Flashback: Hot Jazz vs Cold Blizzard – Melvin Sparks at the Parting Glass 12/12/08

December 12th marks an interesting anniversary in the Nippertown live music annals.

Twelve years ago in 2008, a small concert took place in the comfortable confines of the back music room in Saratoga’s famed Parting Glass Pub. But this story includes some twists and turns highlighting the unpredictable and rocky nature of this kooky “only for the brave” business that many Nippertown readers find themselves in.

Photo by Andrzej Pilarczyk

The show itself was produced and promoted by Yours Truly (the author herein + my then assistant) under our former trade name of “TechValley Times Presents…” This was our working moniker before a parent company’s sale forced us into our current branding change. Here’s the inside scoop; for laughs (or tears?):

Personal friend and local politico Joanne Yepsen (later to become Mayor of the city) asked for our help in organizing a benefit fundraiser for one of her pet causes: the Frederick Allen Lodge / Black Elks Club in support of that fraternal organization’s desperate need for save their crumbling clubhouse on the West Side of town. Given that most of our one-off musical bookings often tend to be in aid of nonprofits, we agreed.

Photo by Andrzej Pilarczyk

Our choice of a headliner was one Melvin Sparks, a Lion in jazz circles. The classic Musician’s Musician. A main man to the insider crowd. As our advance publicity in front of the event read:

“With the soul-jazz revival currently in full swing, Melvin Sparks is finally getting long-overdue recognition as one of the early pioneers in the original incarnation of that musical movement.

While prominent vocalists such as Sharon Jones, Betty LaVette, Duffy and Amy Winehouse are leading the genre’s sudden mainstream charge — and marching to the bank — the Mount Vernon- based guitarist has at least settled into a role as the proverbial musician’s musician who played a major part in keeping the genre’s flame burning for 40 plus years. With that has come Sparks’ recent individual revival as well…

Mr Spark’s trademark guitar sound (quick, fluid runs on the high end strings, free of feedback or distortion) lead to his being credited as the inventor of various musical sub-genres ranging from acid-jazz to jazz-funk to barbecue-jazz. He appears on many dozens of recordings, often alongside the giants of the game. A sideman for the ages…”

At the time, he was interestingly smack dab in the process of being adopted by Jam Band Nation as a popular music fest act, introducing a new generation of ears to a long-ago style that many of the current crop of heroes (Max Creek, Derek Trucks, Greyboy All Stars, etc) were paying homage to as a major influence to their own development and playing styles.

Further, he had recently gained local popularity as a result of the Price Chopper supermarket chain featuring him as the friendly ‘Face Of / Sound Of’ in their House of BBQ television ad campaign. One never knows where a lucky break (or paycheck) might come from.

Photo by Andrzej Pilarczyk

With the paperwork signed and the Melvin Sparks Trio now set to perform, a fun evening was wrapped around them with a hefty meal package, the usual event rah-rah and the typical money-raising tricks of the trade. The advance ticket sales were healthy. All systems were a GO.

But ……. live music promotion is a fickle game; given its being subject to so many circumstance that are beyond the organizers’ control. ‘Weather’ is at the top of that list.

Weather? As in a major-major blizzard. We’re talking a once-a-decade (or longer) type of blizzard here that hit town. It kicked in on the night prior to our scheduled funhouse pow wow and kept rolling — heavily — into the next day with about 14″ of snow. Did I say ‘major’? Good. Now, if that alone wasn’t bad enough….

Power was knocked out to approximately 85% of the city overnight, with “two to three days” being the utility company’s estimate for full restoration. So yeah; that put us in a pretty tough spot; right?

Photo by Andrzej Pilarczyk

Yes it did. BUT: somehow the Parting Glass was part of the 15% that never lost power! All of downtown was pitch black and silent, but the Glass’s window lights stood out like holiday candles in the snow and darkness. Not that it resulted in many customers walking in their doors, mind you; for who woulda thunk?

So what is a show organizer to do in this very situation? The most logical and common tactic is to cancel the whole thing and live to fight another day — even if there may be a $ loss involved in that decision (which there usually is). That was our first inclination.

But Lodge officials told us that some NYC supporters were already on their way up the Hudson. Somehow Amtrak was still operating and their preference was to continue, even if the fundraising mission was to now be abandoned. We hesitantly agreed, forecasting an intimate crowd of maybe fifteen folks getting a (very) close up and personal look at what they were being told was a somewhat-famous yet under-the-radar figure in the history of that distinctly Made in America style of music called Jazz.

Photo by Andrzej Pilarczyk

A mid-day chat with our friend Mr Sparks filled him in on what we were thinking up here in the Spa City, and he confirmed our giddy-up plan with a promise of “we’ll do our best to get there.” Given that he was located downstate and his two band mates in different spots of New England, this didn’t leave a lot of room for optimism, however.

But the pro’s they were, all three of them beat me to the venue. Everyone else from our team got there as well: my sidekick Andrea, my trusty sound man Tom Kail, Joanne, the venue staff, Lodge officials. Winter warriors @ one and all. All with smiles on their faces reflecting that Northeast four weather spirit.

Photo by Andrzej Pilarczyk

Soon after, those “Friends of the Lodge” contingents from Albany and NYC walked thru the doors. Many of them were senior citizen members of allied lodges — and in they marched with proper regalia designating just such status. They looked none the worse for the wear. Most proceeded directly to either the buffet line or the bar.

The recap: a fun and glorious evening was had by one and all. The music and the food were great; the camaraderie and brother/sisterhood was even better. The attendance was 70+; not bad for a jazz act under even normal times in this day and age but for it to be the case under these challenging conditions was quite remarkable. Given those numbers plus our usual “round up some sponsors to help pay for this shindig” business model; there was even a good sized check being cashed into the Frederick Allen bank account the next Monday.

It’s sure not an easy game. Did someone think otherwise?

Photo by Andrzej Pilarczyk
Photo by Andrzej Pilarczyk
Photo by Andrzej Pilarczyk

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