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Tarrytown News

Long Journey for Jazz Forum Arts to Set Up in Tarrytown

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October 4, 2016

by Morey Storck

Mark Morganelli
Mark Morganelli

The magical yellow brick road is never as beautiful and unencumbered as it is depicted in novels. It can also be a winding, meandering path filled with unexpected turns, twists and potholes during that quest for Oz. Mark Morganelli has taken such a journey, and he did get to the Emerald City, eventually.

Morganelli is the founder and Executive Director of Jazz Forum Arts, a not-for-profit arts, performance and presentation organization. Founding 1985 board members included David Amram, Dizzy Gillespie and Wynton Marsalis. But, one might say it had its early beginnings when Morganelli was nine years old and watched his father drum on the floor while listening to the big band greats on radio and records. At his father’s suggestion, he took up the trumpet. By the time he got to high school, he had formed his own band. In college, he mastered the piano and flugelhorn, as well as the trumpet.

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After playing dates in hotels, clubs and private events, he appeared at the Village Gate in lower Manhattan in 1978, and later, became Musical Coordinator at Manhattan’s renowned Birdland. In 1979, behind Joseph Papp’s Public Theater in a loft at 50 Cooper Square, Morganelli opened his first Jazz Forum. In 1981 he relocated to 648 Broadway at Bleeker Street in the West Village, and remained there until 1983.

In 1985, the road took another, definite change in direction. That was the year that Jazz Forum Arts was founded, and the Riverside Park Arts Festival was organized. There he produced concerts with many nationally eminent musical artists, and emerging musical talents until 1997. Also, during that time, Morganelli had an arrangement with the Music Hall in Tarrytown, starting with the Spring Summit in June 1992, where he produced more than 150 concerts during a 22-year period. They featured such jazz giants as Billy Taylor, Betty Carter, Gerry Mulligan, Dave Brubeck, and Count Basie, just to mention a few. At the same time, he also produced concerts at Peekskill’s Paramount Center, Purchase College, the Kensico Dam in Valhalla, Berkshire Jazz Festival, and the Sunnyside Jazz Festival. In NYC, Morganelli has presented at The Town Hall, Symphony Space, Beacon Theatre and Jazz at Lincoln Center.

In 1991, Jazz Forum Arts relocated to Dobbs Ferry, mainly because Morganelli’s growing commitments were located in Westchester County. His 34th free Summer Concert Series just ended, for example, with the Annual Dobbs Ferry Summer Music Series presented by New York-Presbyterian, the Annual Sunset Jazz Concert at Lyndhurst, Jazz at Pierson Park in Tarrytown, Jazz at Horan’s Landing in Sleepy Hollow, and Jazz at Gourdine Park in Ossining. Of course, there were many more individual presentations in Westchester, Manhattan, and the surrounding tri-state area.

“By this time, 24 years, the kids were out of the house and it was time for down-sizing,” he said. Mark and his wife Ellen Prior started looking, and found 1 Dixon Lane in Tarrytown, a multi-use building that had once housed a bakery (Breitenbach Bakery) and now housed an antique and collectibles sales center. It had 3,500 sq. feet for a jazz performance venue on the first floor, suitable living quarters on the second floor and an expansive rooftop setting for special events. What more could they ask? Morganelli went into contract negotiations in October 2015, put their house on the market in December 2015 and sold it in January 2016.

After determining that 1 Dixon Lane was just what he wanted, Morganelli applied for a cabaret license. That, as he soon found out, would not be approved because it was contingent on all the other pieces being sanctioned by the various state and village boards. That may have been the first hint of possible detours and potholes ahead on the yellow brick road. However, he was awarded a full on-premises liquor license in September 2015.

The next hurdle was the discovery of a possible oil leak or spill (which it was not). But, for whatever reason, the underground oil tank did not pass inspection. First, it was decided to replace the tank, but then, after further thought, it was replaced with a new gas furnace which was cleaner, safer and more efficient. And, as Morganelli said proudly, “We have a brand new highly, efficient gas furnace tied into existing coil and duct-work with a condenser on the outside of the building. And now, we have a de-facto air-conditioning and heating system for the whole downstairs.”

“As of November 4, 2015, with the Mayor’s and the Village Administrator’s blessing, we submitted our architect’s plans and initial drawings. A few weeks later, we applied for, and received, a sanctioned preview event, an 85th birthday tribute for David Amram, mentor and original board member. All went well, but, of course, we had hoped to be open for business by that time!” he said.

Sprinklers. Now that was a bit of a detour, but thanks to architect Steve Tilly, they calmly and deliberately approached the problem. After diligent research, and speaking with the Department of Buildings, it was discovered that if they kept the seating capacity to under 99, and had egress (exits) at diametrical corners of the room, they would be good to go and would not need that very expensive sprinkler system.

“We, therefore, operated under that belief. But, still waiting for the drawings to be approved, we did everything possible to improve the premises,” Morganelli said. “Tables were designed and made. Chairs were assembled. A specially designed bar was scheduled.” But, then came a blockbuster of a pothole!

After appearing before the Zoning and Planning Boards twice, it was ruled that the architect’s drawings would not be approved without solving the parking problem first. 41 parking spaces, at least, must be made available for Jazz Forum Arts concert goers at each Friday, Saturday and Sunday performances. A thought to keep in mind here: Morganelli carefully explained, “Remember, 1 Dixon Lane abuts that vast parking lot behind CVS, but I have never been able to get permission to use it.”

In May 2015, Morganelli had made an arrangement with Key Bank for 16 parking spaces. Now he spoke to Chase Bank for some kind of a parking accommodation on a proposed parking lot they would operate. The major problem: the New York State Parks, Recreation and Historical Preservation Departments had jurisdiction over the property, which, by the way, abuts the old Aqueduct system.

Not to be dismayed, Morganelli remembered that 31 years ago when Jazz Forum Arts held concerts at the 79th Street Boat Basin, the first sponsor was the New York State Parks Department. As it turns out, the daughter of a former Jazz Forum Arts board member was associated with the Parks Department committee that oversees Westchester County. She was well acquainted with JFA’s work in Westchester, as well as in Manhattan. Finally, the yellow brick road became a straight lane. But wait! Nothing worthwhile is ever easy.

The Zoning Board advised that any off-site parking that is in evidence must have a written five-year deal. Back again to Key Bank and Chase went Jazz Forum Arts for the revised paperwork. They got it, renewable every year. And, so it was back again to the Zoning Board. Meanwhile, Ellen circulated a petition that obtained 650 signatures stating that the undersigned would walk the additional couple of 100 yards that it would take to reach Jazz Forum Arts at 1 Dixon Lane. Everything was submitted and the variance was approved. Hallelujah!

At the end of July, the Planning Board approved the site plan unanimously as well as the change-of-use Jazz Forum Arts needed for the 1 Dixon Lane property. However, the state liquor license needed an extension if it had not been used during the previous time limits. And, they were still waiting for their cabaret license. Also, the plans had to be approved by the Westchester Department of Health, located in Mt. Kisco. That turn-around was two to three weeks, but it was approved.

Then back to the Buildings Department for a final permit.

Through most of this aggravation, Morganelli remained relatively level-headed and even-tempered, but he wouldn’t say he would do it over again if he knew what he knows now. Yet, upon reflection, “I know they (Tarrytown) had to do their due diligence and follow the codes of the village. Yes, some things seemed borderline burdensome, but I understand for safety reasons, and to allow time for community input, and then to address those issues was important. Actually, some residents did come into the venue space to check out the possible sound level of a jazz performance. Thank Heaven for the extra thickness of the 1910 wall construction.”

Of course, that mellow side of Morganelli appeared before a final blockbuster sink-hole nearly destroyed the yellow brick road.

Suddenly, some were questioning Jazz Forum’s ability to keep the 99-person level within the occupancy load demanded by the overall square footage of the room. So, for safety-first considerations, it was deemed necessary by the village, that Jazz Forum Arts had to install a suitable sprinkler system downstairs and smoke detectors upstairs.

But, that’s not the end of it, not by a long shot. After designing an almost 30-head sprinkler system with back-flow preventers, they now had to contend with an existing one-inch pipe water service that was already coming into the property. That would not be adequate for a 30-head system. They were told four-inch ductile iron piping was called for and that it would be necessary to tap into the main water line on Central Avenue, and then direct it through the piping up to Dixon Lane, feeding it into their sprinkler system. The trenching and piping would be at their expense.

“Actually, it’s sort of over-kill,” Morganelli said. “But it would be great for additional uses, such as another bakery if we wanted one.”

Well, they’re going to do it. Where the additional thousands of dollars are coming from is anyone’s guess. But, they will get it. It’s full speed ahead down that yellow brick road. Oz is in sight. And, with a little bit of luck, Jazz Forum Arts will get there with an official opening by the end of the year. And, we almost forgot. They will have a new front door and a new entrance from Dixon Lane, because an easement of two or three feet for the current, side entrance was denied by the current owners of the adjacent parking lot.

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