How Birthday Boy and Strategic Group’s Jonathan Schwartz Stays On Top

When I was king of the castle, people were always surprised that I did any "day" work for my nightlife career. They actually believed I woke up at 4pm, had a swanky brunch, went to a boutique, bought a dozen expensive looks (on the cheap), had dinner at the best place in town (on the cuff), and then showed up at work (game-face on), barked some orders, and waited for the fabulous to show up. Nightlife doesn’t just happen. The few that make it look easy are the ones that rarely sleep and are completely enveloped in their work. It’s a thousand phone calls, a million texts, tweets, tumbles, and face-to-face meetings – yes, people still do that. It’s adjustments of what ain’t working, and refining of what ain’t broke. It’s a thousand small things that add up to big bucks at the end of the year. You are never alone, but you often feel isolated and detached. My ex used to say that when I opened a club, it was as if I was its heart and I had to keep beating or it would simply not work. An old adage that I always kept close said, "It’s not just a nightclub…but a way of life.”

Jonathan Schwartz is doing it, and doing it, and doing it well for the biggest game in town: Strategic Group. He is having his birthday tonight at Lavo, naturally. A super-duper, uber-secret DJ is promised. Since I DJ on Thursdays at Hotel Chantelle, I gave Jonathan my birthday wishes. I still haven’t figured out how to be in two places at the same time.

I caught up with the young Jedi Master and asked him all about it.

First of all, happy birthday. You are celebrating at Lavo… Tell me about the reason behind that choice of venue and what I might find if I could attend.
Hey Steve, Thank you for the birthday wishes, always good catching up with the man who’s seen it all AKA MR. Lewis! Ha. Celebrating my birthday at Lavo NY tonight because I think it’s the most well-rounded venue in NYC right now, and for me, it’s my Cheers. The venue delivers on hospitality, with great service, lighting, and sound, Top DJ talent such as Avicii, Calvin Harris, Tiesto, and Nicky Romero, and international crowd, image, special effects, and much more.

With that said, I can’t think of a better place to invite my oldest and newest friends to celebrate another year as the summer approaches. Thursday night you will find NYC’s elite and, what we all know as "the industry" crowd, along with friends looking to let loose to great music and champagne.

What is your role with Strategic Group and what is a typical day/night like?
My role at Strategic Group is head of nightlife marketing and programming,
My day-to-day consists of:

10am: in the office (working on promotions, talent-buying, concepts for nights, and working with my co-workers Rich Thomas and Andrew Goldberg to help curate the venues we call home (Lavo, Avenue, Dream Downtown, Marquee, Artichoke). Anything I can do on a given day to better the overall business, that’s my goal. As of late, much of my focus has been on our DJ line-up at Lavo NY –  not only booking an act, but making sure it’s the right date is equally as important.
Noon: take a few meetings, coffee, lunch, meet with people for future business and ideas.
2pm: staff meetings
3pm: payroll (make sure promoters/DJs I am responsible for are being paid properly and on time).
4pm: outreach, touch base with people, connect, reconnect.
6pm: what am I doing tonight…make plans for a given evening. I know I’ll always be with my close crew, but who do we want to let in that night to join us?
Dinner: host a dinner and go out to our venues. My favorite nights to go out are Thursdays at Lavo, and Tuesday’s new house music night at Avenue.
12:15am: arrive to club, host important guests (could be DJs), someone looking for a BIG night out, and my friends.
4am: go home (maybe stop at Artichoke pizza on the way, ha).Go through my phone and make sure I replied to everyone for that day – both business and personal. Always try to be accessible and available.
530am: SLEEP

Tell me about the Hamptons.
For the past eight years, I’ve spent a lot of time out in the Hamptons. Last summer was a very successful summer for me personally, as well as for the team I worked with out there.

I will decide about this coming season after my birthday. The Hamptons are filled with mostly the same faces year in and year out which is what I love most about it; it’s comfortable, and you know people on a very personal level.

I’m looking forward to deciding where my Hamptons outpost will be this coming 2012 season and letting people know next week, but I do know I’ll be spending a lot of time at the Stadium Red Estate house as much as I can, as I love the events my close friends Claude and Lee throw there.

How did you get into the biz and where are you headed with it?
I got into the business on a small scale when I was a junior in college. My three best friends and I started promoting parties over the summers when we were home and on winter breaks. We simply would invite our friends, and it started to escalate quickly, from 100 people, to 300, to 800 people. They eventually went on to finance and internet marketing, and I decided to stick with the hospitality business.

Post-college, I went on to direct promotions for former venues Manor and Arena before meeting Noah Tepperberg and joining the Strategic Hospitality Group family four years ago.

Today, I focus most of my time on Strategic Group and Tao/Lavo group venues, the Hamptons, and my most recent passion: Bounce Music Festival. The Festival is a college music festival touring company that brings some of the biggest acts into college towns. The most recent show was in Bloomington, Indiana for what’s known as Little 500 weekend, featuring Tiesto, Alesso, Tim Mason, and Topher Jones. My partners, Brandon Silverstein and Jared Lyons, are juniors at Indiana University and you will be interviewing them in years to come, I am sure!

Future plans are in the works since everyday something new gets thrown my direction. I’m always moving forward, never being stagnant. The hospitality industry is about staying ahead of the curve, finding trends before they occur, and putting my personal twist on them. With that, I have some fun ideas I’m working on bringing to life that I believe people want to experience.

He’s Back: Tonight’s W.I.P. DJ Aaron James

A Welcome Back Jack party is a must-attend. Jack refers to Aaron James. Aaron returns from abroad (and maybe a broad), has honed his skills, and is ready to take on the town. He is a great DJ, landing in a town that has accepted mediocrity in that job. It’s not necessarily anyone’s fault. There are probably more fantastic DJs than ever, but we are in a time where there are more venues than ever. Every Tom, Dickwad, and hairy-assed Jerk is now a DJ… err, including me. The loosening of restrictions on dancing in non-cabaret licensed joints has every restaurant, lounge, and hole in the world with a DJ booth. Most DJs use computers to ply their trade so the need for a space-consuming DJ booth is no longer a concern. A table in the back of the room works just fine. W.I.P., just about the best joint in town for a crowd that doesn’t want the same old mash-up sounds and black card weilding suits is getting their Wednesday night party together. Tonight, it’s DJ Spooky joining DJ Aaron James who returns from a long hiatus. Aaron used to work with me back in the day and I’m gonna come by and give a hug.

Where have you been?
I left the States in late 2008 following the Rock The Vote Tour (RTV), an epic experience which saw me collaborating with the likes of The Beastie Boys, Sheryl Crow, Eve, TV On The Radio, Santigold, Talib Kwele, Jack Johnson, Bootsy Collins, Santigold, on and on. The City was under the hammer of the Recession, and I had been in a rut for quite some time … too much monkeying around, not taking things seriously, squandering a lot of opportunities. RTV was a huge wake-up call as to what could be achieved if I put my heart and soul into it. Following the Tour, I manifested an opportunity to serve as creative director of a new venue in New Delhi through an old friend. We went on to win the Best Club in the city that first year, and it became one of the transformative experiences of my life. I could not have imagined then that I’d spend the next three years of my life in India, but the fun kept coming, and it was as if I was aging in reverse. And so I stayed, rocked every major city in the country, got ranked in the Top 10 DJs living there, and most recently toured with Pitbull on his first-ever India tour. The last year or so I have had a concerted focus to travel and play outside that country, and slowly I’ve been crossing cities off the list … Columbo (Sri Lanka), Kathmandu, Shanghai, and Ho Chi Minh.  When I get back there, I plan to hit the SE Asia circuit hard … the region is so alive, the economy’s cash is rich and eager for Western entertainment … and I am ready for bigger, more exhilarating markets.
 
What type of music are you offering up?
My repertoire has expanded ten-fold. Schooled in the NYC lounge scene, I have never been a single-genre DJ … and now even less so. In my last few weeks in India, I rocked a reggae party, a Latin party, commercial house, progressive/tech house, dubstep, breaks, and glitch. I’m all over the map really, but I obviously tailor the set for the particular venue and audience. It keeps it fun, and keeps me fresh.  I’ve learned over the years that if I’m bored, it can only mean one thing … I am boring.  I intend to keep mixing things up going forward, take risks, be daring.  And I will never again allow myself to be lazy, otherwise this job, not to mention my life as a whole, becomes meaningless.
Aaron James in Magazine resized
 
What do you fear about NYC nightlife these days? What are you hoping for?
Hahaha, fabulous question. Happy to say, all my expectations would just be hearsay, drawn from the input from friends who’ve been here this whole while and remain disillusioned with what’s going on here. I’m gonna give NYC a chance to surprise me, and find out for myself where the scene is at these days. I want to be startled. I hope to find a thriving, vibrant, diverse, sexy … more organic, and loving kind of energy than when I left. I still do miss the old-school New York vibe, when it was less about the posing, and more about the dancing and the loving. Is it impossible for us now to go forward by going back to that, I wonder? Let’s see. As for any personal fears, I suppose in the back of my mind I fear falling into the same color-by-numbers rut I was in before, musically speaking. But I’m determined not to let that happen. I’m sure it all boils down to the choices we make, so I’m looking to make only good ones. I’m confident there is a role for me to play here where I can bring my own personality to the tables, I just need to find it. Certainly making my "debut" at W.I.P. tonight (Wed) is a damn good place to start. There’s been synergy from the get-go. Andrew Lockhart of projekt:nyc roped me in. An old friend, he’s been on the cutting-edge for years. And I knew from the moment I sat down with Stuart Braunstein it was a perfect fit. I asked him what he expected of me musically, and he said for me to be myself and do "Me." Now that’s music to my ears.  
 
Tell my readers about your NYC DJ experience and why you are back?
I started out DJing in NYC back in 1997, two years after moving here. My first-ever gig was at Match Downtown for $60 and dinner for a six-hour set. Through Match, I met someone who hooked up a fashion event in the Sullivan Room at Life, more like a photo shoot with background music. The dullest gig imaginable, but that’s where I met Mark Baker who commented that I had played his favorite song that day … and the next thing I knew I was the regular Friday resident in the Sullivan Room for the hottest club that New York had seen arguably since Studio 54, and certainly ever since. In fact, you gave me many of my early breaks, Steve, and I’m happy to give credit where credit is due. Those were memorable years, and I went on to spin in most of the major venues across the city, including a two-year residency at Crobar.  Shortly after Crobar, I became disillusioned somewhat with the scene and put the bulk of my energy into private events, which at the end of the day were more lucrative and less taxing. Truth be told, I have to acknowledge as well that the scene may have become disillusioned with me. One of the biggest promoters in the game at the time once said that I didn’t take my job seriously. Though it hit me with the force of a battleaxe, he was right, and those words have been an inspiring force in my professional life ever since. I’m back now, primarily because my business visa expired, and to refuel my energy reserves that have always been deeply rooted in this city. I may have left New York, but New York never left me. The city itself, and not the nightlife scene, is what excited me most about coming back.  Just walking the streets again makes me feel so damn alive. I can’t say how long I will stay here before again heading abroad, for now it remains indefinite, but while here I definitely feel excited about the opportunity to shine. 
 
Aaron James resized
 
What’s still in your set from the last time you were here?
Virtually nothing, I presume. I’ve got a whole new bag of tricks. For the most part, I was caught up in the Top 40 sing-a-long karaoke machinery that had become NYC nightlife. One of the reasons I ventured out was out of boredom, and likewise, to prevent myself from becoming boring. I’m not against commercial music per se; I just needed a break from it. I needed a game-changer. Playing abroad, people were more tolerant and let me flex my creative muscle. If you don’t flex your muscles ever, you can’t build them.
 
Were you so much older then and younger than that now? Or are you now wise beyond your years?
Brilliant, thought-provoking, and particularly relevant question. It wraps my brain into a pretzel. Let me say this: it feels BIG to be back. There is nothing like reinventing oneself that is more challenging, and thus more exciting. I’ve always been wise beyond my years, but I haven’t always been smart, and I’ve made some unwise decisions along the way.  Not to say I’ll never make another mistake, but I don’t know that person anymore. I am not the same "Me," both personally and professionally.  I wouldn’t call this defining moment a disconnect at all, more like a seismic reconnect. For the past three years, I have been through an intense period of growth, a tsunami of change. Now in the calm after, I have a chance to truly reflect and feel it all catch up to me somehow. It’s as if there is this seamless fusion going on where my Past is pouring into my Present, assimilating and bridging the two worlds … and I am becoming more and more whole. At the end of the day, I am more happy than I have ever been, and I am more healthy mentally, physically, and spiritually. What else matters really.

Uncle Mike’s Closes, McCarren Park Pool Opens…

Matt De Matt’s birthday bash at his Gaslight annex G2 Lounge kept me away from Danny A’s latest screening as, once again, I couldn’t clone myself. Danny Abeckaser used to be best known for the company he keeps which includes boldface names like Leonardo DiCaprio and scores of models and beautiful people. Now more and more he is becoming a celebrity in his own right, having been a promoter and owner and club personality for decades. He works as both an actor and producer and has recently completed Freelancers and The Iceman. His role as drug dealer Jackie Solomon in Holy Rollers, a film he also produced, has me salivating for his next project. There will be other screenings, goes the logic, but I’ll have to wait until next year for Matt De Matt’s birthday.

At the party I was pleased to get a chance to chat up my friend Mason Reese who followed a childhood commercial acting career with a club/restaurant career. He may be small but he has big ideas and it was wonderful to catch up. Dina Regine and I exchanged war stories about DJing (she still does it) and people and places. It was an age-appropriate crowd for me and I’ll just leave you with that straight line. Yeah, I’m not getting any younger and neither was anyone in that room except maybe Matt who looked great and was certainly full of less BS than I hear from most people of his stature in the biz.

I like the concept of the “F**K the Hamptons” bikini and champagne brunches at Lavo on Saturday afternoons. I like that all the people in this town that I don’t enjoy as much as they think I do leave town each weekend for that never never land (as in I will never go there unless paid well). I am hearing raves about McCarren Park’s newly-opened pool and recreation facility for all the scruffy hipsters in Williamsburg. I had a blast last night at Hotel Chantelle which got its air conditioning together. The crowds – those that didn’t melt last Thursday – returned to enjoy the show and especially the roof. Debbie Harry came by to visit her pal DJ Miss Guy and I had a few minutes to chat with her. Last night I hung with regulars Tommy London and Marty Concussion of the Dirty Pearls. They were busy being boys-to-men…and back to boys-at-the-bar with Luc Carl. Before next Thursday’s DJ gig at Chantelle, I will see them perform at the Highline Ballroom with Bebe Buell, The Killing Floor, The Noise, and Ingrid and The Defectors.

My newest friend was telling me right before my DJ gig about her favorite bar: Uncle Mike’s. Less than 10 minutes later she received a message that announced its immediate closing. I’m rethinking my friendship… this girl is dangerous. The message said:

"tomorrow, Friday, is closing day for mike’s. we are throwing an ‘end of the world’ party. I expect everyone to make the bar as much money as possible if we want guaranteed jobs at the other company bars. the $ Friday needs to be huge. I couldn’t tell anyone until now, ring as much as possible. sell decor sell chalkboards, hats, glasses etc. starting at $10 the money will be very closely watched. drop text and Facebook bombs NOW. twitter, call, etc. put it on the sign in the am. sell every drop of liquor in here at full price. I need $6000+ tomorrow."

Uncle Steve is heading to Uncle Mike’s tonight with cash in his pocket. Yesterday I told Mason that the business is booming and that everyone is making loot. I might have misspoken. Come join me at Uncle Mike’s and I’ll buy you a beer…or maybe a barstool.

Fugees Producer John Forte On Performing at Tonight’s Gala and Serving Time

Tonight, The Fortune Society will throw a gala at the Trump Soho. One of the performers will be John Forte, known for his production of the Fugees and a fall from grace that ended with a 14-year prison sentence. He served seven years until George W. Bush, on his last day in office, commuted his sentence. John served time in Fort Dix Federal Correctional Facility, a sad place. I spent time in Schuylkill, another sad place. I made the most of it and came out a better person. I used my time to learn to write (a little), design a little, and prepare myself for a productive life. If not for friends, family, and business partners who believed in me, my return to society would not have been as easy. It wasn’t easy and life as you know it isn’t available to me. The simple things – like opening a bank account or renting an apartment – became huge obstacles to normalcy. There is the sentence you get from the judge and then there is the sentence society continually exacts beyond the time and fines. A person without a support system can find help with The Fortune Society.

Before his arrest and conviction, John Forte was VIP at my joint LIFE and every place everywhere. He was a brilliant success and a great guy with a zillion-dollar smile. I haven’t seen him since we both took our hits. Here’s an e-mail chat with John.

I haven’t seen you in a while, since we last hung out which, I believe, was at Life. We both have spent some time inside. This experience has had a profound effect on both of us. We have some talents and support systems and are now doing our thing but, for most, they reenter society without much help or chance to prosper. Tell me about your reentry and your dedication to changing a very flawed system.
I felt like the invisible man when I came home (in a post 9/11 era, no less!).  Walking into a building in New York City without identification and having to explain to the security guards that I’d just returned from prison and was going through the process of getting a driver’s license, passport, etc. was demoralizing and a bit humiliating.  But I had/have, as you mentioned, an incredible support system of friends and family who refused to let me get down on myself when I felt alienated and unsure of my footing in the world after being gone for more than seven years. My sentence was commuted – not pardoned, as it is widely reported. I was also fortunate enough to have a probation officer who was thorough, albeit supportive. In prison, I witnessed egregious abuses of power. I have heard about similar abuses of power within the probation system after convicted felons reenter society.  I was truly blessed not to have suffered from that. 

As a public figure, I knew I didn’t have the luxury of pretending that what happened did not. Instead of telling people (young people, in particular) how they should live their lives, I felt duty-bound to tell my story. Perhaps by conveying the mistakes I made that led me to receiving a 14-year prison term, the audience might think twice before they do anything that would risk their freedom. I was and remain determined to produce qualitative and substantive art that encourages the listeners to question everything, to speak truth to power, and to take nothing for granted.

None of us are perfect and neither are our systems – our criminal justice system included. There is a great deal of work that needs to happen in order to make our criminal justice system fairer and less discriminatory. The task can seem daunting, but that is no excuse not to try to make a difference. Every little dent makes an impact. While some dents might be larger than others, they all contribute to a reformation of the initial structure; therein lies the art and the beauty of collective dissidence.

Tonight’s The Fortune Society event has you performing. Tell me about what they do that gets you inspired to be involved.
The Fortune Society stands on the platform of second chances. Who among us has the right to say that a person cannot change? The Fortune Society’s message exists within my core. Through my ownership of responsibility and my acknowledgment of the poor choices I made, I was able to reassess who and what was important to me. It was a dialectical process that allowed me to redefine the meaning of personal success. Stopgap measures, like giving a person a glass of water when he or she is thirsty,is transient. The more sustainable model of activism and philanthropy empowers the recipient to find a water source of their own.

From Fugees producer to Fort Dix, how did you deal mentally with potentially a 14-year bid? How did you adjust to the elation of early release? I know when I was leaving my prison it was hard to not be sad for those left behind.
Everything changed the day I was convicted. The sentence was secondary. I was a first-time, non-violent drug offender. I had the blessings of a great family, supportive friends, a tremendous education, and a successful career. My arrogance and sense of entitlement deceived me into believing that I was above reproach. I accepted the fact that my conviction would always be a part of my history, but I would not let it define me. I spent the first few years away studying the law. 

One of my mentors inside gave me a jewel: "No one knows your case as well as you do. No one will fight harder for you than you can fight for yourself."  I spent hours in the law library and sent my research to my appellate attorneys. Of the three appeals, however, we lost them all. I used my time away to learn and to grow. I returned to school (I was accepted to an undergraduates program studying politics and international relations at the London School of Economics) and I also facilitated a weekly discussion group in critical thinking. I taught myself to play the guitar, and then I taught other inmates how to play, as well.  My situation notwithstanding, I did not want to lose my sense of dignity.

When I found out that my sentence was commuted it was one of the happiest days of my life. The news spread like wildfire throughout the prison. I was elated but I was also nervous. I knew the world changed (I read about it every day in newspapers and magazines). I didn’t know what to expect. I was also saddened to leave the friends I made – some of them grew as close to me as brothers. When I expressed this sentiment, the responses were practically the same, "Get out there and make us proud!"   

  

How did the bid affect your music?
I didn’t engage in music or think about it for the first few years. I was focused on fighting my case. I reconnected with music when I learned how to play the guitar; that was one of the most liberating experiences of my prison term. I learned how to accompany myself! I spent more time with my lyrics, making every word count. Without being preachy or pedantic, I wanted to reach a depth with my songs that evoked a deeper emotion… and it had to begin with an audience of one: me. 

What, besides the time, did you lose and what did you gain from your experience?
I lost the opportunity to share some of the most significant moments with friends and family while I was away – the good times and the bad. It was difficult not to attend weddings, births, and reunions. It was equally difficult not to be there when friends and family needed my support when they suffered. I gained the knowledge of how important it is to exist within the moment. For years, I lived in the past or the future and I took the moment for granted. In prison I learned that all we have is the moment, and it is up to the individual to savor every sweet second.

What are you working on now, and what is Le Castle?
Besides telling my story (in speeches or song), I have expanded my creative vision. With my friend and business partner, Christophe Charlier, I formed a multimedia production company, Le Castle. Our goal is simple: to make beautiful and substantive art (music, film, and other collaborative endeavors) that inspires people to effectuate change. We co-executive produced SXSW 2012 Audience Award Winner Brooklyn Castle. We also premiered The Russian Winter at the TriBeCa Film Festival 2012. It chronicles my 9-week, 5-city tour throughout Russia last winter. It is part tour-documentary and part bio-pic. We have new music to be released on the horizon – my own, as well as other artists I have produced.  

John Forte

MONDAY FUNDAY: Tonight’s Top NYC Events

So it’s the first day of the work week and there are four more days to go. We get it. But why ruminate when you can start to make Mondays the best night of the week? This weekly column is devoted to finding the best events across NYC hosted by individuals and places that are doing amazing, crazy, wild, sexy things on Monday nights. And we’re here to honor them. Here are tonight’s top events.

See something beautiful: 
Launching tonight is Time Warner Center’s star-studded holiday light display. Twelve 14-foot LED stars will dance and flash to Yuletide tunes, illuminating Columbus Circle. After, grab a cocktail at Warner’s new fourth-floor lounge overlooking Central Park: Center BarThe light show runs until Jan. 3rd. All the details here.

Do something crazy:
At LES nightclub Hotel Chantelle, there’s a legendary weekly game called Drag Bingo that’s attracted people from all across the globe. The celebrity drag hosts – Murray Hill and Linda Simpson – give away ridiculous, crappy prizes (like cat figurines and sheep slippers), and tell saucy stories about their past sexcapades. The best part: in the third-to-last round, winners strip down to just a couple of paper plates to cover up. Feeling adventurous? This is your place. The games begin at 7:30pm and last until 10pm. Happy Hour starts at 7pm. All the details here.

Watch something classic:
The Academy Award-winning 1975 crime drama Dog Day Afternoon, starring Al Pacino and directed by Sidney Lumet, opens tonight, 9pm at the East Village’s Anthology Film Archives. Watch the heist go wrong until Saturday the 8th.  And when you’re done, have some post-film discussion at international beer haven d.b.a. on 1st Ave. All the movie details here.

Hear something special:
In NYC, there’s a deep yearning to hear something that’s truly new, fun, rich, and fresh – and that’s hard to find – but you’ll find it tonight at Rockwood Music Hall, where rising singer and songwriter David Alan Thornton debuts some of his top narrative-infused pop songs with a band of pros, including pop sextet The Dirty Gems’ Mark Sanderlin. Plus, it’s Thornton’s birthday show, making it an especially celebratory night that’s hard to resist – so don’t.
The concert starts at 10pm. All the details here.

Follow Bonnie on Twitter.

Denver: Where to Get a Drink After Tonight’s Presidential Debate

If you’re one of the lucky thousands to land a seat in the University of Denver’s auditorium and get an up-close look at Obama and Romney’s nosehairs, then you’ll need a good drink after their first presidential debate. Whether you’re craving a whiskey and some alone time, or an $11 pitcher and a chance to share your viewpoint that no one listen to, you’ll find the place for you at one of these top five Denver bars for a drink after tonight’s presidential debate.