Marsalis trumpets technology for exclusive crowds at Morton's
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Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette
Wynton Marsalis pauses between notes during a sound check at WQED-TV studios yesterday afternoon. The musician is in town performing a concert that will be beamed into Morton's restaurants across the country.
For one night only, the menu at Morton's The Steakhouse will feature a live Wynton Marsalis performance beamed into the Downtown restaurant. And for dessert, patrons will have the opportunity to ask him questions.
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Tonight, jazz fans -- at least a select few -- will get to hear Marsalis when Pittsburgh-based Velocity Broadcasting airs a 90-minute concert and commentary session with Marsalis and his quintet live from WQED. The event also will feature a performance from Matt Savage, a 14-year-old pianist with autism, and Omega Love, a Pittsburgh-based group that released a self-titled album earlier this year.
The concert will be beamed into the Velocity boardroom suites at more than 50 Morton's restaurants across the country, including the restaurant here at Sixth and Liberty avenues. For $250, ticket holders get to enjoy dinner and Marsalis' performance in Morton's HD 7.2 surround-sound digital theaters.
After the concert, guests can pick up a telephone and present their questions to WPXI news anchor Darieth Chisolm, who will relay them to Marsalis.
During a tour of the boardroom at Morton's earlier this week, the tables were already set for tonight's concert.
The room is structurally wired with "smart" technology to provide voice, video and high-speed data transmission. With the touch of a keypad, the front area of the room is transformed into a 108-inch high-definition screen. Mounted in the ceiling are nine JBL speakers and two subwoofers designed to provide an excellent listening experience from any seat or table in the room.
Philip Elias, founder and CEO of Velocity Broadcasting, said he started the company about a year and half ago because he wanted to provide a better communication medium to targeted individuals.
"We call it precision marketing," said Elias. "If I have the opportunity to sit down and break bread with you and can't sell you my product, there's no amount of advertising that's going to change your mind."
Velocity Broadcasting is the private television broadcast division of Elias/Savion Advertising Inc.
Elias said he developed the concept more than five years ago, but at the time, he said, the idea was too forward thinking. But in February of 2005, he launched the idea, initially in house. Then he flew to Chicago and presented it to officials at Morton's headquarters.
"Obviously, they liked the idea," said Elias.
Elias said he and his team then began to build the infrastructure, which meant connecting all 64 of the Morton's restaurants nationwide.
"We installed satellite dishes and receivers on the roofs of all the restaurants, and then we started to build the Velocity HD suites in all of the boardrooms in the restaurants."
At that point, Elias said, they went on the air with their first broadcast. "This month alone we are doing four broadcasts."
In terms of private performances, Elias said there are plans next year to broadcast seven, including one slated for January with Pittsburgh native George Benson and Al Jarreau.
But tonight's performance will feature Marsalis, the Pulitzer Prize-winning trumpeter.
Phillip A. White, senior vice president and executive producer of Velocity Broadcasting, said Marsalis was the first person he approached after Elias explained with his plans.
"I was blown away after Elias explained his vision," said White. "It was such a paradigm shift in entertainment and the way it's delivered. So I called Wynton, and he invited us to New York."
In February, Elias and White flew to New York and met with Marsalis.
"Wynton immediately got what we are doing and came on board," said White. "Wynton is on the cutting edge. You only get one time to be the first. In his position, he could have easily said no because he can get a gig all day long. So for him it was not about the money. He felt Elias' passion, and that is what brought him on board."
Speaking at WQED studio yesterday afternoon, Marsalis said he became involved in the project after he had the opportunity to sit down with both Elias and White.
"A lot of times I do things based on my feelings," said Marsalis. "I like to do things I feel good about. I like to work with people. I'm old-fashioned in that way. I don't really care about the names of things as much as I do about people. They came to my house, and we talked, and I like it.
"What they are doing is an interesting concept. We have the opportunity to have people around the country hear the music in high-definition. It's like being in a movie theater with enhanced sound in an intimate setting. I'm more into playing jazz in many different arenas. I've played on the subway, picnics, clubs, parades, the ballet and symphony orchestras. I like to play in all sorts of settings."
Marsalis said he understands that watching him perform on a wide screen isn't the same as live concert experience.
"Many times I notice people at concerts looking at screens rather than the stage," he said. "Sometimes I have to slap myself because I find myself doing it. A lot of times you'll go to a sporting event and you'll look at the screen because the camera guides you. Sometimes you'll get the ambience of an event, but you miss the nuance. In this way, no, it's not like being there in the room with someone while they are playing. But no one can be in 50 different rooms at one time.
"I grew up in New Orleans, and my favorite musicians didn't come too often. Freddie Hubbard came twice. Miles Davis came once. Something like this would have been interesting for me. This isn't trying to present itself like a live performance. It has an integrity of its own, and the technology has created its own type of intimacy."
Marsalis said he hopes the experience will bring more people to jazz.
"I guess that will depend on how well we play," he said.
"I don't put all of the responsibility of liking something on the audience. We have to play good, too, and that's with art in general. Our responsibility is to try and play our music on the highest level we can and not try to judge or assess whether another person can understand what we are playing.
"Many times they understand what we are doing better than we do."
First Published October 7, 2006 12:00 am