Photographs by Rafael Tongol
It’s a cool autumn evening, and in a nondescript converted warehouse in Winter Park, a Latin jazz-fusion band is playing like a furnace at full blast.
Fusion Beat, an eight-member ensemble based in Orlando, is pumping out an exuberant sound that combines bass, drums, trumpet, trombone, flute and piano. About 60 people are seated, but they can’t sit still.
The irresistibly eclectic music melds influences from Puerto Rico, Cuba, South America, Europe and New Orleans, according to the group’s leader, drummer Dimas Sanchez. “You put a lot of stuff into the gumbo,” he says.
As indefinable as Fusion Beat is, the venue is just as unusual: Blue Bamboo Center for the Arts in Winter Park. It’s not exactly a nightclub, although it does sell beer and wine and has a few tables mixed in with the chairs. It’s more of a hangout for performers and people who love to watch them work.
Tucked away on Kentucky Avenue near Interstate 4, across from an auto body shop, Blue Bamboo’s workaday façade gives no hint of the wide-ranging entertainment presented inside. A $10 or $20 ticket will get you into most shows, which rates as an extraordinary bargain considering the caliber of the talent on stage.
Chris Cortez and Mark Piszczek — musicians who are also lifelong friends — opened the venue last summer to give Central Florida’s array of accomplished artists a way to connect with more discerning audiences. The third founder is Cortez’s wife, the appropriately named Melody.
Of the venues available to Fusion Beat, Sanchez says: “This is the only place that’s run by musicians. They are vigilant about the artistic mission.”
Although Cortez, 60, and Piszczek, 59, both grew up in the Orlando area, they traveled distinctly different musical paths. Cortez, a guitarist, started in folk and moved into rock “as I got older and my hair got longer.” He finally found his niche, he says, in jazz.
Piszczek (pronounced PEES-chek) majored in oboe at the University of South Florida in Tampa. There he played alto sax in a jazz band and began a career as a performer and a prolific composer of jazz and classical works. He earned a master’s degree in composition from the University of Southern Maine.
In the early 1980s, the friends found themselves playing for a jazz-fusion group called Big Bamboo, the house band for several years at a downtown Orlando club called Daisy’s Basement. We went from ‘There’s no place to play’ to a steady gig five nights a week,” recalls Cortez.
When Daisy’s basement closed, Piszczek wrote a tribute song called “Blue Bamboo.” The name had a certain enduring appeal to Cortez, who later formed a jazz record label and called it Blue Bamboo Music.
In the decades that followed, Cortez continued to play guitar. But he also branched out into production and concert promotion while living in New Orleans, Houston and Charlotte.
Piszczek also moved around the country, always performing, composing and arranging. Over the years, the erstwhile bandmates occasionally reconnected, personally and professionally. Cortez produced a 2009 album of Piszczek’s jazz work, Bamboo Philharmonic.
But several years ago, Piszczek and Cortez each reached a crossroads — and each ultimately chose a route that led back home. Piszczek, living in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, was going through a divorce.
“I was feeling really terrible,” he says. “I needed to go someplace where people had my back.” That refuge turned out to be Central Florida, where his parents still lived.
The Cortezes were living in Houston when Melody was offered a high-powered job with an oil and gas company, which would have meant a move back to New Orleans.
But she was ready for a break from the corporate world, and eager to be closer to her mother and stepfather, who lived in Central Florida. She had already been a “silent partner” in the record label, and told her husband: “I’ll jump off the cliff with you.”
So in 2015, the three teamed up to give yet another new meaning to the name Blue Bamboo.
LEAP OF FAITH
Chris Cortez answers the door at Blue Bamboo one fall morning while wheeling a vacuum cleaner — a sign of just how unglamorous running a small performance venue can be.
As managing director, he oversees every aspect of the operation — including the technical stuff. Piszczek, whose title is creative director, acts as floor manager and, during performances, can usually be found behind the bar.
Piszczek is also Blue Bamboo’s resident composer and handles special projects — such as working out an alliance with McRae Art Studios to fill the center’s winding gallery space.
Melody, the director of operations, does everything from handling the money to greeting the customers. Each event, she says, is drawing return customers along with new faces.
The 6,000-square-foot Blue Bamboo building, on which the founders have a 10-year lease, is a yellow, utilitarian box in an industrial area behind the new Lombardi’s Seafood.
Unlikely as the location might now seem, real estate on the west end of Fairbanks is poised for takeoff, Cortez believes. In addition, he says, Blue Bamboo is close enough to other local arts venues to be considered part of the area’s cultural hub.
Blue Bamboo has a spacious lobby and a well-appointed “green room” where performers can get ready. The concert hall, which seats about 100, boasts a high ceiling, a lighted 12-by-35-foot stage, a grand piano, a sound system and acoustics that both performers and listeners have found surprisingly accommodating.
A small bar occupies a back corner, and there’s a control room for performances and recording sessions. Scattered here and there are rugs covering a concrete floor that recalls the building’s previous use as a warehouse.
The lanky, dark-haired Cortez knows music — and plenty of musicians. But figuring out how to tackle a project like Blue Bamboo was an education. Assembling enough nearby parking to get permits from the city was especially challenging, he says.
During the $250,000 renovation, Cortez recalls, he followed construction workers around with a broom. But his hands-on approach means that he knows the location of every stud in the walls.
“I’m very hard-headed,” Cortez says. “They told me I couldn’t build this place, and here we are.”
Blue Bamboo is actually two operations under the same roof: Blue Bamboo Music Inc., a commercial studio and record label that also presents ticketed concerts; and Blue Bamboo Center for the Arts, a nonprofit that supports local artists and arts education.
The nonprofit arm will offer at least 24 free events per year, funded entirely by donations. During the center’s first four months, 10 free concerts were held.
On opening night in July, Greg Parnell was at Blue Bamboo as leader of the Orlando Jazz Orchestra, a group of professional musicians who play in the Big Band style. The orchestra hadn’t had a concert in six months, and its audience was primed.
The show sold out, “and we had to turn people away,” says Parnell, who also manages the orchestra that carries on the name of legendary bandleader Glenn Miller.
The Orlando Jazz Orchestra has returned to Blue Bamboo because members like the space — and they like the adventurous attitude of Cortez and Piszczek. “Chris and Mark have an open mind,” Parnell says. “They’re willing to take chances.”
Not all performers at Blue Bamboo have filled the room, of course — and some shows have drawn as few as 30 people. But musicians have an incentive to promote their own appearances because they can get a cut of ticket revenue.
“What’s your dream of a concert?” Cortez says he asks musicians. “Put it on for us. We want to see that show.”
Cortez and Piszczek have broadened Blue Bamboo’s programming beyond the jazz and classical programs they started with. Folk and bluegrass concerts, theatrical performances and even literary readings now have a home at the venue.
During a four-week period late last year, Blue Bamboo hosted the Licorice Sticks Clarinet Orchestra, a 25-member group that plays clarinets of all sizes; mezzo soprano Jacqueline Rawiszer; Master of Fine Arts students from the University of Central Florida reading from their stories and poems; and a plethora of jazz concerts.
“The one thing they have in common is that they are very, very good at what they do,” Piszczek says of Blue Bamboo’s array of acts. “The quality of performance has been on a world-class level the whole time.”
Cortez says that as Blue Bamboo becomes more established, he’s thinking about forming alliances with other arts groups and stepping up fundraising for the nonprofit.
He hopes to use the space during the day for classes and private lessons in art, music, theater and dance, allowing the center to fulfill its goal of “supporting today’s artists and educating the artists of tomorrow.”
“We are very much feeling our way,” Cortez says candidly. “We don’t know yet what it is, how to run it, how to do it the best way. I’m a guitar player learning how to be a proprietor.”
Although Cortez plays guitar throughout the area — including at Blue Bamboo — he’s had to put new productions for his record label on hold while establishing the center. But he hopes to change that soon, perhaps by recording Blue Bamboo performers.
Piszczek, whose long, steely gray hair is gathered in a ponytail, has likewise curtailed personal projects. But in 2015, he celebrated a major achievement when the Brevard Symphony Orchestra in Melbourne premiered his Songs From the Gulf of Sorrows, a classical work dedicated to wildlife harmed by the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. It was part of a program with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, no less.
Jeff Flowers, a president of Performing Arts of Maitland, has become the fourth member of Blue Bamboo’s board of directors, and his organization’s Stage Band and Baroque Chamber Orchestra have both performed at the center.
Flowers, who also owns an environmental testing firm, says he hopes his experience in building a nonprofit cultural organization will help as Blue Bamboo grows.
“I think that they really scoped out the challenges and have taken a conservative approach,” he says of the center’s founders. “It’s tight right now, but they’re succeeding beyond what they would have expected at this point in their development.”
It’s important for Blue Bamboo to succeed in the long run, Flower says: “It’s a local, intimate experience — and I can’t think of another one like it.”
For more information about shows at Blue Bamboo, visit bluebamboocenterforthearts.com.