Rio Sakairi: Cultivating a Small Space for Big Talent

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-By Kari O’Hara

Rio Sakairi hustles around the small studio in midtown, setting up chairs, moving furniture, preparing the performance space for the show that night. Furnished with an old sofa and some folding chairs facing the small stage, The Jazz Gallery is quiet and empty except for Sakairi, her six year old son and eight year old daughter playing in the around the chairs, and the two interns, men in their twenties who enter with acoustic guitars on their backs. As the artistic director, she runs the one room performance space on Broadway and 27th street almost single handedly. 

Though it is quiet during the day, three nights a week it turns into a nonprofit performance space bustling with musicians and an audience of Gallery members, who pay $75 a year for discounted tickets to all the shows, and visitors.

Originally from Ibaraki, Japan, Sakairi was introduced to classical music at a young age. “Just like any other good Japanese girl I practiced piano,” she said. She came to New York in 1990 at the age of 18 to attend the New School.

Though she had an interest in music, she quickly realized that the professional world of music was something else. Her first day at the New School, she said, they gathered all the first year students in the auditorium to audition for a musical ensemble.  “The program was called the ‘Jazz and Contemporary Music program,’ but really it was more like the ‘Jazz and Jazz program,’” Sakairi said. “I got in front of everyone and the director asked me ‘do you know standard?’ I just stood there, not saying anything.” Traditionally, the singer, calls the tune and key for the musicians accompanying them. But Sakairi was standing in front of her teachers and peers, musicians waiting, with no idea what to say.  “The drummer, Chad Taylor—I still remember his name—called it for me.” Soon after Sakairi finished her degree, she decided that singing wasn’t for her.

Instead she went into business. She went to work for the then small, family-owned skin care and cosmetic company, Kiehl’s. The brand was gaining popularity in Japan, so they put an add in the Village Voice for a Japanese translator. Soon after Sakairi signed on, however, she exposed to more than just translating for tourists. Because Kiehl’s was so small, I got to see all aspects of the business,” She said. She worked there from 1995 to 2000 when L’Oreal bought the company. She decided to take her business knowledge back to her roots in music.

Meanwhile, jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove and his manager Dale Fitzgerald founded The Jazz Gallery in 1995. Originally located on Hudson Street in Greenwich Village, The Jazz Gallery originated as a practice space for Hargrove. But Fitzgerald wanted to create a place where they could present jazz as more than just music, as a cultural influence. For the first five years it was a gallery that presented art in conjunction with music.

Their professional paths crossed in 2000. Sakairi was participating in the AIDSRide bike across Alaska event to raise money for AIDS research and services. As a participant, she had to raise $5,000, so she decided to use her network and put on a concert. “I had the people,” she said. “but I needed a place. I knew Dale, so I asked if I could rent The Jazz Gallery. The fundraiser was a great success, and I got a job working at the door from it.”

Sakairi joined The Jazz Gallery in 2000, but soon she started offering Fitzgerald advice on running the club. “I’m known to speak my mind, I have a hard time keeping that to myself” she said. “Eventually he let me do whatever I wanted to do.” She used her background in music and her experience in management from Kiehl’s to take the Gallery in a new direction.

“My budget was very small, we’re still a small non for profit, but back then it was even more so. My thing was that I wanted to present the really good music that I would want to listen to and with a small budget how do I do that? I had to look to younger musicians.”

Russell Moore, an intern turned employee for the Gallery for seven years, said, “it was a small space at 290 Hudson, and sometimes we would pack people in like sardines. So we went to great lengths to try to make everyone’s experience as positive as it could possibly be. However, the audience wasn’t always so robust. Oftentimes some really great music would only have an audience of 5. Some very memorable music was made in that room and I am extremely proud to have been there to hear it and to help make it happen.”

Though Sakairi works mostly from home now because there are people like Moore or current self-described door guy/ticket sales/assistant to the manager Austin Comstock who have taken over the performance shifts, she still comes in to help if needed. “Sometimes Rio will come in to help at a performance if it’s a big crowd. It gets hard to handle with just one or two people, and she works like three people just by herself,” Comstock said.

A main component of her job is still cultivating the talent to be featured at The Jazz Gallery, which often means going out to watch performances, review submissions, and watching performance videos on YouTube. She takes a hands-on approach to finding talent to showcase. “I have to hear someone live before putting them onstage. Jazz can be completely different between a CD and a live performance.”

Fitzgerald and Hargrove have moved on to new projects, but Sakairi is still carrying on The Jazz Gallery’s mission to support young professional musicians. It’s no easy feat for a small nonprofit to keep its doors open in Manhattan, but The Jazz Gallery is committed to its cause. “We’re losing money even when the house is full—so while we do work to serve the audience—our artists are our constituents. With Jazz, you need to perform to hone your skill, so our main purpose is just to exist so people can come here and perform,” Sakairi said.

The Gallery is meant to be a home, a safe haven for the artists. “I’d like to think that the artists felt very comfortable at The Gallery,” Moore said. “The staff would often go out of their way to help out musicians–from opening up the space several hours early for a special rehearsal to schlepping gear up and down the long set of stairs. Our hope was that it was like playing in your own living room.”  

Thirteen years after Sakairi joined, The Jazz Gallery has moved to a new location, and built a reputation as a stepping stone for young artists. “Now people know us as a place where all the young professionals cut their teeth and we have a lot of graduates,” Sakairi said. “Now if I look at any jazz festival from around the world it’s like Jazz Gallery from ten years ago.” Three alumni have even been awarded a fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation, an independent foundation dedicated to supporting “creative people and effective institutions committed to building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world.”

Though no one could doubt the amount of work they’ve put into building their reputation and relationships with new and established musicians, they have the city to thank in part. “As far as Jazz is concerned—this is it. This is the best place in the whole world.”

This year, Sakairi says they have been featuring an even wider variety of jazz. They are still growing and keeping talent flowing in, but they remain a small outpost in midtown, and she likes it that way. “Jazz is best in a small space like this. I’ve been to a lot of jazz venues, and some just seem too bright, too clean, too legit. We’re just a dark corner of jazz in the city.”

            

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