When jazz vocalist Dianne Mower makes her way through a jam-packed house onto the tiny Japanalia stage on Saturday night in Hartford’s West End, odds are it will be an emotional and unifying moment for everyone within earshot.
Performing "Bacharach to Brubeck: One Singer’s Journey to Jazz," Mower and her legendary band plan to electrify an audience of jazz and cabaret lovers as they boldly send off this popular venue into the night with one final and deserving curtain call.
It’s a much-anticipated parting gift of soul, scat, and who-knows-what from Mower’s vast collection of American favorites. When that last bluesy note floats over the sculpture, photographs, and empty glasses of pinot noir, the Music@Japanalia Eiko concert series will have ended its five-year run.
Music aside, the concert is also a farewell nod to impresario and Japanalia owner Dan Blow. His long time work to re-energize jazz in the capital city will be missed, and long after he sets sail on his next course of creativity somewhere in the Bahamas.
Soon to be dismantled is his “pop-up” stage, created with portable platforms that remain from the hey-day of Blow’s splashy Hartford fashion shows. The café has shared space with racks full of Japanalia’s exotic and colorful clothing line, created by Blow and his business partner and former wife, Eiko Sakai. The wardrobes, art work, and who-knows-what-else will be sold or moved out in the days ahead.
“None of us can even stand to think that it’s not going to be there anymore,” Mower recently lamented. “We all look forward to it so much. Every time. That the thought of not having them is just about unbearable.”
Since 2009, 61 artists and over 100 concerts by instrumentalists and singers of both national and local scope -- not to mention scores of legendary sidemen -- have delivered a range of styles and spectacle at either Japanalia, or Blow’s other concert locales. These have included the Sunday Jazz Brunch Series at the Wadsworth Atheneum, Murasaki Café created for the Mark Twain House and Museum, and the Dirt Salon on Bartholomew Avenue.
Reflecting on the success of the series, Blow said, “You just can’t do this kind of a thing unless you have a base that supports it -- a home base out of which to do it -- and then a base of people who trust you. Because I’m moving, and moving on, it has to end. I have no successors.”
For Mower, a chance to perform regularly in Blow’s intimate, living room-style setting has been a very rare treat. “Just being one of the ones who got to have a concert or two every year, is a real special privilege,” she said. “Usually, you are talking over a bar crowd or a dinner crowd. Dan sets it up so that you don’t remember where you are. You are a star in a concert. Precious little of that in Hartford.”
Over the years, the cozy stage has been graced with many amazing guest performers, all hand-picked by Blow because of their ability to build rapport, improvise, or create a feeling of community with the audience. His go-to list has included Jimmy Roberts, Nicki Parrott, Audrey Levine, Ed Reed, Noah Preminger, Sara Gazarek, Antoinette Montague, The Glamour Girls, Marion Cowings, Carlos Hernandez Chavez, Nicole Zuraitis, Handler & Levesque, and the XY Eli Blues Band.
The closing of Japanalia isn’t necessarily another sad tale of declining arts support or challenged performance venues across our state. Blow admitted that he’s never made a cent on his music ventures, and that he’s kept things simple in order to make it affordable. He’s even put up out-of-town musicians in his own nearby apartment.
Admittedly a chorus boy at heart, putting on a show has always been Blow’s simple mission -- a hobby, as he calls it. Leaving permanently for the Bahamas was a decision that’s been growing despite his love affair with Hartford, jazz, and his loyal community of creative friends.
For Blow, who’s been designing and physically making his own clothing line for over 40 years, 33 of them in Hartford, it was time to put the labor-intensive career to bed. His departure to the islands, where he owns a vacation home, will not only end a life-long career in fashion, it’s a shift to a new place of creativity and spirit. He said, “Anybody who’s creative, is creative. The outlet that you choose today could be something completely different tomorrow.”
Artist Anne Cubberly has been Blow’s long-time theatrical collaborator, including four major productions they co-produced at the Atheneum during the 2000s. She said, “The Bahamas offers Dan a brand new community -- one that is really in for a treat.”
Contemplating the idea of Blow on the big island, Cubberly broke into a hearty laugh. “Oh my God! That island is going to explode. Within two years, Dan will probably know every person on the island. I know that he’s creating a jazz festival, and I can just imagine what else he’ll create. I don’t even know if he really knows what he’s going to end up creating; but he’ll start somewhere. Something will happen, and it will be amazing.”
Dating back to his early fashion shows produced at both the Wadsworth Atheneum and Hartford Stage, Blow has long since realized that improvisation is what’s kept him at his creative best, and that means forever moving to the next fashion idea, new performance space, or a risky theatrical concept. Jazz has always represented that sense of creating the unknown.
Cubberly added that Blow has always had his eye on the magic of the creative process, and a belief that its people that drive artistic endeavors. In her view, Blow understands that the community is the real beneficiary of positive creativity. “He’s an amazing community builder,” she said. “Wherever Dan ends up, he will start to create a community around him. I think he’s a huge appreciator of people and their talents, and he wants to bring all that together to make this great stew.”
On many fronts, Dan Blow’s departure means change and the challenges of adjustment -- for Blow himself, as well as Connecticut’s jazz lovers, artists, and live entertainers who will be searching for new opportunities. If we’ve learned anything from him, it’s that life is meant to be one big creative party wherever improvisation and collaboration happen.
On Saturday night at Japanalia’s swan song, Mower and her musical friends will undoubtedly live up to Blow’s philosophy. You can bet they’ll deliver an unpredictable and emotional living room-style, farewell bash.