TV act “Cuckoo Band” for “Still a Friend of Mine” either.
The problem was lead vocalist Kelli Sae, who is also known for her work with the Vienna-based Jazz-Funk act Count Basic. At the welcome dinner, she had already treated me in a pretty arrogant way by simply ignoring me and the questions I had, as an enthusiastic fan. Anyway: She refused to take part in that TV show. The fact that she let us down years later as well, when we booked Count Basic, was a different story, since it had to do with her mother being ill. But Bluey, along with his vocalists Xavier and Tony, saved the day by appearing on Bulgarian TV. Later, during the gig itself, Kelli raised the roof in the sold-out venue with her voice and stage presence, as she always does. About 10 seconds into the gig, which started off with the semi-instrumental “Closer to the Feeling”, the audience of 3,800 people started dancing, actually making the hall shake.
Back then, we definitely contributed to making Incognito an extremely popular band in Bulgaria. In 2005, we invited them again. Luckily, Maysa Leak, Imaani, Gail Evans and Tony Momrelle were their vocalists this time around. Both Incognito gigs were brilliant. Mastermind Bluey’s ideas and compositions, Richard Bailey’s fascinating off-beats and Latino-Funk rhythms, the horns, Julian Crampton’s slap bass (in the second case, it was Francis Hylton’s great playing) and the vocalists absolutely pulled it off. As always. In both cases, we had great after-show parties during which band members performed with fellow musicians from Bulgaria, including Yassen Velchev, Ivaylo Zvezdomirov, Venko Poromanski and Lyubo. I will always remember their one-hour version of “Georgy Porgy”. Years later, I booked Incognito in Germany and The Netherlands for a while, but will refrain from getting into that story here.
As the years passed, we invited absolutely everyone to perform on our festival stage, including the Los Angeles-based Bulgarian icon Milcho Leviev, a brilliant composer and pianist, who had worked with Billy Cobham and many others extensively. Even Michel Legrand hit our stage with my partner’s orchestra. But let’s stick to the Jazz-Funk world.
An international festival, especially in Bulgaria, will always trigger little incidents here and there. When bass hero Marcus Miller came to Sofia, with drummer Poogie Bell, his French manager and others, who were very nice people (with the exception of his arrogant tech lady from Brooklyn), we had an agreement with Bulgarian National TV (BNT). They were supposed to record the first two songs of the gig and then get the hell out of there. Well, they didn’t. BNT came with two huge SNG trucks and about four editors, all of them ladies aged around 65. I thought they were going to start knitting at any moment. The issue: After the second tune Marcus played, the lights on all six TV cameras in the hall were still red. BNT would just refuse to act according to our agreement, which led to lots of hard discussions with the band management. At least they never aired the part they were not supposed to air.
One of the most brilliant gigs we ever did was delivered by The Al McKay Allstars. Al, an extremely nice person, who was Earth, Wind and Fire’s guitarist during the band’s best times, along with his people, delivered. What a breathtaking concert! It was actually the only gig I experienced in the audience from start to finish, instead of walking around backstage all the time like an idiot, trying to make sure things were running smoothly. Another outstanding concert we organized was Al Jarreau’s solo gig in 2005. Nice people, including Al and the tour manager, a crystal clear sound and absolutely no incidents. A year later, Al Jarreau returned. This time, he was part of George Benson’s band and things did not run smoothly at all.
Since George Benson had just recorded an album with Al Jarreau, his management announced a European tour. One thing was certain: We wanted this gig. At the same time the fee was high. On top of that, there were only summer dates available, which constituted an issue because in July and August, Sofia is absolutely empty. But my business partner and his living ATM did not care about costs in this case. Both were big George Benson fans. So they were ready to lose. Fine with me.
We could have had a wonderful time. But George’s tour manager gave us trouble the minute she arrived. The fact that a reporter approached George Benson at the airport without permission turned into a huge scandal. This was when she threatened to cancel the gig for the first time out of a total of 20 times. Any request we had was brushed off in an extremely mean and arrogant way: “Look at my face. Do I look happy?”. She shouted at me many times for nothing, saying George Benson was the one paying the bills even though, in reality, we were the ones who did so.
At one point, George was supposed to be picked up from the hotel for the soundcheck. But, as it turned out later, he wanted to meet some of his fellow Jehova’s Witnesses. So he took a taxi to get there and another taxi to the venue, while our driver waited for him at the hotel. As a result of this deviation from the plan, George Benson did not find the right entrance to the hall. Of course it was our fault. The manager was on me like a pitbull, which is still an understatement. But we got lucky that night. Just before the gig started, the self-proclaimed queen got sick. Since she was busy running in and out of the bathroom, she did not have the time to shout at me anymore. It was the only time in my life when I did not mind someone was sick.
The gig itself was one of the greatest I have ever experienced. George played everything, from Wes Montgomery-style stuff (yes, we all remember Wes) to ballads, dance hits and sophisticated, American Jazz-Funk. For many songs, Al Jarreau contributed his brilliant voice and showmanship. What a killer concert! The after-show party was cool as well. George was not going to play, but when he saw that Gibson standing there, he changed his mind and raised the roof yet again. It was nice talking to him about music. A wonderful guy. According to what I heard from some of his crew members, I was lucky he did not try to tell me about the “scriptures”.
Of course we invited lots of Bulgarian artists up on our stage as well. We were so happy to have Milcho Leviev perform several times. At the same time we were hoping for a few gigs without his favourite vocalist in between. There are so many genius musicians down here. These are some of those, who hit our stage: Kaval and flute master Theodosii Spassov, the funky guys of (former) Grupa TE, the brilliant and beautiful vocalist Beloslava, the legendary singer Kamelia Todorova and of course the extremely gifted pianist and composer Jivko Petrov.
There was one international act we invited three times: The Icelandic Jazz-Funk group Mezzoforte. All of the very gifted band members are extremely nice. Eythor, Johann, Gulli, Sebastian, Bruno and everyone else! I still consider them friends. The same applies to the Brand New Heavies. When they showed up, we immediately connected, maybe because we had all listened to the same music as teenagers, because we are the same age or just because they are very kind and funny people.
Maceo Parker delivered the most funky gig ever, Level 42 performed their mixture of newer Pop and classic Jazz-Funk tunes in a great way and Kool & The Gang gave the audience a great party with most of the hits they ever recorded. Robert “Kool” Bell and his people are kind guys. At the same time, my impression was they were less interested in music than in business opportunities and shopping. They can not be blamed after playing “Celebration” almost every night for decades. But there definitely were times in which they cared. Their classic albums like e.g. “Open Sesame” (damn, I love “Whisper Softly”) are proof enough. Besides: What’s wrong with a funky party?
Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull is a perfectionist, who has been recording and touring for the past 40 years. I would have given him a luxury hotel, but I was not the promoter, but rather the organizer. Decisions of this kind were taken elsewhere. Well, at first Ian complained the restaurant was “shit”. So was the hotel. The legendary flutist was not exactly amused either, when the vehicle we used to take them to the venue in Plovdiv broke down after 50 kilometers on the highway. By that time, he was so pissed that I feared he would suffer a stroke in the scorching heat.
There was another issue. A huge thunderstorm had just been announced. This meant we had to move the gig from the wonderful amphitheater to Plovdiv’s brand new fair hall. It was quite an endeavour to move the entire gig within a few hours. What we did not know was the fact that the brand new roof was leaking. So we had equipment worth close to a million Euro on a stage it rained on. Ian Anderson did not like the situation too much. This applied to the catering as well. There he was, shouting down at me from the stage: “Get me the fucking promoter right now! This is too much! I will cancel the fucking gig!”. He didn’t. While absolutely nothing turned out properly behind the scenes, the gig itself was brilliant, as expected. The next day, Ian came up to me at the airport. He apologized. So did I. Things were fine again.
There were acts we should never have booked since their managements gave us headaches and we did not like their music anyway. This applied to Vanessa Mae and others. There were suprising requests from people I would not have expected them from: “Imanuel, could you get some cocaine?”. No thanks. There were new friends, new enemies, lots of trouble, but also a lot of fun. The two gigs I always wanted and never got: Roy Ayers and the late George Duke. But other very special artists and people made up for that: British guitarist Jim Mullen and the late Peter Herbolzheimer, Germany’s Mr. Bigband, are two excellent examples. Bill Cobham came, so did DePhazz. Spyro Gyra did one of the most fascinating and surprising gigs. Karen Bernod, Carleen Anderson and Nigel Kennedy were there as well. The most breathtaking trio gig we ever staged? Eliane Elias. Her Bossa Nova tunes on the concert grand almost made me faint.
Would I go through all of this again? Hell, yeah!
By Imanuel Marcus