A glimpse into the successful career of the Jewish NYC based producer Danny Kapilian

Danny Kapilian, Jewish NYC based producer and presenter of live concerts, cultural events, festivals discusses his experience as a guest at the Israeli International Music Showcase.

 FROM LEFT, Danny Kapilian, Joni Mitchell, Herbie Hancock and drummer Jeff Haynes.  (photo credit: DANNY KAPILIAN)
FROM LEFT, Danny Kapilian, Joni Mitchell, Herbie Hancock and drummer Jeff Haynes.
(photo credit: DANNY KAPILIAN)

Danny Kapilian likes music. Actually, has a thing about art in general would be a more accurate generic observation of what makes him tick. While that may sound like a simplistic take, in fact it suggests something of the all-embracing philosophy of the 65-year-old Jewish New Yorker.

Kapilian earns a crust as a producer and presenter of live concerts, cultural events, festivals and touring productions worldwide. All of which made him an ideal guest to have over here, for this year’s International Music Showcase Festival, which took place in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv at the end of last month, under the auspices of the Yellow Submarine.

A glimpse of Kapilian’s bio reveals a roll call of some of the biggest names on the global showbiz scene, appropriately across wide tracts of disciplines, genres and styles. The latter is a natural sequitur to what he describes as “wide exposure from a young age to all forms of popular classical and theater music, TV shows, a wide range of film, live musical and dramatic theater, and other live entertainment.”

As he traversed his long and winding professional pathway he has worked with the likes of pop-rock titans Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Lou Reed and Patti Smith, while the jazz pantheon members with whom he has gotten down and dirty include pianist Herbie Hancock, vocalist-pianist Diana Krall, saxophonists Wayne Shorter and Ornette Coleman, and preeminent now 95-year-old crooner Tony Bennett. Add that to classical composer John Cage, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and New York Philharmonic, and legendary Indian sitar player Ravi Shankar and you have yourself one mightily robust production portfolio.

There seems to be no end of A-lister junctures in his backdrop. He also comes across as a self-made man and a self-taught professional who has always had the inestimable knack of hooking up with some of the best mentors around, feverishly imbibing from their knowledge, expertise and experience, and then heading on down the road of life to spread the good word.

 WITH JONI MITCHELL (right) during the Rolling Thunder tour. (credit: LOUIE KEMP) WITH JONI MITCHELL (right) during the Rolling Thunder tour. (credit: LOUIE KEMP)

Kapilian is an amiable character who likes a good story when he hears one and, even better, when he has one of his own to impart. Truth be told, he has illuminating and entertaining tales aplenty to share and I, for one, was perfectly happy to go with the raconteur flow.

One Goliath of the American music industry was of particular help to the then-young budding showbiz maestro. True to Kapilian’s penchant for unfurling multilayered meandering yarns, he enlightened me about his unexpected encounter with Joni Mitchell, by way of a member of the jazz world’s royalty. 

“In 1999, a wonderful friend of mine was then the director of performances for the Central Park summer stage concerts. We were both alumni of George Wein’s Festival Productions,” says the New Yorker, referencing the organization that put on large-scale jazz productions all over the globe. For the uninitiated, Wein, who died three months ago at the age of 95, organized the world’s first outdoor jazz festival at Newport, Rhode Island, in 1954.

Being around the jazz festival pioneer offered limitless educational bounty. “George Wein is one of my great heroes,” Kapilian smiles. “I worked with him for many years. He was the man who invented the jazz festival, and invented the folk festival, and he invented corporate sponsorship for live music.”

While it would be testing the boundaries of credibility to suggest that Kapilian has taken over Wein’s mantle, he has certainly been mixing it with some of the biggest acts around, across all manner of artistic domains.

Which brings us neatly back to the aforementioned Ms. Mitchell. “My son keeps on telling me to get to the f***ing point,” Kapilian laughs. It seems the gent in charge of the Central Park summer fare was looking to mark Canada Day with some quality entertainment. “Canada has amazing artists but, when he said that, I kind of knew exactly what I wanted to do,” Kapilian recalls. “1999 was the 20th anniversary of Joni’s Shadows and Light tour.” The said circuit was, in fact, Mitchell’s Mingus tour, which spawned the Shadows and Light live double album, recorded at the spacious Santa Barbara County Bowl amphitheater.

There were all sorts of minefields to be negotiated en route to making the show happen, not least a downpour on the day of the concert, which meant it was impossible to carry out a decent sound check. “I knew the musicians were good enough to handle the situation and that we’d wing it for the first three or four numbers,” Kapilian explains.

If there’s one principle that has guided the veteran producer thus far it is – as he puts it – a constant willingness “to do whatever it takes” to get the show on the road. That dogged determination has helped him get through thick and thin, and has brought him some delicious rewards. The guest artist roster featured a host of top cats from across a slew of genres, but there was one appearance he hadn’t reckoned for. 

“It was 6:30, we let the crowd in, and at 7 o’clock, half an hour before the show starts, a VW Beetle pulls up backstage and out steps Joni and her boyfriend at the time. No warning, no correspondence. We were all left with our jaws hanging down.”

During her lengthy career Mitchell proved to be one of the most versatile artists around, embracing folk music of various stripes and jazzy ventures. Both, and much more, have always appealed to Kapilian, who says that prompted his trip here, his first. 

“I was particularly attracted to come to this Israeli [International Music Showcase] festival because I learned that, in past years, it was done separately. It was either jazz and world music, or rock and alternative, or indie or whatever they call it. That’s what attracts me, being able to hear and see a little bit of everything.”

We met several hours before the first evening roll out, at the Yellow Submarine, although we got to chat later on during his stay, and after he returned Stateside. While he wasn’t overly impressed with all the acts he saw he was especially taken with artists he felt could successfully marry different styles and fields of sonic pursuit. It will be interesting to see if Kapilian, and the other guests from around the world, invite any of our musical finest over to their events – COVID travel restrictions permitting – further down the line. That, naturally, is the raison d’être of the whole showcase shebang.

As far as Kapilian is concerned he will just go on exploring the rich seams of cross-cultural and interdisciplinary gems out there. “It is all just music,” he states. “I firmly believe in the Duke Ellington thing: there’s good music and the other kind. You either recognize it immediately or you don’t.”

There are more memorable quotes on offer that help to unravel the Kapilian mindset conundrum.

“I worship the Beatles, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Miles [Davis] and [Thelonious] Monk. Monk said there is no such thing as wrong notes,” says Kapilian, who was a pretty dedicated cellist in his youth. He may have also cited an observation made by Davis reflecting on when his young sideman, pianist Herbie Hancock, went a little astray with his comping. “It’s not the note you play that’s the wrong note, it’s the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong.”

As Kapilian learned long ago, it’s just a matter of going with the flow.