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Blue Note Jazz Club expanding to Hawaii and China

  • STAR-ADVERTISER / MAY 2001
    The Outrigger Waikiki Showroom
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The Blue Note Jazz Club, one of the most prominent names in its field, announced plans Thursday to open new locations in Hawaii and China, a sign of a large and growing market for jazz in the Pacific Rim.

Blue Note Beijing and Blue Note Hawaii, in Honolulu, will open in early 2016, according to Blue Note Entertainment Group, which also owns clubs in Japan and Italy, along with its flagship in New York.

Jazz has long had a substantial consumer base in Asia, especially Japan. Blue Note Tokyo opened more than 25 years ago, joined later by Blue Note clubs in Osaka and Nagoya.

But given the potential development of a new audience in China, this expansion could radically change the picture for jazz in the region – as well as reap benefits for touring musicians and the Blue Note brand.

“China is an emerging market for live Western music,” said Steven Bensusan, the president of Blue Note Entertainment, whose other properties include the Highline Ballroom and B.B. King Blues Club & Grill. “We’ll be on the forefront of helping to build that market. It’s something that we’re in a unique position to do.”

Blue Note Hawaii will open at the Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort, in a room with an entertainment pedigree: For four decades, it was home to the Society of Seven, a popular variety act and show band, and served as an anchor for what was once a thriving nightclub scene for live music.

The room closed in 2013 and has been dark since, apart from special events. Renovations, including new sound and lighting systems, will cost “in excess of $2 million,” Bensusan said.

Outrigger Resorts will be a partner in the new club through a licensing agreement. And given the importance of Asian tourism to Hawaii – there have been roughly 1.5 million visitors from Japan in each of the past three years, according to state statistics – the new club should have some synergy with Blue Note locations in the Far East.

“The number of Chinese visitors to Hawaii is growing,” said Barbara Campbell, the vice president for retail leasing and property management for Outrigger Enterprises Group. “It’ll be a very strategic brand move for the Blue Note. And Outrigger, too, is expanding throughout Asia Pacific. This is a great global expansion strategy for both companies.”

Hawaii has its share of jazz musicians but hardly any dedicated clubs, and none with the cachet or resources of the Blue Note. The perennial challenges for a promoter in the islands are geography and demographics: Unlike Beijing or Tokyo, Hawaiian cities have a small resident population, which intensifies the need to court tourist groups. But the support of local fans and musicians will also be key.

“I believe we’re going to be pleasantly surprised by the reception we get from the resident market,” Campbell said. “There’s been so much re-gentrification of Waikiki that locals are more comfortable coming out.”

It seems likely that the club’s programming will make some provision for Hawaiian music, especially given the crossover success of slack-key guitar, a popular local genre. Blue Note Hawaii would be a natural fit for someone like Jake Shimabukuro, a local-born ukulele ace who draws from jazz fusion and has a large following in Japan.

Blue Note Beijing, scheduled to open in March, will occupy a 16,000-square-foot basement space in a neo-classical building near Tiananmen Square. Built in 1903 as Beijing’s first U.S. Embassy, it was later home to the Dalai Lama and, more recently, the upscale French restaurant Maison Boulud. The club, undergoing a $5 million renovation, will present two shows a night, Tuesday through Sunday.

Blue Note Entertainment’s partner in China is a unit of Beijing Winbright Investment Group. The unit, the Winbright Culture and Media Co., specializing in the entertainment and hospitality industries, will also be a partner in two more Blue Note clubs, set to open in the next few years in Shanghai and Taipei.

Beijing has a handful of small but well-regarded jazz clubs, notably the East Shore Live Jazz Cafi, founded by saxophonist Liu Yuan, a former sideman to China’s original rock star, Cui Jian. And the jazz scene is growing.

“It’s definitely evolved in terms of musicianship and the amount of original music being produced,” said Lawrence Ku, a Chinese-American saxophonist based in Shanghai, who previously lived in Beijing. “There are many more younger musicians now that can really play, that really have a handle on the language.”

With the arrival of a Blue Note, jazz audiences will have access to a higher tier of artists, with the booking and talent buying done from the company’s office in New York.

“We feel it is only through the introduction of the pinnacle of jazz performances that we are able to foster growth within the local jazz scene and the next generation of Chinese jazz musicians,” Bao Zhong Lun, the general manager of Winbright Culture and Media, wrote in an email. “It is through the Blue Note Jazz Clubs that we aim to generate a more widespread social and cultural recognition of jazz music amongst music fans in China.”

It’s not uncommon for an artist to appear across the network of Blue Note clubs. The headliner at the original Blue Note this week is pianist Robert Glasper, who has the top jazz album on iTunes; he’s also scheduled to perform in July at Blue Note Milan.

The relationship between the original Blue Note and its Japanese offshoots suggests a model for the two forthcoming clubs. Along with creating work for touring artists, the locations in Japan have helped cultivate an enthusiastic audience for jazz, and (not coincidentally) loyal patronage for the clubs themselves. On any given night at the Blue Note in New York, one is likely to encounter Japanese tourists. Some are highly knowledgeable about the music; others flock to the club because of its familiarity as a brand.

The same could happen with Japanese visitors to Waikiki – and, eventually, with Chinese patrons in both Hawaii and New York. “I know once we get established in China, we’ll probably see an uptick in Chinese tourists in New York,” Bensusan said. “And I think it’s going to be a great thing for jazz in general.”

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