Mitch Stein scored his first success as a live-music promoter decades ago by booking New Orleans’ first family of funk, the Neville Brothers.
While attending Syracuse University in the early 1980s, Stein booked concerts for the student body. Charged with the task of bringing in a band to fuel a dance-a-thon raising funds to fight muscular dystrophy, he knew of the Neville Brothers from their place in the Grateful Dead’s extended musical family and he knew they were perfect for the gig. “I needed to book a band that would keep people dancing for hours and I said we should hire the Neville Brothers,” Stein says. “Nobody knew who they were in Syracuse—they hadn’t made it that far yet. It took a bit of fighting on my part but they acquiesced, telling me, ‘Okay, but if it’s a failure, it’s on you.’ Of course, the Nevilles killed it and everyone danced for hours.”
Fast forward a decade to the early 1990s and Stein comes to New Orleans for the first time, arriving not just as a fan but also an accomplished keyboardist and music-industry veteran as both producer and promoter. “I went to see Charles Neville play with his straight-ahead jazz trio at Storyville,” Stein recalls. “I reintroduced myself to Charles at set break and he invited me to sit in on keys with him and bassist Mark Brooks. That night began my journey of Jazz Fest as an annual event for me.”
While still good friends with Neville and Brooks to this day, Stein admits it’s tough for an outsider such as himself to break into the tight-knit family of New Orleans musicians. So he started attending Jazz Fest every year as a fan and immersed himself in the city’s music and overall vibe. “I would seek out jam sessions and opportunities to sit in with the intent and hope of being able to perform as much as I could during Jazz Fest,” Stein explains.
Friends with the Radiators since seeing them play at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall in 1990, Stein made his Fair Grounds debut as a musician in 2012 with the Gatorators, an ensemble featuring Dave Malone, Camile Baudoin and Reggie Scanlan from the Rads along with Stein and drummer Eric Bolivar. The project has since sold out multiple-night runs at Sweetwater Music Hall in Northern California and played the Stepmoms’ Halloween Ball last year at Cafe Istanbul.
“Playing [Radiators classic] ‘Confidential’ with those guys is a transcendental experience for me,” Stein confesses. “And it’s not only with those guys. It’s being able to play New Orleans music in New Orleans with New Orleanians. It’s almost unfair for a guy like me to have such opportunities and I certainly don’t take it for granted.”
Stein’s inspiration for playing keys in the loose boogie of spirited melodies and tight rhythms found in so much of the New Orleans musical tradition can be traced to his early training. Playing piano since age four, he recalls that by age 14 he started to feel that “I was missing something, that the playing I was doing was satisfying to an extent, but I was just playing other people’s music and doing so in the classical context of playing it note for note, or else it was wrong.”
Classical training came to abrupt that year when he went to the highly regarded piano teacher he studied under in Chicago. “I added a grace note during a piece by Chopin, Stein says, “and my teacher asked, ‘Why did you do that?’ I said, ‘I thought it sounded better that way.’ At that point, he told me he refused to teach anybody that would do that to Chopin.”
Saying when he first heard jazz piano/electric keyboard maestro Chick Corea, “I knew what I was missing,” Stein went on to study jazz composition at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. He settled in San Francisco and built a varied, but fruitful, career in film and music, highlighted by collaborations with a stellar roster of players as well as his own band with the jazz fusion of Groove Division.
The Grateful Dead’s 50th anniversary year in 2015 inspired Stein to reach out to Chuck Perkins, owner of Cafe Istanbul, about booking a show in celebration. The resultant Dead-scene all-star group Axial Tilt proved such a hit that Perkins asked Stein to book shows the following Jazz Fest. Succeeding that next year with New Orleans–based musicians, Stein was then asked by Perkins to become the exclusive booker of his club during Jazz Fest. “That felt like validation for all the years I had put in,” Stein says.
This Jazz Fest, Stein’s shows feature him playing with and promoting major talents on national and local levels, from Joan Osborne to Honey Island Swamp Band. The bookings are “a pretty significant gamble on my part, since it’s my dime on the line.”
“I’m an independent producer so I know what it means to take on a labor of love,” Stein says. “And I know, done the right way with the right people for the right reasons, that it’s worth every cent and every second you put into it.”