New New York: The Search & Restore Interview, Pt. 1

In light of this week's chatter about how jazz's future audience isn't necessarily dying — or at least not at the rate it appears — there's no better time to feature this interview.

New Yorkers Adam Schatz and James Donahue, ages 21 and 24 respectively, are the co-founders of Search and Restore (searchandrestore.com). Right around the time I left New York City for NPR, they both started out as inspired, independent jazz concert promoters, booking some of the hottest acts in (and out of) town in creative ways. With the launch of their Web site, Search And Restore is also quickly becoming an online hub for all things involving live jazz in New York. And dudes are just, like, really good dudes.

Full disclosure: Adam offered his unpaid services to NPR Music as a volunteer at CareFusion-Newport this year. (I did note the fact that 55 years ago, George Wein was but a young concert promoter himself.) But I had never met James or Adam when this interview was conducted several weeks prior, in NPR's New York bureau. It's quite long, but, in my humble opinion, well worth feeling out. (Can I get Steven Bernstein to say "that's what she said"?)

This is the first of two parts, focusing on the concert-producing part of their enterprise. That continues this Sunday, when guitarist Charlie Hunter plays the second installment of his month-long, Search and Restore curated residency at Rose Live Music in Brooklyn. (Tickets.) Schatz and Donahue offered their takes on finding the right beer sponsor, being welcomed to life by Dave Binney, and why it's [not] all about the Benjamins, baby.

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Briefly, each of you: who are you and what do you do? I mean, what's the idea behind this Search and Restore thing that you're doing?

Adam: Well, I can give sort of a backstory from the beginning. I came to New York City in 2006 to attend college at New York University as a jazz saxophone studies major, which is [dryly] one of the most respected majors in the field. You know, the second I got to the city — I had already been doing this in Boston, just playing in bands, organizing shows, and I liked the idea of community-building through music — and I wanted to find different ways to rejuvenate any of the scenes that I was a part of. And it seemed in New York that a lot of things were struggling.

So I started a series at the Knitting Factory, which is now closed. [Ed.: a new Knitting Factory location is scheduled to open in Brooklyn this September.] But it was a great series that ran for a little over a year at the Knitting Factory in TriBeCa, where I just sort of took ideas based on little problems I had with different shows I was seeing, and made it all work in one cohesive environment.

I would book a double bill once a month, sometimes twice a month, with two incredible bands, one cover for the whole night, no drink minimum, in the Tap Bar — which is a great space, because it wasn't too small, but it wasn't too big either. Cheap cover, cheaper for students. And just all these little things sort of built up to make it a single environment that the fans and the bands could enjoy as a whole. And it felt like this universal thing that everyone was a part of. I just became — you know, it became really successful. Every incredible band that I loved had no problem playing it, and people kept coming back.

And so that sort of set the stage for the Web site that we launched in February. The Knitting Factory closed in December, and we threw a blowout show with that, and then haven't been throwing as many live shows, but focused on searchandrestore.com, which is really the only Web site dedicated to live jazz in New York. Which was sort of mind-blowing to me that there wasn't anything out there like that. And I think that's partly why the scene has struggled in some ways: there aren't that many resources for people who want to know more about what's going on. The only way to find out is just to go out and see shows, and everyone can't afford to see a show every night. There's just a risk that everything isn't going to be great. So we just created this site as a tool for people to find out where shows are happening. We would take every venue's calendar and put it into the site, and a bunch of other resources. And, I dunno, I met James initially through the series I was doing at the Knit—

James: I actually went to one of his shows.
Adam: More than one, I think.
James: More than one, but we met at the first one.

So James, who are you and what do you do?

James: Well, I came from Brown University, where I was an International Relations major, which I'm putting to good use, as you can see. But I guess I got here, and I had these guys that I looked up to that I knew lived in New York — people like [guitarist] Ben Monder, or other musicians like that. It was sort of mind-blowing to me that they weren't getting the exposure that I thought they deserved. So I started doing the same thing that Adam was doing. I can't remember if I had copied him, or we were sort of doing it at the same time—
Adam: Parallel thinking. I think it was sort of just parallel thinking. But it just ended up that I had the better name, so—
James: He had the better name, and the better venue at the time. So we were like, "We should just team up."

And you had a separate concert series?

James: Yea, I had something at — I think at the time it was still — Galapagos Art Space in Williamsburg [Brooklyn]. It's [called] Public Assembly now.

There's a lot that you guys mentioned that I want to get into. But first, I can't help notice that you guys are ... how old are you?
Adam: I am 21.
James: I just turned 24.
Adam, you're an NYU student — you grew up in Boston, apparently.
Adam: Newton, Mass.: a white, affluent, Jewish suburb of Boston.
James: Big difference.
Adam: Same thing, pretty much.

And you guys are both musicians in some way — that's part of how you came to doing all this?
James: Yea. I played in college a lot. Didn't major in jazz saxophone.
Adam: No, he didn't.

So how did you learn about this cool jazz music? It seems like you guys are involved in a lot of different things that aren't necessarily jazz too. And a lot of these jazz acts [that you put on] aren't getting any real press or anything like that. Do you follow musicians' buzz? Are you clued into those communities?

Adam: I mean, I didn't even really listen to much jazz before I got to school. I've always been a huge rock 'n' roll and hip-hop fan, and sort of been involved in a lot of different musical cultures. But then when I came here, there were just, you know, other people who were a little older than me (who I was friends with) were telling me what shows to go see.

And it was within the first week that I went to go see the Dave Binney Welcome to Life Band. Which was Dave Binney, Scott Colley, Brian Blade, Chris Potter, and Adam Rogers. And it was stupid. It was unbelievable. It was so good, I went back to see the second night — this was at the 55 Bar — you know, waited in line for two hours just to get in. That sort of in-demand show was such a turn-on for me, cause it was just all these people in a room who really wanted to be there, getting blown away by this music that was totally new in front of them. And it was great.

And so from there on, I just followed each of those musicians, and through that, it just sort of spread. But it was a lot of work: I mean, I'd have to go to every venue's Web site. I sort of pretended that my Web site already existed before it did, where I'd go to every venue's calendar and make my own calendar of all the shows I was going to see each month. And go to them. And if it ever came to study for a test or go to a show, I always went to the show. And from there on, I just — word of mouth is what turned me on to everything.

James: Oddly enough, that's actually the same band that got me into the scene as well. I think I was still in college at the time in Providence, and a friend of mine gave me that CD, Welcome to Life. And I did the same thing: just follow those musicians.

So it's really been — as I understand it — your resourcefulness in tracking down these bands where they play? As opposed to following records, or articles or publications or anything like that?

Adam: There aren't really any articles or publications. The records are cool, but where are you going to find out about them?
James: Yea, it's venue Web sites. That's really what it was. Just go around to every venue's Web site and tediously check who's playing where and when. Or artists' Web sites.
Adam: That's one of the cool things about the scene though, is that everyone — I gotta use a different word than that, 'cause it gets obnoxious the more I use it — that's another great thing about the jazz community, is that these guys all play in each others' bands. And it's just an ever-growing thing where everyone's playing for each other, playing each others' music. And so you can just pick one person, and say: I'm going to follow this person through everything they do. And you will, whether you like it or not, be turned on to all these new players, and all these new things. Whereas in a lot of other music cultures, you follow a group, and you stick with that group, and you see what they do.

But it's less — it's interesting, because you would think: by design, this would be the most sustainable musical environment ever. But what sort of happened is that it's almost oversaturated. Because everyone's playing under their own name, it's really hard to keep track of who's what, and what's going on, what's great, what isn't. And you know, that's important for people to know.

I know I have a hard enough time trying to follow it as a professional listener. But let's talk concerts. You mentioned a lot of different things. Point by point: no drink minimum.
Adam: Yes.
That's very important to you.

Adam: Very important to me. [James: "It's huge. Huge."] Because it's such a backhanded thing to give two prices, to say, "The show is $12, and there is a two-drink minimum." And you look at the drink list, and each drink is $7. It's just not good. And it doesn't — it feels sneaky. It feels sneaky when you go to the show and you're just like, "Oh, I've been had." And that's not a feeling that gets you coming back; that's not a feeling that even keeps you in the bar. And it creates a separation from the people who are there to see the show and the musicians. And it's really important to have there be no separation, to me.

Also, the size of the venue that you book.

Adam: Well, it's — I was talking to someone about this recently, how when the original Knitting Factory was open and happening in the late '80s, early '90s, it was a 400-capacity room. It would be full. And then Tonic opened up, and that was about a 250-capacity room. And now The Stone is an 80-capacity room. And each of the clubs before that had closed, and all the same artists are playing in these rooms. And they should be playing bigger and bigger rooms, but for whatever reason, it's become this way. And so it's really hard to see a creative jazz show that isn't confining, either by how small it is, or just by how stale it is.

Along with the idea of a drink minimum, there's price. As students, I would imagine you would certainly have a certain perspective on this. The price of going to see a show at the Blue Note, or the Jazz Standard, or the Village Vanguard these days—
James: $35 to $50, when it's all said and done.
And you guys are trying to book shows at a price like, what?

Adam: Students almost never pay more than $10. If it's just a double bill, it's $10. If there's more than two bands, we usually up it to $12. But you know, it's reasonable. And if you're going to charge 10 bucks, you're going to get a crowd that's into paying 10 bucks to see a show.

And that's a better crowd. It's less pressurized. If you play at the Blue Note, and your crowd has all paid $50, they're going to be sitting there, they're going to be watching you, making sure they don't miss anything. And they're going to always be thinking: is this worth it? Is this worth it? Is this worth $40, or $39? It's absurd, and it's just too much money. These guys have to make a living, and that makes sense. But I think we need to start exploring other pathways to make the money for the artists and make the money for presenters that isn't directly taking it from admission. 'Cause it can't make sense until the community is developed more where attendance can be higher.

Speaking of expanding that business model, you guys have found a sponsor for some of these.

Adam: Umm, yeah. I mean, it was a nice challenge once we started doing the shows. I remember the first few shows we did, there was no shortage of my heroes agreeing to play. Then at the end of the night, it came time to pay them, and the venue would take half the money, and then—
James: And then I'd go, "Ooh. Is this a good idea?"
Adam: Yea, and then the artists — you know, some of them were totally cool. Others would be like, "If you want me to play again, you'll have to pay me more." And it was cool. It was honest. They were being really honest with me; no one was being inappropriate about it. And I was just trying to explore different outlets.

So we've gotten a local mouthpiece company: Jody Jazz sponsored the first five shows. And then we got a beer company from Chicago: Goose Island 312 sponsored a couple of runs. They sponsored a mini-festival we did in May of 2008, and they sponsored our last fall run also. And it was great: I mean, they were really into the music. And once the economy totally collapsed, sponsorship sort of disappeared in terms of that. But it was great, because we weren't generating colossal numbers, but they were willing to take a risk, and they wanted to associate themselves with the type of music and energy we were presenting. It was cool. It was exciting.
James: Plus, it's really good beer, as it turns out.
Adam: Great beer. I couldn't believe it. Yea. People would rather see that show than see a show sponsored by Colt 45. Which I've also done my share of.

Double bills. You guys started out doing that. Do you do it any more?

Adam: Yes. [James: We try to.] There's been a couple instances recently where artists we love have come to us and say, "We want to do an album release," or "We want to feature the premiere of this band." If they want to feature their own band, totally cool, two sets for that band. The most important thing is two sets.
James: With no clearing out.
Adam: Yea. Because so many of these clubs — you pay for one set, and it's too small, so there's a line for the second set, and you gotta get kicked out. And so — I mean, it's fine, but then again, you're like, "All right, I'm getting 50 minutes of music, and I better focus on this music because I want to see it happen." And I think double bills are the best because it gets two bands in the room with each other, and they're totally fueling off what [each other is] doing. The audience from one of the bands is going to be influenced from the other band, and see some music they have never heard before, and vice versa. So it sort of develops more crowd-building atmosphere.

And the bands have more fun, because they're not necessarily just going to work. They get to see a show. They get to see their friends who — I mean, every one I've talked to who's played one of my shows has been sort of blown away because they thought this stuff would only happen at festivals, and they're just so excited to see another band in that sort of situation.
James: It's more fun for us, too, to build, curate, put that stuff together. I mean, it's like "dream bills" for us.
Adam: Yea, I mean, it's unbelievable. It's great being able to tell people about the shows we're doing, and they're just like — you know, their jaw drops. They can't believe it. And I think, you know: probably 10 of my favorite shows in the past couple years have been my shows. I don't feel biased when I say that: I'm just sitting there, watching these things happen, and it's unbelievable.

Just looking at what you guys have been putting on, just last weekend [mid-July, 2009], and this week: The Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, Andrew D'Angelo's Gay Disco Trio, and then this really interesting collaboration between Guillaume Perret, Miles Okazaki and Damion Reid, which is a band I'd never thought might play together—
Adam: Brand new band.
James: Yea, first time ever.
Would you say there's a certain type, or inclination to the types of artists that Search and Restore tries to feature?

Adam: We lean toward the progressive. But if you look at those three artists, you'll see — I mean, they're all pretty different-sounding.
James: Yea, there's some tremendous diversity between those three in particular.
Adam: And that's the cool thing about the music. It's most important for me to feature artists who are really currently active, making new records, pushing what they want. I mean, it's hard to say what's "new" music — you know, it's been going on for almost a century. And maybe everything's been done. But just something that feels fresh, and that a lot of people might have never seen before, and isn't necessarily rooted in historical jazz. I mean, we did a show with [pianist] Jean-Michel Pilc and Billy Hart on drums, the first time they had ever played together. And that was unbelievable. We — what did we pair that with? ...

Billy Hart and Jean-Michel Pilc trio, Francois Moutin [on bass] paired up with Brad Shepik trio, with Mark Ferber and Drew Gress. And that has some Balkan influences, and Jean-Michel's music leans more toward re-inventing standards, tweaking it, and playing with Billy Hart on the drums, who's a legend. And that was just wonderful to see, because it was really distinctly different music, together under the umbrella of jazz. Which I still think is important to support, even though it's tough to say what is jazz. You know, jazz is something new. It makes you feel weird. Whatever. It doesn't have to be that specific, but it's great to bring people together under that light, rather than going to see five bands play in a row, and everyone's being super funky. It's cool, but it's not really exciting. It doesn't develop. It doesn't keep me feeling cool throughout the whole night.

So, sort of a philosophical question. Why are you doing this? It can't be for the money.
Adam: It's definitely for the money.
James: [faux-incredulously] What do you mean?
Adam: It's definitely for the money.
James: It's all about the money.
All about the money.
Adam: We are weal-thy.
What is it you like about booking shows so much?

James: I want to see these shows. It's like Adam said: it's not happening, but it should be, so why don't we just do it.
Adam: Yea, exactly. We're booking the shows we wanted to see, and it's sort of the hope that more people do it. I mean, if we do it, and it starts becoming successful, then hopefully more people start throwing shows of the same caliber. And then everything will get better. Then maybe the venues charging more will say: we should re-examine this, and see if we can charge cheaper for these shows, find other ways to cover the costs. It's just — it's an exciting thing. Like you said, we're young, and I think we'd be wasting our youthful energy if we weren't getting severely involved with what's happening.

Check this space for part two, about the Search and Restore Web site soon. Visit Search and Restore online.

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