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Life Arts    H2'ed 3/14/11

Producer Michael Dorf Brings "Downtown Seder" to Chicago April 13

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My guest today is Michael Dorf, founder and CEO of City Winery.  Welcome to OpEdNews, Michael.  You opened your doors on New Year's Eve, 2008. What possessed you to create a full winery [plus performance space and restaurant] in the middle of New York City?

photo credit: Alex Baldwin 

Nice to meet you.  Thanks for the interview.  I wanted a place where I could drink great wine from a real glass, complemented with great food, and sit at a table in an intimate room to see music or other art forms. So, it really is a very selfish project, which clearly many other baby boomers are into as well.  The chance to surround this experience with making wine with high-quality grapes from California or Oregon under the guidance of a master winemaker just made the entire space and experience too compelling to NOT try and build.

Your establishment goes way beyond making and serving fine wine. You've married wine, food and music. How is that going and where did the idea for that mix come from?

I am a promoter, with some deep Jewish salesman DNA, but with a real need to push the artistic mediums in a creative way.  I think I did that with my booking of the Knitting Factory for 20 years.  I've been putting on shows for a long time and I hope presented with a nod to avant-garde and quality.  In 2004, I got a chance to make a barrel of wine for the first time out in California, and while I have been a professional wine consumer since college and taken many classes, this turned me on to many nuances in wine that really enlightened my senses.  I wanted to connect the wine experience in a way that made sense financially and with my background of putting on shows, the epiphany of promoting both wine and music made sense:  putting on a show in a winery, etc.  The physical integration was the first level of excitement.  

But then, as I thought through the idea, I realized the audience of people who dig Citizen Cope to Aimee Mann to Natalie Cole would all appreciate going to a Silver Oak or Ridge Winery tasting.  The chance to cross-promote quality entertainment to both a sophisticated wine and food audience made a lot of sense.  Then, it was not until construction and really announcing the plan to the public and starting to schmooze with the wine industry, did I realize there was a tremendous passion on behalf of the wine community, winemakers, sommeliers and distributors who really love music, play music, and have integrated it into their own lives.  From using music during the wine-making or blending sessions, to decorating their stores.  The deeper I explored, the more connections there were.  So, even before opening, the idea of "pairing" wine and music, wine and film, incorporating our sensory stimulation with the art form really exploded.  Even the four glasses of wine during the Passover Seder made more sense.  (I guess we will get to that later...)

All that connecting and interacting sound very jazz-like. Your experienced  connection between wine and music, those in the wine industry bringing the music that's a part of their lives. And all of you, intermingling and riffing off one another, through City Winery. Cool!

Your relationship with music is long and deep. At one point, you sought stardom as a performer. If your career had taken off, perhaps none of this - Knitting Factory, City Winery, the music festivals, tribute concerts - would have happened. Do you ever think about that? And can you tell our readers a little about that early chapter in your life?

Wine-making has a real jazz-like improvisation to it, working with elements of a particular season, those various variables make each fermentation a new gig.

I never sought stardom as a performer; in fact, I aways sucked as a player.  I took a few years of guitar lessons and grew up with some very close friends who were naturally gifted musicians, able to sit down at the piano and play a song we heard on a stereo or radio.  My friends formed bands, and I, wanting to hang out with them, started doing sound, lights, and eventually, managing.  I even had a mini-DJ thing with lights happening, during the bar mitzvah rush....  But my friends were so good, and I did not have it naturally or the patience, so I became the professional listener.  I was traveling for a year in Europe after college when some of those friends were in a band in Madison called Swamp Thing and convinced me to come back and manage them and put out their first record.  I did, enrolled in law school so my parents would cover my room and board, and returned to the US.  After one year, and several tours to the East Coast with the band, I dropped out of law school (did really well, actually) and moved to NYC to be in the "music business," managing my friends and working their record, which turned to a second record and several others from other groups.  Within a year, I started the Knitting Factory and, as they say, the rest is history.

You opened the Knitting Factory at the ripe old age of 23. Within a short time, you were producing music festivals in Europe and the US, as well as a record label. While everything was connected to music, each project required a very disparate skill set. It sounds like you were everywhere at once. How did you pull it off, and how did you know what you were doing?  Did you ever think to yourself, "I'm in way over my head!"?

I guess I have a certain amount of self-confidence and chutzpah.  But everything was very synergistic, the tours helped sell CDs, the CDs helped get more tours, expand the brand, etc.  I certainly did not know how to run a winery, but the basics of all kinds of projects need to have the fundamentals work in a spreadsheet.  Sometimes, I think I live in Excel; I certainly think through many ideas this way first.  Then, after it shows it makes sense with numbers, I expand that into MS word document so it is readable, presentable, or usable as a plan.  I never feel over my head in terms of too challenging.  I feel it more like I am doing too many projects, too many things and being scattered is no good.  I don't like failures, and I've had some bombs, but the last few years, all my shows seem to be selling out, and things working right.  The Seder has always sold out, but that does not mean I don't get nervous about it hitting the numbers a month out like we are, when we have not sold that many tickets yet.  

We're almost there, Michael. But  I'd like to go in another direction for a moment, if you'll bear with me. Even people who don't know your name are familiar with the various tribute concerts you've produced, probably the best known being the June 2010 Simon & Garfunkel Tribute Concert in Central Park. How did you get started with that? How do you decide on an honoree? And how did you connect the philanthropic aspect of the event? What I mean is, which came first - the desire to give back (and the tribute concerts were a good way to do that) or the other way around?

Paul Simon, Willie Nile and Michael
at 2010 Tribute to Simon & Garfunkel
photo credit: Bobby Bank  

Wow, you are going deep.  The first tribute came from the Music for Youth organization, asking board members, and I was one then, for help raising money.  Since I could not write a check, I offered to produce a concert and give them 100% of the net proceeds and I would be responsible for 100% of the loss, if there was any.   It was the music of Joni Mitchell at Carnegie Hall and the first of seven tributes I've done at Carnegie.  It sold out and made over $100,000 for the organization.  I did Music of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Elton John with this organization, but I wanted to give directly to the music education programs that really needed the cash, the ones that the Music For Youth organization was funneling money to, without taking money off the top for overhead.  So, I continued with it, going to five or six different charities directly, and continued with REM, The Who, and most recently, Music of Neil Young.  
Springsteen at his tribute concert, 2007
photo credit: Bobby Bank

So, it started from the need to create a fundraiser, then continued to become a great artistic endeavor, but its core is about raising funds for music education programs for youth.

In terms of picking honorees, it's like being a kid in a candy shop, looking for great songwriters and there are many.

What a great story! So, if you had had the wherewithal to just write a check, this wonderful coupling of concert and cause might not have occurred.  I'd like to know more about Music for Youth and the other charities that float your boat, Michael.

Well, the Carnegie Tribute series focuses on non-profit organizations that support music and art programs that support mostly underprivileged youth.  I am trying to keep it in this direction for this series, and while there are "many charities that float my boat", and pardon the pun, but City Winery NY is looking to do something for the recent Tsunami, this annual event is focused on music education.  I really like the Church Street School of Music in Lower Manhattan, as they simply try and offer affordable arts classes for kids.   Young Audiences and Music Unites take inner city kids whose arts and music classes have sadly been cut from public school budgets, and supplement with their own classes, music groups, choirs; they really are offering an alternative to the street.   The ASO [American Symphony Orchestra]  program called Music Notes*, focuses on teacher training programs for middle- and high-school students in low-income neighborhoods.  

Again this year, I have been contacted by several principals and music schools from Harlem, the Bronx, that say that they get many instruments donated, and occasional programs to use [them], but what they really need is simply cash to pay for music instrument fixer-uppers, handypeople who can go into the closet full of wonderful instruments that are broken and fix them.  So, I am helping found and incubate something called FIKS , fixing instruments for kids in schools.  Money is going to the technicians to fix the instruments.  This is launching this fall with the proceeds from the recent Neil Young Tribute.

Okay. Now let's talk about still yet another Michael Dorf production: the Downtown Seder, which you have been doing since 1996. What is it and how does it work?

The Seder is a project I have been producing in New York for 11 years, which started at the Knitting Factory, moved to the Museum of Jewish Heritage, even a stint for 800 people at Avery Fisher Hall.  The last three years it was at City Winery, which is nice to have in my own joint: smaller, more controlled.  Essentially, it is a full Seder around a meal, but taking the classic story from the Haggadah and dividing it up into about 20 parts which I then distribute between musicians, comedians, political figures, writers, thinkers, etc.  The timeless story of liberation from slavery transcends us Jews and provides a great reminder of all the struggles for freedom around the globe--from the Holocaust to genocide today in Darfur, from the civil rights struggles here in the US to the Pharoahs all over.  

The Seder is our annual chance to look at the world and humanity in a different light.  In fact, the opening lines of the ancient Haggadah text say, "You should tell the story in the language you understand", which meant going from Hebrew to Aramaic, or to Yiddish or English.  Tell it today, so you understand it.  I am expanding on that theme, but using the language of the arts to help drive home the messages.  But interpreted in a way that can be extremely funny, or deeply serious.  When Judy Gold thinks about her section, "It could have been enough" or Dayenu, for her, it is a clear reference to her mother, to her very Jewish mother, perhaps even the painful Jewish universal Mother we have all experienced "it could have been enough". Lewis Black's explanation of Marror, the bitter herbs,  is one of the funniest comments on the custom I have ever heard.  In New York, I have had Lou Reed as the bad child, Jerry Stiller on Matzah, and Dr. Ruth discuss how the Hillel sandwich is an expression of sexuality.  It goes in a million ways.  This is not a substitute for your own family Seder, which is why we hold it a few days before, so that you can take elements of our Seder, bring home our specially printed Haggadah, and incorporate any elements which you find moving.  I get requests in New York every year for multiple copies of the Haggadah for people, as they have become popular tools for people.  I overprint hundreds just for this.

In Chicago, we have assembled a stellar line-up and I am confident everyone will have a good time.  Of course, I am also very excited to be showing off our kosher wine we have made in New York which will be part of the four cups of wine which are mandated in the Haggadah to consume.  A great chance to show off our product as well.  

artwork by Dave Bias

It sounds great and very you, Michael - with music and tradition, as well as current events and social action, wrapped neatly in a fun, hands-on Passover package! How did you decide where to have your first Seder outside New York City? Will there be hordes of disappointed New Yorkers this year clamoring for your return? Tell us about your Chicago line-up.

Oh no, I would not abandon the New York event.  I am doing it on April 11 at City Winery New York and April 13 in Chicago.  There will be some overlap.  The beauty of doing it before Passover is I could actually tour it in 10 cities before Passover starts... if I was meshugana [crazy] to do that--which I hope I am not.

Chicago was picked, very simply, because it is where I am opening the Second City Winery in about nine months.  We are excited to be coming to Chicago for many reasons, but we think the city is perfect for the model.

Being from Chicago and living there, I wholeheartedly agree! The best of both worlds - Seder there, Seder here. And that's exciting about Second City Winery. Anything else you want to add about the Seder?

You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll think, you will bring ideas and elements back to your home Seder. And, assuming we hit our numbers, will also be creating a little Tzedaka for two charities, The Ark and Greater Chicago Food Depository .  

Two of my favorites places!  Thanks so much for talking with me, Michael. It's been a pleasure. You are one energetic guy! Good luck with the debut of the Chicago Downtown Seder. It sounds terrific.

All photos and art work by Dave Bias

Tickets for the Seder are available at .

Full disclosure: I am the office manager of Maxwell St. Klezmer Band, which will be among those performing at the Chicago Downtown Seder on April 13.

JUF News says: "Among the entertainers slated to appear at the Chicago seder are Israeli singer/songwriter David Broza, who will perform a set with flamenco guitarist Javier Rubial following the seder meal; New York comedian/writer Judy Gold; and Anshe Emet Synagogue's Cantor Alberto Mizrahi.

Also expected to perform are the Maxwell Street Klezmer Band, Chicken Fat Klezmer Orchestra, Joshua Nelson & Kosher Gospel Singers, and Stereo Sinai; comedians Good for the Jews, plus Chicago comedian Aaron Freeman and Second City performer Susan Messing. Illinois Holocaust Museum Director Richard S. Hirschhaut also plans to attend, while Minnesota Sen. Al Franken and comedian Lewis Black are expected to call in via video."

A few of Michael's favorite causes:

Music Unites
Church St. School of Music & Arts

*The American Symphony Orchestra's arts education program, Music Notes , is active in thirteen schools throughout New York and New Jersey.

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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