David Johnston, Director of Development at The Jazz Gallery

Apr 24, 2024

Meet David Johnston, Director of Development at The Jazz Gallery, a performance platform for emerging artists located at 1158 Broadway in NoMad.

1. Tell us more about The Jazz Gallery and its mission.

We’re celebrating our 30th anniversary next year, so that’s going to be big. The Jazz Gallery started as a rehearsal loft in SoHo. One of our founders, the late Roy Hargrove, needed a place to play trumpet and rehearse with his big band. He was kind of driving his neighbors crazy with his playing all the time.

Dale Fitzgerald, who was an amazing guy trained as an anthropologist, was Roy’s manager at the time. He was another co-founder, along with vocalist Lezlie Harrison, who still serves on our Board of Directors. We moved to Flatiron about 12 years ago when we were priced out of SoHo. But we love this community and plan to stay a long time.

We’re now presenting over 400 sets a year at 27th Street and Broadway. Thousands of in-person audience members come to hear this great music. Hundreds of new jazz artists debut here every year, and more established artists – who are like family – come back all the time. They say this is their home. Plus, residencies, commissions, fellowships, mentorships, rehearsal space – a whole suite of artistic and professional development programs to help jazz composers grow into the artists they’re supposed to be.

Our mission – The Jazz Gallery is America’s premier performance venue for artists who challenge convention, take creative risks, and lead their field as performers, composers, and thinkers. Every day, we celebrate jazz as a dynamic art form that is reflecting an ever-changing world.

2. You were recently named the venue’s Director of Development. Describe your role and what aspect of the job excites you the most?

Rio and Janet tell me what we need, and I go out and get the money for it. That’s it, really.

It’s exciting because it’s a great organization. Rio (Sakairi, our Artistic Director) is a legendary presenter and talent spotter. We’ve built a very loyal and devoted audience that trusts what she’s going to put on our stage. Janet (Luhrs) has been the Executive Director for over a decade, and has put the place on a solid financial footing. Which is huge in nonprofit arts in New York.  If you’ve worked in the field, you know how impressive that achievement is.

So much of my job is just introducing funders and donors to The Jazz Gallery. When I tell them about it, they come, they see what we do, they see these amazing artists, and they want to help. They want to be a part of this community. Raising money is a lot easier when the art is first rate, when it’s a place where people want to be.

3. April is Jazz Appreciation Month. How does the Jazz Gallery honor the occasion? What do find appealing about jazz music?

Every month is Jazz Appreciation Month around here. Every day is Jazz Appreciation Day!

I love jazz. I love it like an enthusiastic layperson. Unlike so many of the people who come through here, I’m not a musician. I can barely read music. But I love being transported, I love a transcendent experience as an audience member. And that’s something I get here every week.

4. You earned a degree in theater and you’re also a playwright, librettist, and screenwriter. What led you to choose a career in nonprofit development in the arts?

Nonprofit arts is something I fell into, really. I worked for a terrific organization for about 20 years and worked up to Executive Director. Then the pandemic hit and we had to shut it down, which was very sad.

But I had a decent skill set by then, and I knew who the funders were. When I was hired here at the tail end of the pandemic, I was the first dedicated Development person on staff. I could see this was an amazing organization, and they’d actually done pretty well with fundraising, but they needed someone to make the calls, do the research, and submit the proposals.

5. For those aspiring to work in this field, what professional advice can you share?

This is not rocket science. It’s mostly attention to details, and double checking and lots of Post-its. And not spiraling out when you get rejections. They’re inevitable. But I was an actor for years, so I get it. You get rejections for breakfast when you’re an actor in New York.

And for me – I don’t know if it’s this way for everyone, I’m just speaking for myself. I can’t raise money for something I don’t care about. I love this music and these artists and this organization, so I can do the work. It’s not easy, but it’s simple.

6. When you’re taking a break from the Jazz Gallery, how do like to spend your time in Flatiron and NoMad?

I love Rizzoli Bookstore. It’s one of those old school New York bookstores. I can waste a lot of time there. They also have jazz vinyl and I’ve picked up old Sun Ra reissues. When my husband Danny comes with me to the Gallery, he loves to browse Buffalo Exchange before the set.

7. Finally, choose three words to describe Flatiron and NoMad.

Dinner. Drinks. Jazz.

Header & Thumbnail Photo Credit: Keng Kengkarnke

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