Home Interviews In Conversation with Dale Kelley Fitzgerald

In Conversation with Dale Kelley Fitzgerald

2019
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The following interview would not be possible without the support and encouragement of Rio Sakari, who urged me to contact Dale and document his story. Dale was critically ill at the time, and I was hesitant to intrude on his privacy. After giving the matter serious thought, I reached out to Dale, and to my surprise, he was receptive and eager to tell his story. Dale was energetic, talkative, detail-oriented, brilliant, and funny on “good days.” Other times, I’d received a telephone call from Lezlie Harrison, informing me that Dale was experiencing a “bad day.” Overall, working with Dale was a joy. He was a unique individual, a powerhouse, a taskmaster, an orator, a teacher, and an intellectual with an unquenchable sense of curiosity. Above all, Dale loved music and the artists who created it. The Jazz Gallery was (is) living proof! Regrettably, Dale transitioned before we completed the interview process. Except for a few excerpts, this is Dale’s story in his words. For me, documenting Dale’s story and hearing him acknowledge, “I’m glad it was you,” was the honor and privilege of a lifetime. Much like the man, Dale Kelley Fitzgerald’s legacy is larger than life!

Tomas Peña: Before plunging into your life in jazz, you taught Cultural Anthropology at Brown University, the New School for Social Research, and Lehman College. How did you go from “Professor Fitzgerald” to a dishwasher at The Village Vanguard?

Dale Kelley Fitzgerald: Once I stopped teaching anthropology, I stopped teaching altogether. I could not find teaching jobs that would let me engage in my research interests, tracking down connections between West African culture and New World Afro-American culture, or allowing me to be supported by grants to pursue these interests. Also, I was uncomfortable relating to people as “Professor Fitzgerald” or “Dr. Fitzgerald,”  it was too limiting and stultifying. As for my life in jazz, I saw jazz music as the single most massive cultural tradition that grew out of the West African experience in the New World. I did four years of fieldwork in Ghana, where I learned the language (called Ga) and culture, focusing mainly on ritual specialists: priests, spirit mediums, medicine men, and the musicians that are part of the scene. My Ph. D dissertation title is “Spirit Mediumship and Séance Performance Among the Ga of Southern Ghana” (copyright, 1976, University of California).

When I realized I couldn’t make enough money from jazz and was committed to putting my daughter Shenna through college, I realized that I had to come up with something, “tout de suite!” I had the great fortune of having a rent-stabilized apartment in the West Village and access to a lot of space in Putnam County, where I bought and sold stuff. In the course of doing that, I came to know antique shops. I bought stuff on the road and traveled around selling to antique shops in New York City. Eventually, I created a business that relied on transporting antiques and artwork. From 1982 to 1989, I built a company that made lots of money.

It was a time when people were making more money than they knew what to do with. They were purchasing 18th-century French country armoires that cost six to eight thousand dollars and putting them in apartments that didn’t suit them. I knew how to take them apart and put them back together. I had major clients – antique shops, museums, etc. People who hired me liked that I knew about painting, sculpture, and antiques enough that they could consult with me. At the time, the big thing was American Arts and Crafts furniture, which was going for ridiculous prices that people like Richard Gere and Barbara Streisand were buying. So, I would deliver to their apartments and estates and charge serious money.

When my daughter got through college, there was a significant economic dip. I saw my interest in the business flagging and the necessity of it being erased by the fact that my daughter graduated and got a job right out of college.

Also, there was a marriage, my second. I was stepping out of the marriage and closing my business, I wasn’t focused full time on jazz, but I was very much on the scene.

TP: How so?

DFK: My long-standing Business Partner, Manager, and Producer Larry Clothier was managing Sarah Vaughn and Carmen Mc Rae and working with Dizzy Gillespie. I had a standing invitation to the Blue Note, where Carmen was performing, and Atlantic City, where Sarah was playing. And that came to include trumpeter Roy Hargrove.

TP: How did you meet Roy? How old was he?

DFK: He was eighteen. That’s an interesting story; I remember it vividly because of one of the many things Larry Clothier did during this period. Roy was still in high school in Dallas. Larry had taken a part-time engagement to book a major club in Fort Worth called The Caravan of Dreams. Along the way, he booked Wynton Marsalis, working with a quintet. As Wynton was in the habit of doing when he went to a city or town, he would look at the arts magnet schools or wherever they might have young, aspiring jazz musicians. Indeed they had a jazz band at this Dallas Arts Magnet school. Wynton heard the band and told Larry that he had just heard this kid, Roy Hargrove, that blew him away, and he invited Roy to come and sit in at the venue. Well, Roy being Roy, didn’t show up. Roy was very introverted and timid. Larry finally went to the school, tracked him down, and said, “Wynton was serious, and when Wynton invites you to come where he is playing, you should do that.” And Roy did.

TP: In a 1996 article in the publication Texas Monthly, Doug Ramsey talks about the night Clothier and Marsalis spotted three young men standing in the back of the club: “One of them had a tweed topcoat on and a pork-pie hat sitting on the back of his head, and a trumpet case in his hand,” says Clothier. “When the band got done playing the tune, Wynton called Roy up. Wynton said, ‘You want to play something?’ And he shrank down and nodded. And I thought, man, this kid’s scared to death. But when it came the time, you could just see him draw himself up and expand. And it was like Wynton said, he was a bitch.”

DFK: That was the first time Larry heard him. He called me that night, told me the story, and said, “Yeah, I just heard this kid, Roy H-a-r-g-o-v-e.” I could tell by the way he was talking it was significant. It was Larry who brought Roy to my attention.

TP: This led to space at 290 Hudson Street in Greenwich Village and assuming the role of Roy’s business manager.

DFK: At the time, I was going to various places within striking distance of New York City to keep my transportation business going, but I could take some time off and go to Europe at Larry’s invitation. Much of my insistence on the international basis of the music came from knowing that I would eventually do something that would take the form of the Jazz Gallery. The perspective of jazz music as international stature is something that I was hip to from day one, as I had the good fortune to be invited on these tours with Dizzy’s band.

At the festivals in Europe, they had amazing exhibits of jazz-inspired work. Also, there was a scene of Polish artists that did great jazz artwork. That’s where the idea probably struck me. We, in the US, don’t do this much. Also, the Chicago tenor player, Clifford Jordan, had images that various photographers have taken of him. He went to the trouble of enlarging the photos and mounting them on stage when he did gigs, depending on the venue. When I saw that, I said to myself, “Hmmm, there you go, that works!” The first exhibit at the Jazz Gallery was called “The Tin Palace, 1976-1980 – The Walls Talk.”

Before I go any further, I want to anchor Lezlie Harrison’s place in this. By this time, starting in or around 1991, we were a couple, and she was a radio show host at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She went from college radio to WBGO (88.3 FM, New York). For many of the earliest years, she was the “face” of the Jazz Gallery. She greeted people and was in charge of the membership. I introduced the exhibits and the musicians, but she was in charge of keeping the audience happy.

INTERVIEWER’S NOTESIn addition to being the “Face” of the Jazz Gallery, Lezlie is a Co-Founder. Over the years, she has worn many hats, including Office Manager, Director, Publicist, Event Planner, MC, Performer, Creator, and Coordinator of the Jazz Gallery Membership Program. Her relationship with the Jazz Gallery is ongoing).

TP: The idea of creating an environment where jazz and jazz-influenced art coexisted.

DF: Yes. In those months when we were working together to get the exhibit together, musicians of Roy’s generation called what came to be known as the Jazz Gallery “the loft.” We used it as a rehearsal space for Roy’s big band.

JS: “Dale signed the lease on 290 Hudson Street in February of 1992 as a representative of the business he ran with Roy Hargrove. The search for space was on behalf of Roy. He needed a place to live because he had problems with a series of landlords playing his horn at inappropriate hours of the day and night. The problem with the loft space was that the landlords applied for a variance allowing residential use, but they still hadn’t gotten confirmation. After Dale had signed the lease, the application for a variation was denied. Roy still needed a place to live, but in the meantime, it became a rehearsal space for Roy’s big band.”

Lezlie knew saxophonist, composer Arthur Blythe, and the radio personality James Browne, the best disc jockey that’s ever been on WBGO regarding the regular nightspot. Eventually, he left to do other things, but one of the things that he did that was significant was he got the Jazz Gallery and Roy’s big band on the map simultaneously. Because of his knowledge of the music and stature within the jazz scene, the people at Panasonic, who sponsored the Greenwich Village Jazz Festival, hired him as their point person. Knowing that I was struggling, James asked, “Can you have your exhibit and Roy’s big band ready by August (1995)?

TP: When did the Jazz Gallery open its doors to the public?

DFK: 1995.

TP: Describe the opening night, the performers, the artwork, and the scene.

DFK: Roy’s big band played at Washington Square Park. The live music we had at the Jazz Gallery was flutist Lloyd McNeill. He opened playing a solo, followed by Arthur Blythe’s quartet. The exhibit, “The Tin Palace – 1976 to 1980 – The Walls Talk,” honors what a great scene the Tin Palace had been.

INTERVIEWER’S NOTES: The Tin Palace was located at 345 Bowery Street, northeast corner of E. 2nd St.

DFK: One of the things that always struck me about Lloyd is that he is an accomplished professional musician and visual artist. Also, he was a member of our Board of Trustees and created our logo for fifty dollars. I love that logo. Another person on our Board with a similar identity is Hank O’Neal, who has always been the Chairperson. He’s a photographer who, for many years, had record companies – Chiaroscuro Records and Hammond Music Enterprises – he and Lloyd were the only two people on the Board who share that foot in both worlds. Mind you, I didn’t have a clue as to what the Board was supposed to do.

TP: You were learning as you went. It must have been nerve-wracking and exhilarating.

DFK: On every front! What I constructed mainly on my own and with the help of many people, including those who built the interior, who worked their asses off, and an Australian visual artist who painted the image on the floor and was poorly paid and completely passionate. The Lord knows I had help on all fronts, but it suffered from overreach.

TP: In what sense?

DFK: Today, the Jazz Gallery is a 501-C3 not-for-profit jazz cultural center. However, we didn’t start that way because our initial application got jacked up in the translation process. I had a lawyer named Joe Taubman, who wrote the book about forming not-for-profits for the arts. Furthermore, his brother, whose name I forget, was a regular columnist or reviewer for the New York Times, so Joe had a particular cache. He was a very likable man who took me under his wing. When our application came back, it was rejected because we were a museum. As I told Joe, our purpose was that a large part was educational. In the State of New York, and only in the state of New York, the primary criterion determining whether a given institution is a museum is its intention to serve an educational function. We had that intention, and then they denied us status as a regular 501 C-3. We had to become something else that reflected us as a museum.

When the Gallery opened its doors in 1995, our application was pending. It was jumping the gun to say that we were a not-for-profit. When the application came back, we were given the status of a museum. I was upset. I wanted to fight it because jazz is living music, and it has a future. It does not have to collapse into a bunch of repertory presentations. Young musicians are revitalizing it, so why would I want to have an identity as a museum? Joe said, “You can do that, but it will cost you a lot of money, it will take a long time, and, in the end, you will lose. Go with it, and we’ll do a revision that will allow you to be both a museum and you will be chartered, and then we’ll modulate that, and you will also become a 501 C-3. The charter finally came through in May of 1997. Nothing made me happier other than when I finished my dissertation process and was granted a Ph.D. Degree and all the work I did to get the Gallery off the ground had gotten somewhere and received some recognition in articles in the paper and international jazz art competition and things, but our grade had not come through; we were still pending.

TP: Is Jazz Art a viable category?

DFK: I ran into that in a lot of different ways. We put up many of these exhibits, and the artwork didn’t sell. It was a big disappointment, but you have to accept it for what it is. To this day, despite the Smithsonian having done this major exhibit, which we were able to host in 1998 called “Jazz Art,” there still is no collectible. However, there is a collectible, “Black Art.” People mistakenly saw that as what we were doing. I would have to fight them off in the same way that jazz wanted to fight off a racial designation, that Zoot Sims and Bill Evans our Jazz musicians’ as much as anybody else because they learned the culture.

JS, Dale: “The single most prestigious art exhibit that we had was in 1998, and that was a show from the Smithsonian called “Seeing Jazz.” That exhibit and the book that accompanied it did a decently good job of portraying what my idea was for The Jazz Gallery. While it was a prestigious thing to have, we weren’t going to make any money from it. That’s how it’s pretty much been across the Board. We have yet to have a visual arts exhibit that has been financially successful. Still, we did find that we were able to get support—and increasingly more and more support—for the live music that we presented because we came to focus on an aspect that was otherwise not represented in live music spaces in New York: that is, young musicians attracted to New York City as a center of jazz musicians who did not have access to any of the major club stages. We could provide them with that. They wouldn’t get paid much, but if they’re in jazz to make money, they’re on the wrong track, anyway.”

DFK: In the meantime, I had a problem with overreach on the live presentation front. The most classic example occurred in November 1999 when I presented the biggest show we had done up to that point featuring Chucho Valdes and Cheick-Tidiane Seck from Mali. He made a record with Hank Jones called Sarala (1995). It’s the best mixture of African music and jazz you could ever imagine.

November of 1999 is a time that will live in infamy because I lost my shirt over things that I could not control. So much so that I thought to myself, “This is over.” The music was great, but there was no way I would sell enough tickets to pay for the blunders. We’re talking about 1995 to 1997. Those were difficult years. Everything was new. I had to have an accountant and get my financials together. Before that, I operated the whole thing by the seat of my pants. I went through a series of grant writing “specialists,” only to find out that most of them were charlatans.

This is getting ahead of ourselves a little bit. Still, eventually finding the right person as a Grant Advisor helped us turn the corner and got The Jazz Cubano Series off the ground.

TP: That’s where I came in.

DFK: I remember that’s where you came in, that’s where a lot of people came in, and that’s where a lot of people that went on to become Mac Arthur winners came in, Dafnis Prieto and Miguel Zenon, among others. That was in partnership with Yosvany Terry, whom I knew from Cuba; I knew his father, Don Pancho, a major violinist and chekere player who also passed his chekere talents onto Yosvany. Yosvany became the cornerstone of the series. He had a band with Luis Perdomo on piano, Hans Glawischnig on bass, Dafnis Prieto on drums, and they would have various guests come in …”

DFK: Circling back, I was proud that I was able to get that off the ground. That was when I was still doing the booking. It was also the time when I met the right Grant Advisor, Debora Steinglass, AKA Debbie, a very bright woman with a beautiful family. When she first talked to me, saw the Gallery, read various things I had written, and went to a performance, she said, “Dale, you have a gold mine here.” No one had ever told me that. She said, “You are in line to be able to get grants from so many places that you wouldn’t believe it. You need to apply to the Jerome Foundation.” She could tick them off, and she was right. I wrote eleven of the first thirteen grants under her tutelage. She identified who the grant givers were, and she edited whatever I wrote. She wouldn’t let me send anything, nor did I want to, until she read it with a critical eye. She wasn’t free, but it was a bargain regarding what she could do and the amount of knowledge she had. It was Debbie who helped me with the first composer’s series.

TP: Which came first, The Jazz Cubano Series or The Composer’s Series?

DFK: The Jazz Cubano Series came first, but The Composer’s Series came hot on its heels. The Jazz Cubano series grew out of Roy Hargrove, who won his first Grammy with the album Crisol (1997). It was with Roy’s band that I first went to Cuba, and I met a lot of Cuban musicians. Roy’s relationship with Cuban music is a marvelous story, how readily he heard it and was able to fit in. It allowed me to have Chucho Valdes at the Jazz Gallery. That put me on the map with a lot of people.

Now we are getting to 1999, 2000 and 2001. I was learning to trim my sails and learning that it was necessary to focus on performance. I had my rude awakening with leaning on jazz art. Despite that, I knew I would continue to have the walls represent art about jazz or inspired by jazz.

You reminded me of something that I had otherwise not remembered. Rio Sakari’s first relationship with the Jazz Gallery was with the Alaska Aids Vaccine. It taught me a lot about her right away, how selfless she was, how willing she was to give her talents and knowledge up without asking how much money she would make, and how valuable she was with her enormous ears.

TP: What is Rio’s background?

DFK: She went to the New School and the Manhattan School of Music as a vocalist and pianist. She had connections with both. She was to be a performer, but I don’t think she had the chops for that, but she had the ears. That’s the thing; I didn’t need her to play the piano or sing. I needed her to hear. I probably told you before. I’m not shy to tell anybody, and I got a lot of credit due to Rio. She’s enormously confident. It’s no secret that we argued about all kinds of things, but I like someone I can argue with.

Lezlie Harrison: “Rio Sakari made a huge difference, of course. She was young – she is still young – but she had her ear and her physical being directed toward all these new musicians coming to town and needing a place to play. She found her match in the Jazz Gallery regarding how she started booking, so a lot of those young musicians who have played in the Gallery are like The Jazz Gallery children we raised to become international stars: winners of various grants and major awards like the MacArthur (“Genius” grant). A few days ago, I noticed the Doris Duke Foundation gave something like 1.3 million to jazz musicians. Still, eleven of them presented as young unknowns who had workshopped at the Gallery and introduced new works. Out of the total awardees, it was 10 or 11 who have played at The Jazz Gallery. So I’m like a big, proud mom with these kids who all came up through The Jazz Gallery. They’re no longer kids – they’re adults – and we’ve fulfilled the mission of nurturing them, and they’re doing wonderfully musically.”)

DFK: The identity of the Jazz Gallery changed for the better when we trimmed our sails. Much of the credit goes to the Jazz Gallery as an institution, highlighting composers’ strengths, getting through the grant process, and giving them time to get their music to “woodshed” and premiere. One of the things that I was delighted to do was highlight Roy’s place in all of this through the series, The Trumpet Shall Sound. It is a passage from the Bible, but it is also something from an anthropological track that I borrowed and brought in some incredible trumpet players. Most people don’t know much about Ambrose Akinmusere, Avishai Cohen, and Diego Urcola. I’d have to look back and see the entire grouping. Still, the series brought in some serious trumpet players, specifically under Roy’s wing. People came out to hear Ambrose because he was playing with Roy.

POSTSCRIPT

DFK: “The mission is never complete, and I’m not trying to bow out right now, but there’s always great music. When we started The Jazz Gallery, there was the belief out there in the land that jazz was over: Trane was dead, all the great masters were either dead or dying, or the great generation was over, but the limits of that idea are abundant. There have come along in the wake of that all kinds of brilliant musicians, and Lezlie and I believed that at the time, and that’s how we got along.

Roy (Hargrove) exemplified that as a person and a musician. At the age of 18, when I started working with him, he knew jazz wasn’t dead. Roy and I first talked about the big band the very first day I met him. He said, ‘I’ll have a big band,’ which was completely unrealistic but no more unrealistic than The Jazz Gallery. We have been able to do both, and in this small space, we had this in-your-face move: we would not only do this big band, but we would also do lots of them here. Darcy James Argue had a home here and has now gone on to larger spaces and more prominent places, but also Oliver Lake, Pedro Giraudo, and many large ensembles, and I love that. We’ve been able to help foster: the continuation of the big band tradition in jazz.”

Lezlie Harrison: “The bottom line is that I have grown so much. I’m a performer myself, and I’m very happy to have been part of The Jazz Gallery to this day, and I’m sure Dale is, as well. It is a big award for us, the Founders Award; you put so much work into something that you love, look up and look back, and it’s almost 20 years. It is Dale’s and my baby; this is our child. We never had children together, but for me, I see how Dale and I fostered this beautiful institution called The Jazz Gallery, and it’s all grown up and ready to on to the next level.”

THE NEW JAZZ GALLERY

Under the direction of Rio Sakari, The Jazz Gallery serves as an international cultural center where the youngest generation of emerging jazz musicians are nurtured with opportunities to collaborate with their peers, discover and refine their creativity, and perform in front of eager audiences. We take pride in our world-renowned reputation as a critical player in the NYC jazz community by sustaining a tradition of artistic excellence in jazz and fostering artistic growth, presenting both major and established figures in jazz alongside a younger generation of artists. Since 2002, The Gallery has also actively commissioned new work by emerging composers, many of whom have gone on to be recognized with MacArthur Foundation “genius” grants (4), Doris Duke Performing Artist Awards, Grammy Awards, and more. 12 Thelonious Monk Competition winners got their start on our stage.

Winner of the 2014 & 2010 CMA/ASCAP Awards for Adventurous Programming, The Jazz Gallery has garnered a reputation as “the most imaginatively booked jazz club in New York” (NY Times).

The Gallery’s current offerings are divided into 4 primary programs:

  1. 21st Century Jazz, which showcases both emerging and established artists.
  2. Residency Commissions support the creation of new works by exciting young composers.
  3. Our new Mentoring Program pairs young musicians with seasoned veterans to gain valuable creative and professional experience.
  4. The Woodshed provides free rehearsal space to our city’s jazz artists.

• Excerpts from Dale Kelley Fitgerald’s Biography – All About Jazz Publicity

 

A graduate of Empire State College with a dual major in journalism and Latin American studies, Editor-in-Chief Tomas Peña has spent years applying his knowledge and writing skills to the promotion of great musicians. A specialist in the crossroads between jazz and Latin music, Peña has written extensively on the subject. His writing appears on Latin Jazz Network; Chamber Music America magazine and numerous other publications.

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