About JazzErie

The History of JazzErie: The Shoebox Letters


(EDITOR'S NOTE: The following four chapters were written for the JazzErie newsletter, JazzNotes in 2010 by David VanAmburg, JazzErie's first president.)


JazzErie stampChapter 1: Faulty Memories of the Early Days of JazzErie

The Short Version

I raised my hand. Under his breath I heard Phil Papotnik groan, “Oh, no!” And that was the beginning of JazzErie.

What Are We Doing Here?

Tom McLaren sent me an email recently asking if I would write a few words about how JazzErie got started, no more than 400. My responses were:

  1. I probably shouldn’t because I’m likely to rock somebody’s boat. Every week for the past 15 years I’ve been thankful that you folks continue to keep JazzErie alive, and I sure don’t want to sink that boat.
  2. Every memory is faulty. We may be in the same room, but we live in different universes. We remember shared events differently. Who’s to say my recollections are correct? But those of you who know me, know that I have a computer permanently attached to my arm. So I sorted through its 1.5 million files and found a few hundred that chronicle our early days.
  3. A few words from me? Not likely. My farewell letter when I passed on the presidency to Al Lubiejewski required a special 8-page newsletter insertion, as it was 5,700 words long. (I haven’t even finished this introduction, and I’m already at 210! Half-way to Tom’s limit, and I haven’t said a thing.)

But who can turn Tom down?  So we agreed to a few articles. Here are a few chapters of my story. Your story is probably different.

No Jazz To Be Found

From the 1930s to the early 60s, the big bands toured the country, and Rainbow Gardens hosted them all. Numerous local clubs had live jazz. Jazz journalist, Bob Protzman, now back in Erie, remembers it as a great scene.

About the only local jazz I heard in the mid 60s was Hawk Amendola’s band playing for high school dances. Glenn Miller and his band stayed with Peter and Ann Mahler when they were in the area. Maynard Ferguson passed through a few times. But by the late 1960s, jazz had pretty much disappeared.
Where was the music? A few fringe aficionados were into acoustic or electric blues. There was a succession of coffee houses catering to folk/acoustic music, some of which we were involved in, but that’s another story.

As the 70s moved into 80s, the only regional musicians I knew eking out a living were in lounge acts that traveled the Holiday Inn circuit. With rare exceptions, the only musicians playing locally were top-40 rock cover bands. Remember, we’re in the middle of the foundry region, and Detroit is our capital.

By the early 90s, Gene Leone and the gents in the Spa Quartet, and a few other groups were still swinging, but you were hard-pressed to find much live jazz.
And into the vacuum charged Floyd.

The Real Founders

From the day he arrived at the Erie Art Center in 1968, John Vanco has given non-stop support to music, musicians and everyone else. He brought in national jazz musicians. He sponsored more concerts and musicians than anyone. And he did it quietly, for our community - because it was the right thing to do.

Charles Ventrello didn’t move to Las Vegas to play behind the “Rat Pack”, as he could have. He chose to teach and raise his family in Erie. And throughout the 70s and 80s, he led Concourse, one of the few groups that kept jazz alive here. In the process, he nurtured a lot of younger musicians, like Dave Blaetz.

Floyd Williams was a drummer of national reputation. He taught music at Allegheny College. And "Passion" was his middle name. I once hired him to play for a regional Rotary dinner meeting and he took over the meeting with a 45 minute lecture on jazz.

JazzErie was the brainchild of these three gentlemen.


Chapter 2: Back To The Meeting

The Short Version

Phil Papotnik had called. 70 folks had met monthly for a few years to form the Erie Jazz Appreciation Society. He thought I could use a break from work and invited me to the next meeting, but warned me to keep my mouth shut. “Once you start talking, you get sucked in. You don’t have the time for another project, and I don’t want Becky (the very patient Mrs. VanAmburg) mad at me for getting you involved.”

Ideas Are Fun

Phil has dedicated his life to music, as a performer, sound engineer and entrepreneur. Since we met in 1970, I’ve watched him build Raven Sound into one of the most respected sound reinforcement companies in the U.S. As I’ve observed his soul, quietly helping others every day, he has become my hero and my good friend. For him, I’d do anything. So we went.

It was an interesting meeting. There were no leaders. By this time, Floyd Williams had passed on. His wife, Liz continued the summer concert at their home for many years, but Floyd’s fire was extinguished. As always, John Vanco had no ego to stroke. He just wanted to support music in our community. Charles Ventrello had great ideas, but he really wanted to play music. So who was going to take charge?

About 40 of the 70 “organizers” were there, passionately presenting their great ideas and their goals for the organization. Their desires spanned the globe.

I took notes. And I stayed quiet - for a while.

The participants took great delight in the conversation, but they displayed frustration that no one was doing anything. That’s the problem with committees, isn’t it?  It’s fun to have good ideas and easy to ask someone else to implement them. But the hard work gets done by individuals.

After the first hour, I had categorized their many ideas. Then the dog started chasing its tail – the comments got repetitious. I got bored. I fidgeted. Phil looked concerned.

I’ve worked with thousands of corporate, government and non-profit clients over the years, and to me this looked like a “simple” case of strategic planning followed by implementation and marketing.

So I raised my hand. Phil moaned. I offered my thought. The unanimous response was immediate – “Great, when can you do it?”

Whoops! I had walked into the quicksand again, eyes wide open. Okay, I quickly calculated it would take me 60 hours to develop everything they needed, and I could juggle my current client work to do it. I replied, “Come back in 2 weeks and we’ll do a strategic planning session.”

Phil’s only response as we left was, “What did you do? Becky’s going to kill me!”

I went home to work.

Purpose and Goals

My notes outlined the many goals that had been presented. It was logical to use them to create by-laws the group could approve. I wanted to be true to the combined dreams identified at the meeting – this was their organization – so I didn’t put any of my vision into the mix.

The by-laws should give this group a touchstone to refer to. Inevitably, they would need to return to them to clarify their purpose, their scope of activities, their priorities.

Additionally, if they ever wanted to become a non-profit corporation, by-laws are required. And the by-laws had better be created correctly, because if you end up doing things beyond the scope of your by-laws, the IRS can rescind your tax exemption. Not good.

Practical Considerations

Next, the organization’s structure needed to be figured out. The logical option was to create a free-standing 501-c-3 non-profit. With a non-profit, if they ever blossomed, they could then consider a subsidiary foundation, but that would be years off.

A non-profit would require state incorporation (a few weeks and a few hundred dollars), an IRS tax exemption (6 months and a few thousand dollars), and an annual financial audit, event insurance, etc.). Having lived through various forms of embezzlement in multiple organizations, I strongly believe in accurate, transparent and verified books to help keep everyone honest.

However, I didn’t see the folks from the meeting providing the $2,000+ ante to jump start the organization. But John Vanco and the EAM board had temporarily sheltered multiple cultural start-ups over the years, such as the Roadhouse Theater.

So I called John and asked if he was willing to help the fledgling organization for a year or two until it got its feet on the ground. He graciously accepted. EAM covered the group’s events through riders to the EAM liability policy at no charge. They provided meeting space. They included its financials within EAM’s financial audit. Cool, the founders would have the best of all worlds to start the organization, and could focus on creating live music and members.
P.S., I note that, 16 years later, you all are still under the EAM umbrella. I sure hope you are thanking John and the EAM board every year. :)


The group’s name was a real challenge. This was a critical marketing issue, and they would only have one shot.

(As an example, Pat Artise told me recently that he made a serious mistake in the former Paper Moon by naming his restaurant “Ti Martwoni’s” - as in “two martinis” as pronounced by a drunk?. No one can pronounce it. Few understand its meaning. And it closed. He promised the next incarnation will have a name you can remember.)

They wouldn’t have a big advertising budget. Not many people would get excited about the “Erie Area Jazz Appreciation Society”. Heck, no one would remember it.

But JazzErie was descriptive, short, and too the point. So we had the name.

There were quite a few other issues, but I’m way beyond my allocated space. So I’ll see you next chapter, at the follow-up meeting where I was Blindsided at the world’s shortest strategic planning session.


Chapter 3: Blindsided At the World’s Shortest Strategic Planning Session

The Short Version

We met again. They liked the by-laws and voted in their board. Then the board voted its officers, and when they got to the presidency, Steve Trohoske pointed to me.

My heart sank. But I thanked him in the end.

The Fateful Day

A lot of people showed up for the meeting. I was proud of them. Instead of taking days, we completed a planning session in 45 minutes. They liked the vision, mission, purposes and goals, by-laws, organizational structure, committees and functions. As hopefully they should, since it all reflected their ides from the last meeting.

Those interested then nominated themselves for the board and everyone voted. Now the board was set to elect its officers. As I remember it, Steve Trohoske said “Dave, we need you to be the president.” Whoops. I had planned on slipping back into the night and returning to my business. I argued, but they knew when they held a captive in the room. Everyone promised to pull their weight. I took them at their word. So with no reflection, I accepted. And the ever-patient Mrs. VanAmburg persevered.

This Is A Business

We had a lot of work to do, and my hero, R Buckminster Fuller once offered wise advice, “Never show people botch work.” So we had to do it right.

The JazzErie logo began with Charles Ventrello’s design using the columns to represent the Erie Art Museum and the sax player to visually depict jazz. We retained the musician and replaced the columns with the bird and colors to convey the emotional rainbow of jazz. The fonts were Paradise and Penguin.

The tag line defined our operating philosophy: “A Community of Musicians and Music Lovers”. I thank you for building and retaining that sense of community, so challenging in northwest Pennsylvania.

Learn From The Pros

We brought in a number of professionals who had built jazz societies before us.

Pianist Steve Rudolph, formerly with the Tommy Dorsey orchestra, and co-founder of the Central Pennsylvania Friends of Jazz, spoke to our members and the public, and played in concert.

Noted jazz historian and Executive Director of the Northeast Ohio Jazz Society, John Richmond, addressed our members and offered to present historical jazz films to the public from his personal collection at no cost to us.

What a blessing it was that Stan and Betty Bialomizy returned to Erie as we got started. Stan worked with Mary Alice Brown to create a phenomenal education program. And Stan opened doors to jazz greats who were friends of his, creating an amazing advisory board with Ron Carter, Clement DeRosa, Milt Hinton, Jeff Jarvis,  Bruce and Robin Johnstone, Marian McPartland, Don Menza, Bud Pacy, John Richmond, Basil Ronzitti, Clark Terry, Charles Ventrello, and Elizabeth Williams.

We included honorary members, Linda Bebko-Jones, Phil English,. Brady Louis, Judy Lynch, Jim Merry, Joyce. Savocchio, Tom Scrimenti, and Peter Traphagen.

And we were off.


Chapter 4: How Do You Do All That?

The Short Version

Stuff 100+ musicians in a Volkswagen, and what do you get? JazzErie’s first year performances, plus 280 paid members, and 50% of the community knowing about JazzErie.

So Why Are You Here, Bub?

We defined our mission to bring together people of all ages who want to listen to jazz, learn about it, play it and just live it.

We set three goals:

  1. To promote interaction among professional and amateur musicians, and private and public jazz performance by both.
  2. To become the hub of communications about jazz in the tri-state region.
  3. To share improvisational jazz music with children and youth, and the community at large, facilitating their interest and learning.

Committees Rule

After many years you come to hard conclusions, like “committees and meetings are the creation of the devil.” But most of our committees were the exception: Executive, Finance & Development, Member Communications & Support, Membership & Marketing, Education, and Performance.

Rabbits From A Hat

After the first 3 months we had over 150 paid members. With no funding other than modest membership dues, we:

  • Developed a series of workshops for the public. Our first exposed people to the use of computers in music composition and performance.
  • Instituted jam sessions for all musicians to develop and maintain improvisational skills.
  • Planned the first annual big band dance in the fall of 1995 with a nationally known jazz orchestra as a service to the community and a fund raiser for JazzErie.
  • Developed a great monthly newsletter.
  • Created an organizational structure to accomplish much with virtually no resources.
  • Held 12 monthly meetings and concerts open to the public.
  • Pulled off the first Jazz & Blues walk – 6 clubs, 6 bands, 10 bucks.
  • Supported WQLN FM’s commitment to a new jazz radio program exposing listeners to regional musicians and promoting live jazz in our town.
  • And a ton more.

I don’t have the 1995 calendar, but here’s 1996’s.

Thanks For All The Fish

Disclaimer: If your name is missing below, it’s not because I don’t remember and appreciate your hard work. I get to blame Tom McLaren’s word limit. :)

A few hundred volunteers helped in every way possible. And at the end of the year, I tried to thank the people who worked the hardest through the 1995 JazzErie awards:

  • Floyd Williams Memorial Love of Jazz: Charles Ventrello for JazzErie performance leadership.
  • Broadcast Jazz: WQLN Radio & JazzClub, Brady Lewis, Tom McLaren & Stan Bialomizy.
  • Community Jazz Awareness: Times Publishing Company, Doug Rieder, Dave Richards & Al Lubiejewski.
  • Live Music: Scully’s Pub for 52 weeks of Jazz in Erie & Smugglers’ Wharf, Mike Kubasik, Owner for providing the first home to JazzErie.
  • Keeper of the Flame: John Vanco for everything.
  • Thanks For Caring: Phil Papotnik & Phil Shively for keeping jazz alive in Erie.
  • Floyd Williams Memorial Live Your Dreams Scholarship: Tony Alford.
  • Communications: Jerry Sobrowski for managing the entire newsletter.
  • Rabbit out of the Hat: Virginia Pelkowski, Betty Barber. Sheldon Peterson & Joe Dorris for making the Jazz Festival and JazzWalk a success.
  • Jazz Photo: Art Becker.

Disappointments & Recommendations

I don’t have many. I could have used a few more hours of sleep.

What I really wanted was a website and to move to eLetters and away from print. But not many people appreciated the value of the Internet then.

Phil Shively offered a trip to Bermuda to the person who brought in the most new members. (Really!) But no one competed. Still, we had 750 paid members by the end of the first year.

I tried to explain that we needed to be more inclusive, renaming the organization to JazzErieBlues, and expose younger folks who like blues to the next step – jazz. We were already half way there with the very successful Jazz & Blues walk. Otherwise, our fruit would wither on the vine.

Try as I might, I couldn’t get much of a trail of breadcrumbs. Where are the photos, videos, audio recordings, mp3s of past and upcoming performers? I hope you’re doing better than I did.

I left the members with an 8-page farewell and a lot of recommendations. You can find them if you’re interested.

Sunsets & Sunrises

Remember the Rolling Stones song, You Can’t Always Get What You Want? The lyrical hook is “But if you try sometime, you find you get what you need”.
I’m not sure why I needed to become JazzErie’s first president. But JazzErie certainly helped fulfill my lifelong desire for my community to be vibrant and filled with successful, creative people.

Every five years, I seem to take on a new project. The current one should help JazzErie reach out to 10,000 or more new people. It’s called EnjoyErie.com, a comprehensive regional events calendar. Please use it, share your events – for JazzErie, your local business, club, whatever means something to you. It’s free. Tell your friends.

(EDITOR'S NOTE: EnjoyErie is now the sponsor of the JazzErie website, providing hosting plus content management, calendar management, and eLetter software - the glue that holds us together online.)

The Beat Goes On

Al Lubiejewski, with his VP, Stan Bialomizy, did a phenomenal job of picking up the pieces we left them. Maybe Al or someone else would like to continue the story and tell you who won the 1996 JazzErie awards.
What I love the most is that JazzErie still lives after 16 years. I awaken every Sunday and thank you for keeping it alive. May you have many more years of beautiful music.

Want to comment or ask a question? Email David at David@VanAmburgGroup.com.

By David VanAmburg
June 26, 2011