By Don Heckman
Don Lucoff’s DL Media company has been one of the jazz world’s primary public relations and marketing consultants since 1988. In addition to a more than two decade association with Blue Note, Lucoff has worked with virtually every major and independent record label as well as a stellar list of individual jazz artists.
Born in Los Angeles, Lucoff was a drummer as a pre-teen, drawn to the likes of Ringo Starr and John Densmore before a friend turned him on to jazz. Going to college in San Diego, he developed an interest in radio and the business side of music. After working with producer Darlene Chan at the Playboy Jazz Festival and hosting his own show on radio station KCRW, he moved to New York, working for Peter Levinson’s public relations firm and MCA Jazz before starting his own company, DL Media. His first major client was Blue Note .
Two years ago, Lucoff was appointed Managing Director of PDX Jazz, which produces the Portland (Oregon) Jazz Festival. With this year’s Festival on the horizon – running from Feb. 17 – 26 – we had a conversation recently in which he discussed the challenges and the achievements of maintaining and building a jazz festival in a mid-size American city. For information about the Portland Jazz Festival click HERE. For the schedule of the Portland Jazz Festival click HERE.
DH: Don, you’ve had one of the jazz world’s most successful media companies for years now. What motivated you to take on such a significant job, while still maintaining DL Media?
DL: Well, because the game has been changing. The major labels are not as active as they once were. So, with the changing infrastructure in the music industry, I began to look at other opportunities to compliment my media company. Which was festivals, which was where I started in the business with Darlene Chan and Playboy. They had always interested me in terms of audience development and working closely with artists. And now in a way it’s come full circle.
DH: How did the Portland Festival connection come about?
DL: I began the relationship with the Portland Festival four years ago doing public relations. And then two years ago, a management opportunity arose for me to expand beyond doing p.r. I offered to get involved in a more expansive role, which I did, by coming back in the off season and working and learning from Bill Royston, the Artistic Director. Last year, Bill had some health issues and retired in June. At that time I was asked if I would expand my scope and continue Bill’s work and book the festival. Which I did this year.
DH: That sounds like a full time job. And you’re running your company at the same time?
DL: Well, I don’t do everything here in Portland. We do have an operations director, a box office and memberships manager and a board with very active committee members. And we have a development consultant. It’s the kind of infrastructure that you would find at other arts organizations. It’s just relatively small and concentrated, and many of us wear several hats. My media company in Philly helps out in terms of doing some of the marketing and p.r.
DH: As you’ve come on board, have you had any sort of template or model for how to approach handling, and building, PDX, the Portland Jazz Festival?
DL: I’ve looked back through my experience working with other festivals, of course. And there’ve been a lot. Detroit, Barcelona, Jazz Aspen, Panama, Quebec City. A lot more. How they’ve done things, asking advice and opinions from people I know at those festivals.
DH: Has that brought you to any conclusions about how to approach the Portland Festival?
DL: Well, one of the things that interested me the most about the Festival, and Portland in general, was how, for many years, touring artists wouldn’t have the opportunity to play in Portland because there wasn’t much in jazz that was active here on a consistent basis. So one of our early goals was to encourage jazz events throughout the year. Make Portland a 52 weeks a year jazz city, rather than 2 weeks a year. And we’re well on the way to doing that.
DH: This will be the ninth annual Portland Jazz Festival. Which would seem to indicate that it’s a success. What would you say has made it so? There are a lot of cities the size of Portland that would probably love to have a successful jazz festival. Or even a music festival, without having been able to do what PDX has done. What’s the magic ingredient?
DL: I don’t know about magic ingredients. But I do know it takes a community to support a festival. And there are businesses and members of the Portland community who have a passionate interest in jazz. And who feel a responsibility to the music. And that’s been a major factor.
DH: Has it made a difference that Portland also has a significant community of jazz players?
DL: It sure does. There are many fine local musicians here, and the scene is very healthy. And what I’m attempting to do is to bring that Portland dynamic into the Festival so there is dialogue between the Portland artists and the national headliners.
DH: How has that impacted this year’s schedule?
DL: Well, take for example the fact that we’re doing a program with Charlie Hunter where he’s going to play solo guitar. And then, after Charlie, we’re going to have three local bands follow him. That sort of programming happens throughout the Festival.
DH: So the idea of a kind of Portland content aspect – including the local Portland scene in the Festival — is important to how you’ve planned this year’s programming.
DL: Right. But in a little broader sense than just content. For example, the Festival this year doesn’t have an official theme. But the Bill Frisell program is titled “For Portland Only,” because it was developed specifically for this Festival. It’s not something that Bill is doing anywhere else. We also will honor Thara Memory – a great trumpeter and teacher — as our 2nd annual Portland Jazz Master.
DH: You’re broadening the view of Portland, not often thought of as a jazz center.
DL: Sure. And as part of the Thara Memory program we’ll also be doing a tribute to Miles Davis called “Artfully Miles” It’s going to use professional local artists doing the “Porgy and Bess” and “Sketches of Spain” material. We’re also doing a program called “Mardi Gras.” We’ll have all local Portland players, one of whom is from New Orleans, another of whom spent a lot of time in New Orleans. You know some musicians relocated here from New Orleans after hurricane Katrina, and at least one of those musicians has stayed.
DH: Would you ever consider establishing an ensemble in association with the Festival, in the way Randall Kline has done with the SFJAZZ Collective?
DL: It certainly is something that I would consider as a long term project down the line, Assuming we could gather adequate funding. But I’d do it in a different regard. What SFJAZZ has done with their collective has been important, and it’s certainly helped them put their brand on the map internationally.
DH: Not unlike what Wynton Marsalis has done with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.
DL: Exactly. But in our case, Portland has so many great local artists that have been developed here. And so many fine artists who live here. So to me, the approach would be to create an ensemble of Portlanders. Brand it, in other words, with Portland musicians. Along with occasional national guest artists.
DH: Again, the Portland content approach.
DH: Let’s look beyond the Portland aspect for a moment, at the question of programming. Have you felt any pressure, from any direction, to contemporize your program, in the sense of including, say, smooth jazz or pop oriented acts?
DL: No, there’s been no pressure of that sort. It’s a very sophisticated audience at the Festival. And it’s primarily a traditional audience. There is not a smooth jazz radio station in Portland, because smooth jazz radio stations have not lasted very long here. That’s not to say that smooth jazz artists don’t play here from time to time. Kirk Whalum will be here to do a show in February. But it’s not in the interest of our organization to go in that direction. Our programming is eclectic, and there are some commercial elements. But commercial elements in a sophisticated way. For example, Branford Marsalis is certainly a name with commercial impact, but what he’s going to play with Joey Calderazzo will be very high level music. Dee Dee Bridgewater is a very well-known artist, as are all our headliners. But the music they do isn’t commercial. It’s prime jazz.
DH: Well, following that thought, since you have a sophisticated audience, would you consider including world music acts – Angelique Kidjo as an example – in your programming, even though they do not come from the jazz mainstream?
DL: I wouldn’t be opposed to it, given the right settings. We’re doing an Afrobeat program this year with a local Portland band, but a band that plays in the Nigerian ju-ju style. And, in addition, keep in mind that – from a different perspective — we’ve had a kind of world jazz theme flowing through the Festival for years. Enrico Rava’s here this year. And we have Vijay Iyer with his east Indian project. Last year we had the Three Cohens. We’re very international in scope, emphasizing the truly international character of today’s jazz. That’s the kind of music we’ve been programming and we’ll continue to program.
DH: Sounds to me as though you’re pretty much in sync with your Portland audiences – knowledgeable listeners who really want to hear the music. No wonder you’ve been so willing to make such a major career move.
DL: For me personally it’s a homecoming of sorts, being a native of the West coast, a fan of the Pac 10 (now 12). Portland is quite seamless, it’s a city that works. And it has long been a missing link for routing artists between Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. That’s what we have been working on methodically over the past couple of years and it’s gratifying to see artists now playing here in Portland who have not done so before or not often enough. I see our Festival as the perfect compliment to the energy of Philly and the NY corridor, meaning that I now am working in the best of two possible worlds. With a deep connection to both, as I now have lived exactly half my life on the East and West coasts.
To read more Q & As click HERE.