[JPL] A Downtown Impresario ¹ s New Uptown Canvas

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Wed Feb 27 11:11:06 EST 2008


February 27, 2008
A Downtown Impresario¹s New Uptown Canvas

Between sets backstage at Joe¹s Pub one evening recently, the crew was busy
carrying out a menagerie of African drums for one act and carefully loading
in a piano for the comedy-cabaret group coming up next. Inches away, fans
crowded the merchandise table while the artists squeezed through to their
dressing rooms, and patrons from a play down the hall rushed to the
restrooms at intermission.

Cross-cultural juxtapositions like these are part of the plan at Joe¹s Pub,
the tiny, upscale club at the Public Theater that for nine years has served
as a center of downtown eclecticism, presenting a nightly travelogue of
world music, jazz, singer-songwriters and genres in between, from unknowns
to superstars like Elvis Costello and Norah Jones.

Its philosophy is largely the work of Bill Bragin, a 40-year-old music
obsessive from Long Island who has become one of the most influential
figures in the New York live-music business, wooed by talent agents and
record company executives eager for the endorsement of a prominent booking.

But in an unusual move, Mr. Bragin left Joe¹s Pub for Lincoln Center at the
beginning of this year, where he will oversee two summer series, Midsummer
Night Swing and Lincoln Center Out of Doors. Many in the industry are now
waiting to see if he can bring his golden touch to such a large and rigid
uptown institution.

³Bill had a vision,² said David Bither, senior vice president of Nonesuch
Records. One of that label¹s stars, Audra McDonald, was the club¹s first
booking when it opened in 1998, and Mr. Bither said he had discovered one of
his newest artists there, the singer Christina Courtin. ³It¹s not a jazz
club, it¹s not a cabaret, it¹s not a poetry club,² he added, ³but it is all
of those things.²

The Public has appointed Shanta Thake, Mr. Bragin¹s second-in-command for
five years, as his successor. And Mr. Bragin¹s move comes just as one of his
signature achievements, the rock musical ³Passing Strange,² transfers to
Broadway, opening Thursday at the Belasco Theater. As with ³Passing
Strange,² by the acid-tongued indie songwriter Stew ‹ a show he helped
shepherd in its earliest stages at the Public Theater ‹ Mr. Bragin¹s own
uptown transfer is a natural and carefully thought-out move, he said.

³The way I define myself and my work is as an arts presenter, not a
nightclub booker,² Mr. Bragin said in an interview. ³This was exactly the
right move. It¹s multidisciplinary, it¹s multiethnic. I have always been a
generalist working in those boundaries between popular art and high art.²

With curls of jet-black hair and a boyish excitement in his voice, Mr.
Bragin is known as a musical omnivore who is often several steps ahead of
the hype. He got his start promoting concerts at Haverford College outside
Philadelphia, and while still a student there, began working at Festival
Productions, which presents JVC Jazz and other major festivals.

He booked five seasons of Central Park SummerStage, beginning in 1994, and
then went to Symphony Space before starting at Joe¹s Pub shortly before
Sept. 11, 2001. Operating under the aegis of a nonprofit arts institution,
the club was ailing financially when Mr. Bragin took it over, and his first
job was to bring accounts into the black.

³There was a managerial statement to Joe¹s Pub: basically, you figure out
how to pay for yourself, and you can keep going,² said Oskar Eustis, who
took over as artistic director of the Public Theater in 2004. ³Bragin did
that brilliantly.²

He did it by tripling the number of presentations to more than 700 a year,
which increased revenue, and expanded its musical reach. Its diversity has
limits, though. An intimate room with red, romantic lighting; pricey drinks;
and a capacity of 150, Joe¹s Pub specializes in mellow music ‹ very little
hip-hop and rock ‹ that appeals to upmarket adults.

The annual operating budget of the Public Theater is $19.5 million. A
spokeswoman declined to break down what portion of that is for Joe¹s Pub,
which has fund-raising money specifically earmarked for its programming and
also takes a portion of the profits from the independently owned company
that operates the food and beverage service at Joe¹s.

By embracing Mr. Bragin, whose new title is director of public programming,
Lincoln Center is aiming to capitalize on the Joe¹s Pub cool factor and
further its slow and sometimes fitful effort to attract younger audiences.
Jane S. Moss, the vice president for programming at Lincoln Center, who
hired Mr. Bragin, said it was also a chance to give greater credibility to
two outdoor series that have often been perceived as lightweight.

³We are eager that they not be perceived simply as a kind of
community-outreach audience access point but as significant artistic
entities in their own right,² she said.

Mr. Bragin says the substance of his presentations will not change with the
move uptown, only the scale. ³The metaphor I¹ve been using,² he said, ³is
that you¹re painting watercolor miniatures on the one hand, and you¹re
painting murals on the other.²

Some in the live-music business note that the freedom Mr. Bragin enjoyed at
Joe¹s Pub might be curtailed on a bigger and more public stage.

³Because Joe¹s is so small, you can take a lot of risks,² said Danny
Melnick, the president of Absolutely Live and the former artistic director
of Festival Productions. ³You could do a lot for 100-odd people that you
can¹t do for 2,000 or 3,000 people.²

Mr. Bragin said the opportunities on a big stage could be even more
extensive, and his influence could also widen the range of summer concert
offerings in the city, which have already expanded significantly in recent
years, with series like the River to River Festival downtown and the
indie-rock concerts at McCarren Park Pool in Brooklyn.

The success of his tenure at Lincoln Center ‹ and of any concert, uptown or
downtown ‹ is ultimately in the hands and dancing feet of the audience, Mr.
Bragin said.

³It¹s about putting artists together in combinations that might not be the
most expected,² he added. ³But it¹s also about the community that¹s being
built in that period of time. You get people dancing together on the plaza.
The next song comes up, and you grab a partner. You build bridges.²

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