A FEW MINUTES WITH… Sal Prizio of the Massry Center for the Arts
Interview and story by J Hunter
Photograph by Andrzej Pilarczyk
I walked into Sal Prizio’s initial Capital Region venture – the Bread & Jam Café in Cohoes – in 2009, when Michael Benedict was throwing a drop party for his second Jazz Vibes disc, The Next Phase. He was being backed by what would become (for too short a time) the Joe Barna-Lee Russo Group, with Dave Gleason covering keyboards and Julia Donnarumma contributing vocals on two songs; a young sax player named Jeff Nania joined the band for the closing number. That was the first time I met Benedict, who I would come to know and respect as a player and educator, and the first time Gleason’s salsa-spicy piano attack would make me smile like a fool.
The afternoon was great, and so was the music, but the thing that stuck with me for days afterward was Bread & Jam itself, with its high ceilings, mismatched furniture, and decidedly good beverage options. I thought to myself, “If I lived in Cohoes, you’d find me here every afternoon!” Bread & Jam became a terrific alternate venue for jazz in very short order, hosting concerts by Ralph Lalama and Jerry Weldon and acting as a recording studio for Barna’s later venture, Sketches of Influence. I was supremely bummed when the personable Prizio closed the place in 2010; but unlike a lot of restaurateurs who got eaten by the economy, Prizio landed squarely on his feet, becoming Programming Manager for the College of St. Rose’s then-almost-brand-new Massry Center for the Arts.
While the Massry’s Katherine Picotte Recital Hall had hosted appearances by the Dave Brubeck Quartet and Stefon Harris & Blackout, the space wasn’t known as a regular stop on the Greater Nippertown concert circuit. After Prizio took hold of the reins, this was decidedly changed: In the last four years, Massry has gifted the Capital Region with monumental performances by Ramsey Lewis, Medeski Martin & Wood, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, the New Gary Burton Quartet, Chris Thile, Ravi Coltrane, John Scofield, Chick Corea and John Medeski – the latter two shows being respective re-inventions of what solo-piano concerts should look & sound like. That admittedly incomplete roll call of shows details what is known as a “seismic shift” in where we find great music in this area.
Now Prizio and the Massry Center are part of another bone-shaking musical event: this weekend’s inaugural Bridge Jazz Festival. Two shows at two venues – Massry and the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall – on back-to-back nights, featuring major national acts we usually only see at SPAC in the middle of summer, the Bridge gives a happy two-fingered salute to the idea that all jazz does in the winter is hibernate. While it may not be the NYC Winter JazzFest (which, directly or indirectly, involves dozens of venues all over the Big Apple), the Bridge is a heck of a good start!
One of the coolest people I’ve had the pleasure to know, Prizio was cool enough to take time out from his exhaustive Dayplanner to discuss the Bridge, Massry Center, Bread & Jam, and the Capital Region concert scene:
Q: I was doing some research over the weekend, and I found that, as of this September, it will be five years since you closed Bread & Jam and moved over to Massry Center. Does it seem that long ago to you?
A: Man! Not even close to five years! Feels like yesterday I closed the doors of Bread and Jam, my second son Julian was born, and I started at Saint Rose all within a 72-hour period – and that was only because that Monday was Labor Day! I have had a blast here the past five years, and you know what they say about time when you are having fun!
Q: What’s your best memory of the Bread & Jam years?
A: I did enjoy the creative process and the blank canvas we had there. I get some of that here at Saint Rose with designing the season, but it isn’t a start-up, so by its own nature not the same. When you own your own business, there is a bit of a ‘Lewis & Clark’ thing going on, exploring the unknown without any sort of safety net. It’s scary and exciting at the same time. I also really enjoyed my regulars and the sense of camaraderie with my employees there. They were a great bunch of folks, and I try to keep in touch with as many of them as possible. I was just recalling that experience with my sister, and I compare working in a coffee house to playing in a band. The pay stinks, you work way too hard during weird hours, but the people you work with, and the memories you make are priceless.
Q: How did Massry Center come into your life?
A: The Massry Center had two initial seasons before my arrival, with a consultant booking the concerts, when they decided that they wanted to make the position full time. That summer it was becoming more and more apparent that Bread and Jam would not work out financially, so I started to peek around and see what was out there. When I saw this position I knew, more strongly than just about anything I had experienced in my life, that this was the job I was built to do. It was literally the only job I applied for. I went through seven interviews to get this position, and with each one I prepped and gave them ideas of what I would do when I got there. My wife was nine months pregnant at the time, and her job as a leave replacement had just ended, so we were potentially without any income – and mind you, this is 2010, when our economy was kaput, so I was living the experience of the great recession. I pushed and pushed and got the call at the end of August that they were going to hire me. It was one of the greatest moments in my life. I was filled with relief, excitement, and pure joy. Not only was my family going to be taken care of, but also I was going to be afforded the opportunity to work in the performing arts and make a living doing so. Any one of us who work in the arts know we are constantly torn between doing what we love and just can’t deny ourselves of, and that moment at the end of each month when the bills are due and think, “Maybe we need to do something more practical.” I worked hard to get the opportunity to do both, and each day I get to stay in this business has been a gift that I will never take for granted.
Q: Massry Center has really become a major concert venue in your time there. I won’t ask you what your favorite show has been, but what are some of the best concerts you’ve seen?
A: First, thank you for the kind words. I have worked really hard to get the Premiere Performances in the room with the major players in our market, and I think we have carved our niche here, but there’s always room to grow. Okay, so favorite concerts…
Chris Thile: Two hours of Bach on solo mandolin – a mind-blowing experience. B.B. King: To introduce a real blues legend and meet the man. What else can I say? Chick Corea: The last time he was here when he asked for volunteers to come up on stage and “painted” portraits of people with the piano… I mean, it was a genius moment. MMW acoustic was a great performance and worked fantastically in the venue. And one of my favorite performances, none of you saw. When we had the Ravi Coltrane Quartet here, they participated in our arts outreach concerts we hold 2-3 times a year. We had 400 kids from Title I schools in the audience, but Ravi asked some of the kids who are musicians to come up on stage and play with the band. Man, if you could have seen the room light up as these 10-12 year old kids got on bass, drums, and played in front of their whole school with Ravi and the band. A priceless moment, for sure.
Q: How did the Bridge Festival come about? Who called who first?
A: Ha! The classic chicken and egg questions! (Laughs) I was down at a conference in New York City last year that ran concurrent to the NYC Winter Jazz Festival, and I started to think: “We do so much great jazz in this market but no winter jazz festivals; why not give this idea a try?” So when I got back, I reached out to Jon Elbaum at the TSBMH, and he was really excited about the idea. I think for us as presenters, anytime you can collaborate instead of compete and combine resources, it’s a win-win for everyone! But I have to give credit where it’s due: Karen Good at the Music Hall came up with the name “the Bridge Jazz Festival.” I had a name, but it was so bad, I can’t even remember it now! This is our first year on this project, and if it goes well, we’ll do it again next year, possibly expanding it to three nights and a third venue. We really do have a fantastic jazz market here, so presenting world-class jazz in the winter setting seems like a good thing for everyone! I mean, at some point we have to get out in this snow!
Q: It seems to me that both bills are perfect for their respective venues: Anat Cohen and Marcus Roberts work for the old-school concert hall that is Troy Savings Bank, while your bill seems tailor-made for an intimate recital hall like the Picotte. Is that by design, or is that just how it shook out?
A: Yes and no. We did work separately but kept each other in the loop. I think Jon and I know all the nuances that make a show work or not work in our venues, and after time you tailor your performances to your venue.
Q: You’ve got two of the most acclaimed vocalists in jazz on your bill: Gretchen Parlato and Cecile McLorin Savant. Please talk a little bit about both of them.
A: Oh man, where to begin! I have been a fan of Gretchen’s for a while, and wanted a showcase for getting her up here. The Bridge seemed like a great way to show off that amazing voice of hers and introduce her to a whole new audience at the same time. She is performing as a duo with Alan Hampton, and if you haven’t heard them, you should check it out on YouTube. They are intimate, personal and perfect for the Massry Center and this jazz audience. Cecile, I was introduced to hear last year at a conference in NYC. I went to her showcase at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola, and you simply can’t deny a voice that good! I know she is relatively unknown in this market, but part of these festival’s mission is to introduce new voices to patrons – and I am telling you, once people hear her live, they will be fans for sure!
Q: Fred Hersch is amazing to me, because he’s experienced more health issues than most small towns go through, and yet he remains one of the best pianists in jazz today. What are your feelings on Fred Hersch?
A: You have to respect a man that feels so strongly about life and his passion for his art, that it keeps him going no matter what the circumstances are. He is the epitome of overcoming adversity and driving forward in the face of the odds. I think all of us involved in this field feel that art saves us in some small way each and every day. I think for someone like Fred Hersch, his art saves him in a big way, and you have to respect that.
Q: I don’t think I’m alone when I say I rejoiced when I heard about the Bridge Jazz Festival, because it showed that two Capital Region concert venues could work together! Am I wrong in thinking that’s the biggest takeaway from this?
A: You would be surprised! Peter Lesser at The Egg, Jon at the Music Hall, Philip Morris at Proctors and I talk to each other more often than you might think. None of us is ever short on advice to each other, or the courtesy of a heads up about an artist that might not work in my venue but would be perfect for theirs. It’s never perfect, but we always try. When the MoHU initiative took shape and most recently the Creative Economy Initiative was held, there were dozens and dozens of venues and outlets willing to work together to make a “critical mass” for the arts that the Capital Region could identify and be proud of.
I think – and this my best guess – that the biggest takeaway from this is that Jon and I identified that outside of NYC, the Capital Region has one of the strongest communities for jazz in the Northeast. I believe the Bridge Jazz Festival will simply highlight something that is already there: A great community for jazz.
FRIDAY (FEBRUARY 27), 7:30pm
at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, Troy
Featuring the Marcus Roberts Trio, the Anat Cohen Quartet and Elizabeth Woodbury Kasius & Heard
Tickets: $28, $36 & $42; $15 Test Drive tickets are also available to people who have not previously purchased tickets to the Hall.
SATURDAY (FEBRUARY 28), 6pm
at the College of Saint Rose’s Massry Center for the Arts, Albany
Featuring the Fred Hersch Trio, Cécile McLorin Savant and Gretchen Parlato/Alan Hampton Duo
Tickets: $40; $30 students
All-festival tickets are also available for both nights priced at $60; $40 students.
BUT WAIT… We’re giving away a pair of tickets for both nights of the Bridge Jazz Festival. Just GO HERE to enter to win…
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