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Blue Wisp in Good Hands

Rick Bird
Posted: Nov 16, 2007 - 12:00:00 AM in news_2007


By Rick Bird
It would seem the future of jazz in Cincinnati, as embodied by the legendary Blue Wisp Jazz Club, is in good hands now that a dedicated group of jazz lovers - who happen to be successful businessmen - has purchased the club.
   The four partners took over operations two weeks ago after submitting the top bid in a blind auction. The club had to be sold to cover the medical debts of the estate of Marjean Wisby, the longtime Blue Wisp owner who died in August 2006.
The new owners are Jack Brand, a developer/builder Dale Rabiner, an investor and owner of locally based jazz label J Curve Records Ed Felson, an attorney and bass player with a music degree from the New England Conservatory of Music and Hank Schneider, a prominent Cincinnati businessman and philanthropist.
Rabiner said all four have known each other for more than 35 years since they were teenagers at Walnut Hills High School. And all grew up knowing the legacy of one of the country's longest continuously running jazz clubs started in 1978.
"We want it to thrive again," said Brand. "It is a Cincinnati institution and internationally known venue."
Felson and Rabiner definitely bring the musical background. Rabiner became quite the advocate of the local jazz scene releasing CDs by the late Kenny Poole and Cal Collins. His J Curve Records also released three volumes in the '90s featuring more than two dozen Cincinnati jazz and blues artists.
Rabiner said down the road there certainly are marketing possibilities involving his label and live recordings at the club. But that's getting ahead of things. For now, he said, the club will concentrate on what it's always done: feature vibrant live jazz music.
Felson, as an accomplished musician and attorney, is uniquely suited to take over booking acts for the club.
"Who better to do that than me," he said. "I've played professionally for 35 years, know the musicians and can do the contracts. We want to bring back some of the national acts - bring back the splendor of the past. I mean Woody Herman played there. A lot of very famous musicians have been through the Blue Wisp. We want that feel to come back."
Felson said the club will expand to five nights a week, opening Sundays in December and featuring the PsychoAcoustic Orchestra.
Rabiner would like the Wisp to be seen as a petri dish for young players as well. "We are seeing an increased interest from college kids. We want to be a resource. We envision jam sessions for CCM students and programs with the School for Creative and Performing Arts. We want to be an outreach in the great musical tradition."
The owners also expect to feature jazz derivative genres such as blues, world music and Latin bands. "We will have a wider array of local musicians," Rabiner said.
The new owners all have committed capital to an increased marketing effort, something the often financially strapped Wisby was unable to do. They feel there is an untapped market for jazz fans,
Plans also call for upgrading the non-alcoholic beverage selection of coffees and teas, expanding the wine list and offering "more interesting snacks."
As businessmen and jazz lovers, the new owners realize there is a bit of a tension in the project. They want to preserve a rich heritage, but also turn a profit.
"There certainly is a civic-minded component, although we aren't interesting in subsidizing it," Brand said. "The jazz club business is not where fortunes are made. But we certainly hope to end up on the positive side of the ledger when the day is done. We are hopeful we can build up the business, bring back clientele who haven't been there for years."
The Blue Wisp was founded by Wisby's husband, Paul, in 1977 as an O'Bryonville bar and immediately became a place where one could see Cincinnati's jazz legends such as Jimmy McGary and Collins. Wisby continued to operate the club after her husband's death in 1984, later moving it to Garfield Place and to the current location at 318 E. Eight St. in 2003.
What really put the Blue Wisp on the international music map is the Blue Wisp Big Band, which has played every Wednesday at the club for an incredible 28 years. It remains one of the few working progressive jazz big bands in the world.
In the last year, the club has cut back to just Wednesday-Saturday operation, but it never did close in spite of the uncertainty created by Wisby's death.
Rabiner praised musicians who continued to work the club during the period. "To everyone's credit, they kept it open. It did stay alive. But their hands were tied legally as what they could do."
Performing tonight at the club is the Ron Enyard/Ed Felson Quartet ($8). Friday and Saturday features New York trombonist John Fedchock ($10) with the Phil DeGreg Trio.
The club has launched a new Web site, www.thebluewisp.com. Rabiner is recommending reservations be made for those planning to catch the big band next Wednesday. The night before Thanksgiving is traditionally the busiest of the year (513) 241-9477.
Rick Bird

(first published in The Cincinnati Post Nov. 15, 2007)