Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Syracuse music scene

Nestled in the corner of the Coffee Pavilion, Tom Brigandi turns and takes a swig of his Bud Light. After setting down his beer on the window sill, he pivots past his tip jar and towards the almost vacant seating area. The clapping of but four hands ceased moments before, yet he remains strapped into his six-string electric bass. It is the same instrument Brigandi used when he toured with Chuck Mangione in the 1990s. Following negotiations with his percussionist and guitar player, he strikes up the band once again.

A few blocks away at the Ohm Lounge, an unusually large crowd of musicians gather for a “Party for the Arts.” Three Syracuse arts supporters--­Jim Horsman of Center Stage Events, Larry Luttinger of the CNY Jazz Arts Foundation and Leo Crandall of the Cultural Resources Council—staged the event to celebrate those who contribute to the local arts scene. A variety of players join each other onstage, while onlookers shake hands and eat plates full of rye bread and humus.

Guitarist Mark Copani attended the party on Feb. 2. Like most Central New York musicians, he spends his free nights performing. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen that many musicians together,” said Copani. “Musicians have a hard time seeing other musicians ... You kind of forget that there are other musicians doing the same thing.”

Most CNY musicians tour the restaurant and club scene where they are paid according to the amount of people in attendance. The steady decline over the past 30 years in the amount of fans coming out to hear live music is causing artists to cash smaller and smaller paychecks. The city government does little to alleviate this problem; it hasn’t included arts funding in its budget for 10 years. The county gives some money in the form of grants thanks to the initiatives of State Senator John DeFrancisco, an avid supporter of the arts, but for the most part, its solutions are lip service.

In 1990, Onondaga County Executive Nick Pirro commissioned a council called the Partnership for the Arts. When the Partnership issued its report in 1992, they found three things that affected the music community: High taxes hurt the venue owners who had to stop music series or cut pay for musicians playing at their establishments. An increase in advertising from television, radio and print diluted the message sent about arts organizations and their events. And many fans of the local music scene are aging and no longer coming out to gigs.

The Partnership suggested evaluating arts institutions on a case by case basis and finding new ways to fund their projects, which did little to help these organizations in the short term and nothing to help the individual artist.

The bigger organizations solve these issues by throwing fundraisers and revamping their advertising campaigns, while most solo artists are put the position of beggars. This is not to say that the arts organizations and the single musicians are adversaries: The Syracuse Symphony makes a big announcement each year when it has balanced its budget, a statement that sounds equivalent to Brigandi’s tip jar scenario.

Back at the Coffee Pavilion Brigandi sets down his bass after a three hour set. He looks over at the adjacent table where his plastic tip jar holds a few dollars and some change. He hands his bandmates their share and walks over to the counter to order another beer. Brigandi has toured the world with jazz star Chuck Mangione, but for now he will continue to play for one or two faces every week at a coffee house.

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