NEW YORK - Paul McCartney's recent performance in New York ahead of his new album "Memory Almost Full" was one of those events that many New Yorkers were dying to attend but only a few managed to get into. Seven hundred illustrious souls were invited, and the critics were enthusiastic. It is not every day that you get to see McCartney, who devoted half the evening to the Beatles' old songs, so close up.
The performance took place about six weeks ago in a new club in town, the Highline Ballroom. Its owner, Danny Bensusan, has built a music empire over the past 20 years, including eight clubs (three in New York, four in Japan and one in Milan) and a jazz recording label, Blue Note Live, among other enterprises. He is best known for the Blue Note, the jazz club he established 25 years ago. "At first we suffered losses. But slowly it caught on. A lot of famous people performed here, like Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Charles, Billy Joel, Tony Bennett, Bill Cosby, BB King, Herbie Hancock, Wynton Marsalis. Artists who could easily have appeared at Carnegie Hall."
Bensusan, 58, says he started out in the jazz business with no musical education. He was raised in Jaffa, and in 1969, after his military service, he set off on a trip to Europe and the United States. There, he met his wife Lily and decided to settle down.
He started out in New York with an Eastern-Jewish restaurant on First Avenue in Manhattan, and after a few years opened a disco club, which did not make it. "Disco was a hit in the '70s and by the beginning of the '80s, people were tired of it," he says. "I figured jazz could work. I didn't know anything about jazz. Everything I did came from my business sense. I hired people who understood the business. I listened to what the artists told me. We realized that in a place like New York, you have to give the artists not only a place with good sound, but a proper dressing room. And the audience wants to eat, too," Bensusan explains.
The Blue Note took off, but Bensusan ran into a problem: The jazz giants that played at his club began to pass away, one after another. Then, about 10 years ago, he opened another club, the BB King, near Times Square. "I started to realize that the jazz market was changing," he says. "I had the idea to use BB King's name to bring in the audience, and I thought about a blues club. We brought BB King in as a partner. He owns 3 percent of the club," Bensusan says. Chick Corea, Gal Costa, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Little Richard and the Beach Boys have all played at the BB King. "James Brown played this hall twice before he died," Bensusan says.
Bensusan opened the Highline Ballroom for a younger crowd. "With music more Indie Rock and less main stream," he says.
"The sound system alone cost us two million dollars. In a lot of halls, the sound quality isn't good. At Madison Square Garden, the sound is terrible. Artists want the huge crowds, but it's no fun for them to play when the sound quality isn't good. They want the close connection with the audience. The first act that appeared at the Highline was Lou Reed. The tickets cost $85 each, and were sold out in half an hour," he says.
Bensusan opened the Highline at a time when New York clubs were closing down. The city and the police had cracked down on the clubs because of drug, alcohol and noise problems. "We don't have any drug problems," Bensusan says. "The audience we get isn't problematic. We don't have lounges, where the problems start, and we have skilled security people."
During his expansion, Bensusan realized that the Japanese were interested in jazz. "They came in droves to the Blue Note," he says. "Many of the artists we work with went to Japan. So we decided to open there, too." Three years ago, together with local partners, Bensusan opened his first club in Europe in Milan. The next opening might be in Berlin.
But Bensusan has had his share of business failures. A few years ago, he opened a club at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas, but he says, "we found out that people don't come to Vegas for jazz. They're looking for disco or shows like Cirque Du Soleil."
Bensusan is now passing on his business to his children. Steven is in charge of the music, Tsion handles the day-to-day running of the group, and Jennifer is now working on a book to mark the Blue Note's 25-year anniversary. Anyone who is hoping Bensusan will open a jazz club in Israel shouldn't hold his breath.
"I'm in contact with Israel," Bensusan says. "They're talking to us all the time about opening the Blue Note in Israel. Israel has a good audience for jazz, but the problem is that it's not financially worthwhile to fly an American musician to Israel. And you can't charge the price for a ticket that you can in the U.S."
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