By Brian F. Johnson
The car thermometer read 19 degrees as I climbed out onto Welton Street in Denver and prepared to enter the offices of what I refer to as “The Bianchi Empire.” Those offices are located inside Cervantes’ Masterpiece Ballroom, and the man I was getting ready to sit down with, Jay Bianchi, heads up Cervantes’ as well as three other clubs — Sancho’s Broken Arrow, Dulcinea’s 100th Monkey and, of course, Quixote’s True Blue — that he co-owns with his brother, Phil.
The thermometer reading hadn’t phased Bianchi one bit, as he was dressed in his typical “uniform” of shorts, sandals and a hoodie sweatshirt; but, Bianchi isn’t the kind of guy who has ever subscribed to conventional wisdom.
For more than 10 years now, Bianchi and his independent “empire” of clubs have battled it out with the big boys, and he’s eeked out a living while creating a nearly unparalleled vibe in the music community for up-and-coming bands.
During the jam band explosion of the late 1990s and the first few years of this decade, Bianchi hosted bands that turned into mega jam band stars, booked legendary performers into his small clubs, and nurtured a scene around a hippie vibe that was so open, his patrons didn’t even balk when he branched out and put other genres of music on his stages.
A few months ago, on these very pages, legendary concert promoter Barry Fey said that there would never be another independent talent buyer like himself because of the changes in the industry since his hey day of the late ’60s and early ’70s — and he was right in saying that. But Bianchi is as close as one can get to that level, ferociously independent, in love with the music and probably on par with Fey in terms of their mutual adoration and respect for their audiences.
The following are excerpts from my conversation with Bianchi:
Marquee: What was the first album you ever bought?
Marquee: What was the first concert you ever attended?
Bianchi: The Rolling Stones, Oct. 4, 1981 at Folsom Field in Boulder. We (my brother Phil and I) asked my mom and she talked to my dad who said, ‘Yeah. They have to go. You gotta make sure they go. This might be their last tour,’ Which, of course, it wasn’t.
Marquee: The Grateful Dead is so obviously such a big part of your life and your clubs. When and how did you get into them?
Bianchi: The first time I saw them was in 1985 at Red Rocks. Someone had told me the year before at an Aerosmith concert that if I saw one concert it had to be the Grateful Dead, and within and hour that guy got kicked out for being too drunk.
Marquee: Were you hooked right away?
Bianchi: Not really. I was hooked on concerts right then, but not really the Dead. My brother told me that I had to go to school on the East Coast so that I could see more Dead shows and I said, ‘O.K. I’ll do that. I’m pretty smart and can get into any school I want.’ So I went to Rochester and I planned my orientation around one Dead show on July 4. The Grateful Dead are the ultimate college band. At the time, R.E.M. was on the cover of Rolling Stone as the ultimate college band, but once I got into school I realized the Grateful Dead was really the ultimate, no matter what the flavor of the month was. Still, I didn’t consider myself a Dead Head. I didn’t like the stigma, but that’s what I was doing with my free time. I kept on avoiding the terminology and all of that until Jerry Garcia died. I was pretty literate in all music; more of a ‘music file,’ where I was specializing in the Dead. After he died I was kind of forced to admit that I was a Dead Head. It’s kind of hard to say you’re a Dead Head when you’re applying to medical schools.
Marquee: You went to med school?
Bianchi: I got into medical school, but I decided not to go. I decided to get my masters in literature. With med school it seems like if you go there you get into so much debt that you don’t have any choice whatsoever to do anything else. So I got into CU Boulder’s masters of literature program.
Marquee: The jam scene has seemingly diminished in recent years. Do you see that, and how do you continue when it’s such a big part of your business?
Bianchi: I don’t know if it’s diminished. A couple of bands got a lot bigger and it can hurt business as the little guys graduate and get bigger, but I think that it just makes us need to find inventive ways to recreate that situation. There’s always another band out there. But, I think that it’s more and more difficult for new bands to emerge because no one wants to try anything new. The only time they did was when they were forced to because of Jerry’s death and the Grateful Dead’s demise.
Marquee: You’ve been a successful independent guy for a while now. Do you have any aspirations to go into the corporate realm of talent buying or promotion.
Bianchi: I don’t know. I’ve gone against the grain for so long and sometimes that sucks, but I almost think it would be unrewarding to go that way. I guess the journey is the prize. No one celebrates having Phil Lesh at the Fillmore, he plays there all the time, everyone plays there. But when we get a big act like that it’s a celebration. (Phil Lesh and Ryan Adams played a surprise set at Dulcinea’s 100th Monkey in 2006.) I love this so much that I don’t feel like it’s a job. It’s like an extended hobby and I’d be afraid that it would turn into a job there.
Marquee: What’s your next step for your business?
Bianchi: Well, a few weeks ago I was approached by the Oriental Theatre. They wanted to share some shows, but I had said no. Finally, they said they were going to need some help, so I said I’d throw my full force in if I could have a stake in it. They have a great neighborhood, a great theatre and a great staff that’s able get things done. They have a community, is what they have. So this puts us in there too and gives us some more flexibility in our shows and scheduling.