‘Front And Center’ At NYC’s Iridium

Iridium Jazz Club’s Ron Sturm and “Front And Center” executive producer Don Maggi talk with Pollstar about why the club is a most excellent venue for the PBS music series.

Even without national television exposure the Iridium Jazz Club in New York City’s Times Square is a well-known room among music lovers.  The home of Les Paul’s legendary Monday night shows for more than 12 years, the Iridium has a rep for being able to provide a special, intimate ambience that brings artists and fans together.

As the location for several episodes of PBS’s Front And Center, the Iridium has hosted Buddy Guy, Jake Bugg, Train, Rock Candy Funk Party feat. Joe Bonamassa, Zakk Wylde & The Les Paul Trio, JJ Grey & Mofo, and the Stephen Stills, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Barry Goldberg group, The Rides.

Iridium president Sturm and producer Maggi recently spoke with Pollstar about the Front And Center Live At The Iridium evenings.  During the conversation, the two men described the logistics of camera placement in an already small space, the advantages of shooting the program at the club and what attracts such big names to play such a small venue.  They also mentioned a few artists they’d love see play the Iridium stage.

Photo: FrontAndCenter.com

Does the Iridium represent one of those rare intersections where artistic vision and financial success meet?

Sturm: Yes. The Iridium, of course, has a storied history [with] the legendary status [as] the home of Les Paul, who played here for many years.  Based on the intimacy of the room we’re able to take creative and artistic leaps that larger venues can’t do.  We’re considered extremely artist-friendly, [thanks to] putting on iconic performances and becoming sort of a prestige-play in the market place.  Artists come in here and own this intimate room and do what they need to do. We give them free rein.  Since we don’t have that many seats to fill we can do things that other people can’t do and be more focused on artistic quality rather than total commercial.  I think our audience respects that and identifies with that.  We first have an artistic vision before we have to worry about the commercial success of it. Yes, we are financially successful with that model.

Is there a waiting list of artists wanting to perform at the Iridium?

Sturm: There is a long list of artists but we like to keep it a little nimble, too.  We keep pockets of dates open throughout the year.  I think that’s a competitive advantage over other clubs since we’re an intimate venue. We sell out quick so we’re able to not worry too much about lead time.  Some acts are out there until next year and beyond but there are a lot of pockets in our [schedule].  We keep our fingers on the pulse of the marketplace, where artists are and when they’re coming to New York. … So we make things happen on a dime when we need to, when we need to take advantage of an opportunity that’s presenting itself.

I’m guessing you have a very interesting phone list.

Sturm: Yeah [laughs].  When Les Paul played here we had everyone from Paul McCartney to Keith Richards To Jimmy Page.  Pretty much everybody who’s anybody has played the Iridium in one shape or form.

What is the maximum capacity?

Sturm: About 170.

How do you squeeze the Front And Center Production into the club?

Maggi: What Ron was just saying, the room is so intimate.  It’s in Time Square, which is very rare for a club, especially in New York City, to be … right in the middle of everything, because of the expense.

Saying that, how do we fit [Front And Center] in there?  It has some great angles. We fit six cameras in there, believe it or not.  Two stationary and four that are manned.  The whole idea of Front And Center is to be as intimate as you can. … [The Iridium] has a unique style to it because it’s a supper club, so it’s kind of in the mold where people remember the Bottom Line from way back when.  People are eating, drinking and enjoying [themselves] in it. … It has this really cool vibe.  We’ve been improving by adding more lights, adding more angles and just understanding how to film in the club itself.  It’s actually worked out well.  We might lose a couple of seats but we get it done.

Sturm: As far as the seat loss, when we’re filming a show for Front And Center Live at the Iridium, we do limit the seating to [about] 150 on those kind of nights because we want to get the best angles possible.  We trade any short-term gain for the fact that this film is going to live out there forever.  So we want to make a great film.  That’s what it is about.

When planning Front And Center filming evenings are you looking at the club’s lineup and picking an artist for the program or are artists booked specifically for the TV show?

Maggi: In the beginning we were bringing the shows in.  When we had Train or Buddy Guy, those shows were done, promotionally, with the record company giving tickets away and creating an event around it.  There are shows like The Rides, who started their tour here, [they] did a couple nights, a rehearsal night, and then we filmed a show that was going to be in the room.

So it’s a little of both but as we move ahead it really comes down to what an event can or can’t do in the market, or if it’s a marketing promotional play or if it’s a date play.  The biggest difference, and I think it’s really good for the artist, is if they do want to put tickets on sale and help cover costs, it’s there.  Normally for Front And Center we just do private events and don’t sell tickets.

Sturm: It’s prestigious. It’s not really done that much anymore.  I hear … all the time from high-level artists [that they don’t have the opportunity] to actually have a full-scale engagement at a club like this three, four or five days to stretch out.  I think, more and more, they’re going to be doing longer engagements. We’re very flexible.

Following up on your question about what leads what – Ginger Baker is playing five this week. … and [we’re] saying, “We want to film this for the series,” creating a tremendous buzz around it.  When are you going to see Ginger Baker in a small venue like this for five nights? 

I think there’s an opportunity to charge a premium ticket for acts that [usually play] larger venues, and charging a high ticket for it and giving [audiences] real intimate performances. You’re not really talking about a ticket any higher than Madison Square Garden or the Beacon Theatre but you get to sit 10 feet from these people.  It’s a completely different experience.  What we’re trying to capture for Front And Center Live at the Iridium is the intimacy of the performance.  This is a real venue.  This isn’t a soundstage somewhere. This is an actual historic venue. This is very special.  I don’t think there’s a place like this in the world that can pull off the kinds of acts that we have in this size space.  The diversity in this place is pretty breathtaking, everything from jazz to blues to rock to speed metal. I don’t think there’s any club that has the diversity of this place.

How did the arrangement between Front And Center and the Iridium come about?

Maggi: A mutual friend introduced me to Ron and [his brother ] Ken.  [After] a couple of conversations we knew we could make something happen.  We took an experiment and turned it into something great.  It was Les Paul’s 98th birthday and we decided to book a week of shows which we were going to film and see how it went.

It started out [with] Joe Bonamassa with Rock Candy Funk Party coming in and they committed to playing for two or three nights.  Then that rolled into Zakk Wylde playing with the Les Paul Trio and on his own. Then we had this killer band, JJ Grey & Mofro come in.  Lee Ritenour came in. … We filmed, I think, 10 days in a row.  So we jumped in the deep end and after we dusted ourselves out, we’re like, “You know what?  We got something here.”  It just kind of grew from there.  We had Train and we kept on going.

Sturm: We filmed Jeff Beck here a few years ago.  [He’s] universally acknowledged as one of the greatest guitarists of all time.  He came [in 2009] on Les’ 94 birthday.  He came [back] in 2010 and called it his “Rock ’n’ Roll Party” and it was a tribute to Les Paul.  And it was Grammy nominated for best rock album.

Photo: Larry Busacca / Getty Images for Gibson
Iridium Jazz Club, New York City

So a lot of people want to play the Iridium because it’s becoming so historic. … Jeff Beck stamping it … also made it that much more.  I think that’s how it all started with Front And Center and how we got together because that was a beautifully shot show and we just went from there.

How did Les Paul end up playing the Iridium on Monday nights?

Sturm: Actually, Les Paul was playing at a venue downtown.  He had arthritis or something, he got sick, and they closed soon after because they were running on fumes.   They were running on Les Paul, basically.

I called up a critic who was working for the New York Post (to get Les’ number).  This was pre-Google … 1996. … Les picked up his own phone. … A very cool guy.  Les is a genius, obviously.  He came in and would stand in the back of the club and check it out and not really do much.  He would come week after week for a while and take note of everything.  And he decided he wanted to play there.

It was going to be an open-ended run from the beginning because he was used to doing that on Monday nights.  It went from there and was a very special relationship.  Les was a very important person in my life.  We really try to honor him.  I think that’s why we’re successful.  I think to be successful you should have a crusade bigger than just making money.  I think you should have some kind of a clear idea. Honoring Les Paul and making him proud of us … having his special kind of genius in the club for so long, that anything less than great stuff here is kind of like slapping Les in the face and I’m not going to do that.  … We’re carrying Les’ legacy forward. That’s part of what we do.

Every Monday night we do the Les Paul Trio and we have special guest guitarists sit in where Les sat.  It’s a thrill for these guys. … The Jimmy Pages of the world, all these guys, they look up to Les Paul as a guitar god.  We call him the “original guitar god.”

On Monday nights we’ve had Joe Walsh sit in, Jeff Beck sit in. We’ve had Ted Nugent, which was wild.  We had Todd Rundgren, Steve Miller, Bonamassa, Eric Johnson, all these guys. We even had Bert Jansch from Scotland before he died and who was obviously an inspiration for Jimmy Page.  We had all these guys. It’s like a guitar-crazed Monday night and it flows throughout the week. We book special guests every Monday night and they’re excited to play it.  It gives people an opportunity to see artists do not only their hits but step out and do something [different].  Some guys play really hard rock on a Monday.  Zakk Wylde played Hendrix and stuff. And yet Steve Morris doing his version of a tribute to Les was playing jazz standards.  It’s a very eclectic mix on Monday nights.  We try to keep it eclectic and kind of high-level throughout the week.

Maggi: One of the Front And Center shows coming up is Zakk [Wylde] doing cover songs with the Les Paul Trio.  It’s an hour of it. It’s killer.

Regarding artists that have not played the Iridium – who’s on the top of your wish list for Monday nights?

Sturm:  There are a lot of them [laughs].  Keith Richards, Billy Gibbons, Ronnie Wood, Richie Sambora … they’re all friends of Les’, basically. … Steve Miller would be great and I’d love to film him for the series.

It’s a really special vibe.  We’re screening “Beware Of Mr. Baker” before shows and we’re going to do a Chicago blues thing called “Born In Chicago” with original guys like Barry Goldberg who played with Mike Bloomfield.  We screen movies before shows.  It’s music, it’s a little education, it’s fellowship. People can see these guys after the shows milling around in the crowd.  It’s very cozy here. … It’s a very different vibe.  The artists can see the whites of the people’s eyes, address the people, tell stories. It’s a completely different thing.

Does word-of-mouth in the musicians’ community also result in artists asking to play the Iridium?

Sturm: We talk to a lot of managers and artists themselves, and there are people really excited about it.  Most musicians get it, some don’t, but musicians that get it love it, and want to be on that stage.  They want to stand where Les stood.

What do you see for the future?

Maggi: We’re filming more shows for Front And Center.  We just had James Blunt, who was amazing.  The Rides were here a couple of weeks ago. Coming up we have some newer bands, like Grouplove.  We’re looking forward to filming some shows for the 2014 season which will go on the air in the summer.  We’re scouring the earth now for some great artists.  We’ve had some killer artists in the room this past year that were extraordinary.  Train did California 37 straight through.  We had Stephen Stills, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Barry Goldberg playing their first show.

Sturm: Our immediate future is to book high-quality shows, both for film and non-film nights, book longer engagements and get these artists used to the concept of being able to stretch out in a special club where they can’t do anywhere else, and play multi-nights. … There are a lot of reasons why I think thi sis a really awesome opportunity for people. There is an opportunity for us and an opportunity for artists.

One last question for the both of you: Is this the best job anyone could ever have?

Sturm: Yeah. I think it’s a great job.  It’s a lot of fun. Every day is different.  A lot of opportunities come to me and it’s worth more than any money I’m making because the stories are priceless.  I think the stories are amazing. I love working with Don and this is a great partnership. I’m really excited about it. We’ve become good friends. I’m happy.

Maggi: To be able to create programming in such intimate spaces like the Iridium, when you’re sitting there watching it, it’s like, “It’s pretty cool.”  That’s why we do this, to keep on seeing these great musicians.  As far as the television show, when you’re that close, you can feel it and there’s this vibe in the room that hopefully we can get across on TV.  You can see how exceptional these musicians are.

Sturm: One of the major thrills for me is the next step. … [A show] is such a high, it’s a euphoric rush and [then] you want to get the next guy.  That’s the way it works.

Here is the upcoming schedule for Front And Center Live At The Iridium.  Dates refer to the earliest the program may air on your local PBS station and do not necessarily denote the actual air date.  Episodes featuring Train and JJ Grey & Mofro are already available.

Oct. 19 – Buddy Guy
Oct. 26 – Jake Bugg
Nov. 2 – Zakk Wylde & The Les Paul Trio
Nov. 9 – Rock Candy Funk Party feat. Joe Bonamassa
Nov. 16 – The Rides

Check your local PBS affiliate station’s programming schedule for air times.

For more information, please visit the Iridium’s website and Facebook page as well as the Front And Center website.  Also be sure to check out IridiumLive.com, the internet home of the label devoted to live recordings of concerts at the Iridium Jazz Club.