Meet Jan Bell, Brooklyn’s Americana Music Ambassador
Mar 09, 2020
Yes, March is Women’s History Month but we like to highlight the women making Brooklyn history year-round! Today, we’re excited to introduce you to Jan Bell, Brooklyn’s unofficial Americana music ambassador and Founder/Director of the annual Brooklyn Americana Music Festival, which features 50 free, live music events from Dumbo to Red Hook, taking place at woman- and artist-owned establishments and stages all along the Brooklyn waterfront.
This year’s event takes place September 17 – 20. The four-day festival features at least 51% women artists performing original music in The Dumbo Archway, Superfine, Powerhouse Arena, Time Out Market, and Sunny’s Bar (Jalopy Theatre is the sole ticketed event hosting Opening Night Gala).
If you’re a music fan who’d like a taste of Brooklyn Americana before the festival before the fall, mark your calendars for June, when prominent and emerging female artists will be playing live music for free every Friday at Brooklyn Bridge Park, pier 6.
Yorkshire, England-born Jan has been living in Brooklyn since falling in love with New York City after college. We wanted to hear her thoughts on living in Brooklyn, cultivating community, and carving out a space for the arts and women artists in an increasingly less DIY-friendly city. (This interview has been lightly edited for space and clarity.)
Realty Collective (RC): What’s your connection to Brooklyn?
Jan Bell (JB): I have been based in Dumbo since the late 90s and have curated 3000+ free, live music events during that time. I am a fellow musician and songwriter and have enjoyed presenting events for folks from America and around the world, and helping build community—on stage and off over the last twenty years.
Many of those once-emerging artists whom I was able to help with their first decent-paying gig and listening audience in NYC have since gone on to command main stage festival stages and sold-out shows at prominent venues like Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, The Royal Albert Hall, Union Chapel (UK), The Grand Ole Opry, and even stadium tours opening for big-name acts like Willie Nelson.
When I started out it was before cell phones, and I would literally make plans as I crossed paths with my neighbours in Dumbo on the way to the deli. September 11th was a defining time for our community and within 24 hours, I had wrangled a benefit event in honor of the Henry St. Firehouse First Responders who lost nine men that morning. I invited The Federation of Black Cowboys of America, who had shown up at the Urban Cowgirl Cabaret I had produced with Superfine—a woman-artist owned and operated restaurant bar and art space. In partnership with Superfine, I have produced over fifty fundraisers for artists in need, small organizations, disaster relief, and national calls to action. Music as an international language is the best vehicle I know to bring folks together in good times and bad.
And I’d like to add to that that when I moved to Dumbo twenty years ago, artists could rent live-work space at around $1/square foot. I need to fact check but am pretty sure it’s approaching 100x that nowadays. (ED: she’s right)
Queen Esther image courtesy of Jelle Wagenaar.
RC: New York can be isolating. How have you created community for yourself? How do you recommend others do it?
JB: Strive to be a genuine member of your neighborhood. Make a daily effort to get to know your individual neighbors. Talk to the old-timers, the young families, the kids, and reach out to the teenagers if you want to have their Instagram thumbs up! Support local businesses. Spend your hard-earned dollars locally. Get to know the staff by name. Take an interest in the people working locally, as well as the folks who live locally. They are all your future customers/fan base. If you see an opportunity to help out for a good cause, do not miss the chance to volunteer, pitch in, and be there in person if possible.
“Those kind of efforts do not happen overnight. Genuine commitment and being there along the way are what help make the big difference for our community when the chips are down. “
RC: Who are some women on a local or national scale whom you admire?
JB: I have to say the three women who are the founders and business partners of Superfine. Superfine is the core of the pioneer artist community in Dumbo since the mid-90s. Tanya Rynd is a painter and a poet; Cara Lee Sparry is a filmmaker, industrial designer and inventor; Laura Taylor is a sculptor and the chef. Her American Mediterranean menu is remarkable and as a regular customer I attribute my good health to them in a big way. They started out with supper clubs in their Dumbo loft overlooking the river at the end of Jay St; and are now going into twenty years at their current location on Front St. Their menu changes daily and they are the first ‘farm to table’ restaurant in Dumbo. They feature a different visual artist every month; and present Jazz, Americana, and have hosted hundreds of performing artists from every corner of the city and around the globe.
[On Friday,] Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the race, so this is where I could write ‘What she said’. And the speech Laura Dern’s character makes in Marriage Story about women always being held to impossibly higher standards than men, pretty much says it all. As serious a situation as it is, her words made me laugh out loud. We have to make sure we never lose our sense of humor—especially the ability to laugh together when presented with a challenge. It’s important to help each other remember we are fighting the good fight, and all the women and men who have gone before us.
I am an experienced live sound engineer for thirty years, especially when it comes to string bands. I was a lighting designer and master stage electrician before that. Women are still a minority in these technical fields. Little things like folks saying ‘sound man’ have long since failed to offend. You have to choose your battles and take the high road.
The Chapin Sisters image courtesy of Jelle Wagenaar.
RC: What’s given you the motivation to stay in the fight?
JB: I was that kid at school putting on plays, and getting as many classmates involved as possible. Even the shyest boy or girl could go to my ‘Tree Box’ and pull out some 1970’s brown flares and a green polo neck and play a member of the forest. When the Dumbo Arts Festival said 2015 would be the last year, it was a no brainer to aim to keep the live music aspect going. Plus I couldn’t go anywhere in Dumbo without folks stopping and asking me ‘Are you going to keep doing the music?’. Those same folks are now vitally involved, attending concerts, supporting the development of the festival, and telling their friends and neighbors about Brooklyn Americana. [I was thrilled when] PBS featured the festival on Arts NY, and The New York Times put us in their top-three events to attend alongside the Pope’s visit! I make sure to celebrate and share that acknowledgment with everyone that supports Brooklyn Americana Music!