Ignore all ardent proclamations of what the “cool” neighborhoods in Manhattan are. Because in a basement in Midtown — an area currently known for oozing corporate conformity — sits the Jazz Club, a joint bursting with the forgotten glamour of the rollicking music venues and sexy speakeasies that once dotted the streets of the city. It’s the most exciting room in town, owed all to one man’s vision.
Brian Newman is creative director, musical master, and arguably the biggest draw at the Jazz Club, which opened last year at the Aman New York hotel. Moody, sophisticated, and architecturally designed for unrivaled acoustics, the space has revitalized New York nightlife, staging incredible shows and musical performances you won’t find anywhere else.
Newman, who’s worked on albums that were nominated for numerous Grammy Awards, is no stranger to the city’s music scene. Over the past 25 years, he’s bartended and performed his way through nightclubs, louche lounges, and dive bars. And, after a long and passionate journey, his persistence and dynamic talent have made him a legendary trumpet god and bandleader, playing with the best musicians all over the globe. “Duane Park was my first residency in New York,” Newman recalls. “I started with one burlesque dancer and a trio. Back then I’d get a couple of showgirls and burlesque dancers in my old ’79 Riviera, and we’d drive around town exploring all the hot spots that the blogs and the Times were talking about.” Well before she was a superstar, Lady Gaga threw Friday night parties at the old St. Jerome’s on the Lower East Side where Newman tended bar. Since then, the two remained close friends; Gaga is his young daughter Sistilia’s godmother. He’s arranged and played on two of her albums and is the bandleader for her Jazz & Piano show at the Park MGM’s Park Theater in Las Vegas.
Like his friend Gaga, Newman has become famous for his showstopping signature style. A little bit rockabilly, and always formal, he favors sharp, tailored suits. With his pompadour hairstyle and vintage Caddy, it’s obvious he’s having as much fun playing the part as we are watching. “I always knew that looking good and being kind and humble was a part of the whole package,” he says.
Growing up in Cleveland, with dreams of becoming a famous musician, Newman started creating his image in middle school. He shopped at JCPenney to look his best at school gigs. He’s since had a sartorial glow up. “When I moved to New York, I knew I wanted custom bespoke suiting, and now I only go to the best: Craig Robinson, in Williamsburg. Craig is an insane tailor and a real artist. I remember when he started doing suits for Interpol back in the day. I wanted to buy stuff from him but couldn’t afford it. When I started making money, I started buying one or two suits a year. Now I have a closet full.”
With all his talent, Newman is aware that luck played a big part in his ascent to center stage. In 2005, he answered an ad on Craigslist to play with a burlesque troupe and met Angie Pontani, an award-winning burlesque dancer who is now his wife and creative partner. “We played at the New York Burlesque Festival,” he says. “I was a side man in another band and admired her from the beginning. First, she’s smoking hot and super talented, but also her business acumen. I loved her as a performer, producer, and businessperson. She’s still head and shoulders above anyone else, and she’s taken my career to another level. I’m so proud to be married to her.” Today, she’s running the New York Burlesque Festival, which is in its 22nd year. On top of all that, “Angie’s a hell of a cook,” he adds proudly. When asked about their relationship, Pontani admits, “Of course, there are challenges when you work with your partner. We always laugh that even the shows where maybe we had been getting on each other’s nerves that day are the best. It’s such a high whenever we are onstage together. It’s an adrenaline rush like taking a ride on the Cyclone.”
Newman and Pontani got married on February 16, 2013, at Brooklyn’s Grand Prospect Hall, a restored opera house, in front of 350 friends and family. She wore a glass-beaded, floor-length Elie Saab gown, similar to the dress Grace Kelly donned when she married the Prince of Monaco. Ever-dapper, Newman sported a custom-made bone-colored jacket with black pants, a nod to Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. “Fun fact,” Pontani adds with a laugh, “I fell in our first dance because someone stepped on my gown.”
Newman recently wrapped his annual Las Vegas late-night residency at the MGM’s NoMad Library, a retro, Louis Prima-style show. Gaga is a frequent attendee, and Usher and Cher have both been spotted in the audience as well. “We play these late-night shows after their shows, with showgirls and burlesque comedy. Angie performs, and we have special guest singers — everybody from Ashanti to local acts and musicians that come through town with their bands.” It’s that type of talent and entertainment that Newman currently brings to his New York shows as well. “It’s kind of like uptown with a downtown vibe. We’ve created a place where musicians can hang out and be themselves,” he says. Newman loves playing the songs that people know, especially from traditional rock acts. “I like making them our own. I love doing the Police; Chris Botti’s Sting music is some of my favorite stuff. I also love Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, and Willie Nelson. Their songs are part of the American lexicon. When I think of the Great American Songbook, Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Jimmy Van Heusen are among the obvious names, but I feel that others like Kurt Cobain should be there, too. These guys wrote songs that are part of America, so that’s what I want to play.”
Regardless of what night you go, you’re in for a musical extravaganza, but Friday nights at the Jazz Club are always unique. Newman and his band are often joined by special all-star singers and dancers. “We have a lot of beautiful dancers that are part of that New York dance scene, and after our band plays, we have the DJs; incredible downtown DJs and others from all over the world.”
As for the future, Newman reports that his team has been shooting a lot of behind-the-scenes footage for a possible documentary. The focus is on him, Angie, and their daughter, Sistilia. “It’s an autobiographical approach about our musical family and how we work,” Newman says. “Sistilia is a great kid and a big part of what we do, and we want to share it. Until then, I’ll be here making the crowd move and dance and make sure that this club is popping every night!”