Celebrated Hartford Cabaret Series Closes After Triumphant Five-Year Run

Jun 25, 2014

"I just thought that it's good to quit when you're ahead. Five years is a pretty good round number."
Dan Blow

After a triumphant five-year run that offered a sparkling array of top live cabaret entertainment in Hartford, the flamboyant, innovative impresario/fashion-designer Dan Blow wraps up his popular Music@Japanalia Series at 7:30 pm on Saturday, June 28, with a grand finale performance by the noted, Hartford-based diva Dianne Mower.

Mower, who opened the popular series at Japanalia Eiko—Blow’s upscale boutique by day and intimate cabaret venue by night at 11 Whitney Street—will sing the celebrated series’ swan song as she traces her own career as a singer/educator in her autobiographical show, “Bacharach to Brubeck…One Singer’s Journey to Jazz.” Information: japanalia.com; reservations: (860) 232-4677.

Dianne Mower.
Credit The Real Ambassadors

Since opening night, Blow’s series has dramatically evolved from obscurity into one of the city’s premier showcases for live music of diverse styles, a success story so Hollywood-like over the past few years that its bio-pic film version could have been called “A Miracle on Whitney Street.”

As one of Blow’s early staunch supporters, Mower even provided the series with its small, antique but fully functional piano, which once belonged to her mother. Eye-catching and kept in tune by Blow, Mower’s ornamental piano has graced the makeshift stage which is rolled out for cabaret performances. An intimate venue with a capacity of only 65 seats or so, Japanalia was often packed, even sold-out with an in-crowd drawn from the city and 'burbs alike.

Blow is not only pulling the plug on his series -- which is, all punning aside, a severe blow to the Hartford music scène -- but is also buttoning up his fashion business, and shuttering his design workshop/studio, as well as the Whitney Street retail clothing shop, which sold his haute couture garments by day, and his chic selection of musical styles by night.

Blow and his partner, Larry Wilhelm, are permanently moving to Eleuthera in the Bahamas, a haven the couple has been enjoying for up to three months every year over the past ten years that they’ve been together. It’s a spot that Blow fell madly in love with at first sight 20 years ago while driving from the Eleuthera airport to his enchanted seacoast cottage. Now Blow’s dream deferred -- his raison d’etre in the sun -- will become a full-time reality. Blow’s Bahamas dream home fronts on a silky-smooth sandy beach. Its panoramic westward view affords picturesque sunsets for him to enjoy every night as he sits and relaxes with a margarita in hand. 

With everything set for the upcoming grand finale, Blow is focusing on taking care of business before taking that final giant step from his elegant Woodland Street condo -- the scene of many great after-concert celebrations -- to his new home in the Bahamas. Not that he is ever going to want just to sit and watch the world go by, even with all those cinematic sunsets to savor on his idyllic isle. Amiable, gregarious, and a wickedly humorous raconteur, Blow has already made many new friends, checked out the local arts, culture and cuisine scene, and even had a hand in importing music acts from the States to the Eleuthera Jazz Festival.

Dan Blow at the piano
Credit David Borawski

While Blow is elated at starting a whole new life -- one that, he said, will definitely no longer include laboring away as a fashion designer -- he’s going to miss many of his favorite things about Hartford. Especially, he said, his many friends and loyal patrons, Japanaliaphiles who have loved not just the sophisticated music he has curated, but also the breezy, Bohemian, BYOB, intimate ambience and partying, New York-style vibe and state-of-mind that gave the series its special cozy cachet and urbane appeal.

Of course, there was the nightly challenge of running his music series, all the hard work, perspiration and inspiration he seemed to thrive on with gusto and joy. Although the series was strictly a Mom and Pop venture -- a high-wire act done completely without the safety net of state funding or rich bankrolling backers -- Blow somehow, against all odds, transformed his somewhat wacky but splendid dream-scheme into a mini-music empire, inspired, at least in part, by his abiding, lifelong passion for Great American Songbook material and Broadway shows.

With helping hands from devoted volunteers and friends, Blow, running pretty much on his own high-octane personality, energy, wit and resourcefulness, created his personal realm of diversified, high-quality music. His kingdom included not only his constant parade of music at Japanalia, but other shows as well that bore his signature imprint at such local cultural bastions as the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art and The Mark Twain House and Museum, as well as festive musical occasions at The Dirt Salon, the gritty art salon flourishing in the city’s Parkville neighborhood.

“I’m really going to miss the music,” Blow said emphatically, but not ruefully, as he reflects on his run whose striking success might even have surprised himself. It was a musical cultural coup that spread his name far outside the circle of the local fashion community. In that world, he had earned much respect for his inventiveness and craftsmanship, as well as for his role as Supreme Ringmaster of the still legendary, high-production, chic and chutzpah-packed seasonal fashion shows in Hartford, expensive extravaganzas of national road show quality.

Blow has also loved and, for that matter, still loves being the Music Man, the Master of Ceremonies for whom life is a cabaret. "I’ve got that music in my head," he said. "What I used to say, whenever I introduced shows at Japanalia, was, 'Thanks for coming to my party, and paying for it.' Music has been my hobby. It did help sell garments, and did bring people through the door at Whitney Street -- some who hadn’t been there in years, others for the first time. As far as the music goes, I think that if you can break even, that’s golden in this business."

"I never made a penny from the music. It's certainly not a money-maker. I've just done it for the pure joy of doing it."
Dan Blow

Besides being a tastemaker, Blow has also been an industrious job creator for both nationally noted and Hartford-based musicians, generously showcasing rising young talents with Connecticut roots.

“I think we brought through more than 100 musicians at Japanalia, many even several times as sidemen, and something like 60 headliners in five years, plus the shows in the two museums and at The Dirt Salon,” he said.

More than just catering to jazz aficionados, Japanalia cast a much wider net by also featuring cabaret, blues, R&B, fusion, funk, pop, Broadway-inspired evenings and a mélange of handpicked performers that don’t fit neatly or primly into any conventional category.

What made the series distinctive and a welcome alternative to the well-worn path for entertainment in Hartford was that, while it did feature jazz performers, its scope was much wider and varied than that. Its musical ecumenism gave it its unique character, not its often fine jazz programming. If it had been strictly a jazz club catering only to the hippest of Hartford’s hip jazz connoisseurs, the series would, more than likely, have perished long ago, a noble but doomed experiment praised by all, patronized by few.

On bowing out now rather than at some later date, Blow said: “I just thought that it’s good to quit when you’re ahead. And five years is a pretty good round number.”

“I’ve been planning to go for a long time,” he adds. “So it’s just finding the right moment. You think about that and you realize that there probably is no really right moment. But if you’re going to do it, you have to do it well. You have to have an exit strategy, and I’ve got a great one. I think that it just feels like it’s time to do something different.”

Storefront of Japanalia
Credit David Borawski

At the moment, his focus is less on reflecting on the glories of the past than on the exigencies of the present with all the business that has to be taken care of before leaving.

Besides putting his condo on the market, Blow and his partner, Larry Wilhelm, have been selling off their mammoth collection of artworks, pottery, conversation pieces, furniture and a menagerie of tasteful, even amusing goods and fascinating knickknacks—everything from tchotchkes to treasures—in their apartment at tag sales and on Craigslist.

“It’s kind of liberating, rather than heartbreaking,” Blow said of shedding all these personal goods collected and prized over the years. “But remember, I have another home. I have another life somewhere else as well.”

While putting fashion design completely aside, he’ll still be doing music, he said, in one way or another.

“I have friends there who own restaurants or bars, and we’ve talked about getting a few groups to play over there periodically,” he said. “I have a couple musician friends in Nassau, and they really want to get a performance gig going, something like a cruise ship deal.”

“Even without doing fashion anymore,” he said, “I’ll still be doing some form of design or another. So if I’m not making clothes, I can just as easily be making food, or gardening, or setting up music performances. For me, it’s all creative.

“We have a fully furnished house, another life, another set of friends. And a lot of friends from Hartford can come visit us there. It’s not like we’re having this huge life crisis and running away, or anything like that,” he said.

“I don’t want to just sit my ass on a chair and stare at the sunset. I mean I can do that anywhere. There’s life down there. It’s not a desert island. But even if it were, I’d still find things to do.”

Robust Life-Signs Abound

While the death of Blow’s musically mixed series is a cause for mourning, robust life-signs for jazz itself abound.

Mike Casey, a young saxophonist, for example, performs at 7:00 pm on Saturday, June 28, at the area’s newest jazz club, 226 Jazz at 226 Broad Street in Windsor. Tickets: $15.00. Available at 226jazz.org. Information: (860) 219-1947.

Old Lyme’s thriving Side Door Jazz Club swings hard Friday, June 27, with pianist David Kikoski leading his trio. It swings even harder on Saturday, June 28, as it presents the superb saxophonist Jimmy Greene leading his quartet.

Graced with a soul-wrenching sound, Greene plays with an expansive, expressive artistry that ranges far, wide and emotionally deep, even poetically profound, generating enough clean, efficient energy for the greening of America from coast-to-coast. Both shows hit at 8:30 pm. Admission: $25.00 each show. Information: (860) 434-0886.

In another vital sign, the UMOJA Music Series, which lifted off last week, flies high with Ralph Peterson and The Unity Project and the Jovan Alexandre Group at 6:00 pm on Friday, June 27, in a free concert at the Pump House Gallery at Bushnell Park in Hartford. Rain location: Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts in Hartford.

Digging an Avant-Garde Garden

The iconoclastic, free jazz drummer/composer William Hooker presents his three-part, multi-media musical work, "Approaching the Garden," at 7:30 pm on Wednesday, June 25, in the Aetna Theater at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford.

A native of New Britain, the 68-year-old genre-bending/busting artist is as bold with flowing words and expressionistic high-tech images as he is with streaming rhythms. With a little bit of help from his friends, the visionary creator cultivates his avant-garde garden turf by fusing an array of artful tools, including the spoken word, electronics, alto saxophone, piano and 3D animation. His fellow avant-gardeners are guitarist Ed Kasparek and saxophonist Richard McGhee III.

After the performance, audience members can participate in a Q&A session with the performers. Tickets: $25.00/$20.00. available at (860) 838-4100 and at the door.

Please submit press releases on upcoming jazz events at least two weeks before the publication date to omac28@gmail.com. Comments left below are also most welcome.