Jazz isn't big in Cincinnati, and Downtown isn't heavily frequented. So why would three separate parties compete to buy a struggling downtown Jazz club that had been left in debt?
Because it's the Blue Wisp.
The name brings waves of nostalgia and smoky memories to many musicians and patrons alike. After surviving nearly three decades (its 30th birthday is in 2008) and several incarnations, a number of people have offered to take significant financial risks to ensure that this war horse keeps fighting.
When Marjean Wisby, the club's namesake, died of respiratory failure in August of 2006, she left the internationally renowned Jazz institution -- as well as a lot of medical bills -- behind. Her estate went into the care of an old friend, Gay Stamboulian, who, as executrix, took on the complex task of tracking down Wisby's assets in an effort to pay off the debts. She also took responsibility for keeping the club running until it sold, which happened a little more than a year later.
"We were just waiting for someone to put a bid on it," says Stamboulian. "Finally the bids came through in August or September and it was settled on Nov. 1."
The three parties who submitted bids included a group of four people led by Phil DeGreg, who had long served as the house pianist, another group of four led by Ed Felson, a lawyer and Jazz bassist, and Charles Malott, Wisby's heir and boyfriend. After they all submitted their bids, blindly, to the attorney, everyone was informed of the amounts. The Clermont County probate court, which was handling the process, favored the highest bidder: Ed Felson's group.
Felson took over the Wisp immediately, on Nov. 1, under a managerial license. While he has a music background (he was schooled at New England Conservatory), his partners are neither musicians nor previous bar owners.
"None of us had owned a bar before, or a Jazz club or anything else," Felson says. "So we're kind of learning by the seat of our pants."
Felson has already made many changes, firstly in the musical approach. The previous system, which involved using a house band to back up guest soloists, had been run by bid contender and house pianist DeGreg for more than a decade. While the historic Blue Wisp Big Band still holds sway on Wednesday nights, the weekends will no longer feature a house rhythm section, meaning that musical variety will increase but the cover charge will also vary according to the pay scale of the performers.
The bar also looks to expand its food and beverage options, including a greater selection of wines and non-alcoholic beverages, as well as light food for patrons (there is no kitchen). Felson also intends to include more "young Jazz," by hosting jam sessions for college students and showcasing high school Jazz bands.
"Great music," Felson says. "That's what we sell. That's our product."
The reference to Jazz as a commodity demonstrates the new attitude toward the club; while Wisby subsidized the business through personal funds, Felson and his partners are definitely taking a business approach.
Stamboulian says the club has a different mood under the new establishment. She mentioned that Wisby's plants have been removed and that there is more merchandising -- CDs for sale are now prominently displayed.
"It just feels different," she says.
Felson says their reason for buying the Wisp goes beyond mere business, however.
"It's an icon," he says. "If someone doesn't take it over, it's just going to be nothing … be a bar, not a Jazz club. So we're trying to save the tradition."
That a total of nine people competed for the opportunity to personally resuscitate a dying business is testimony to how deeply the Jazz community values the Blue Wisp. As with anything people feel strongly about, especially when it comes to tradition, emotions about the changes are mixed.
Jazz veteran Ed Moss, who has been an active component of the local Jazz scene since the 1960s, welcomes the new management: "It's a great facility and they seem to have deep enough pockets to keep the place going through transition," he says.
The changes are somewhat painful for Stamboulian, who was responsible for maintaining the club until the sale.
"I was a little sad," she says. "I just felt like I was leaving (Marjean) behind. But I knew it was coming."
Felson, on the other hand, is enthusiastic.
"We can do anything we want," he says. "We have a clean slate."
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