When he was a teenager, Tom Kohn listened to records by British groups like Steeleye Span and jazz artists like saxophonist Dave Liebman. On a recent trip to England, he was invited backstage to have a beer with Steeleye Span's lead singer, Maddy Prior. And he now chats regularly on the phone with "Lieb."
Kohn is the proprietor of Bop Shop Records, but over the last 30 years he's also put on hundreds of concerts and, in the process, gotten close to the artists he loves.
"It's the most creative way I've found to lose money," Kohn says, sitting in the record-filled Bop Shop basement that also serves as a green room. "The value of this whole thing to me is who I've met and what I've done," he says. "There's no price that can be put on the friendships I've made. All of them are beautiful people."
Most of the artists who play Kohn's concerts at the Bop Shop, Lovin' Cup, or Abilene Bar and Lounge stay at his house, provided they are not allergic to his four cats. Kohn says most of the concerts actually break even and bringing people to the store is good for selling records.
Seven years ago, the Bop Shop moved from its home of three decades in the Village Gate. Concerts shifted from the cavernous Village Gate atrium to a stage at the back of the store's current location at 1460 Monroe Avenue. But the store is now six times larger than it was in the old space, seating 50, with standing room for another 50. At a recent concert by saxophone legend Don Menza, the crowd reached 100.
With over 150,000 records in the store, Kohn presides over a music lover's dream. But when he opened the Bop Shop in 1988, he had no plans to become one of Rochester's leading impresarios.
"God, no," Kohn says. "I'd been driving to Buffalo and New York to see bands. There was very little coming through here." When a customer told him the Pierre Dørge Quartet - with Hamid Drake on drums - was organizing a tour, he thought, why not?
"We tried that out and it was great," Kohn says. "We had a full house." That first show was recorded and a CD will soon be released, joining discs by Paul Smoker, Ralph Alessi, Trio X, David Murray and others, recorded - and often titled - "Live at the Bop Shop."
"I've always been interested in forward-thinking music," Kohn says. "The Sex Pistols and Ornette Coleman are not that far apart in spirit."
Early concerts tended to be performed by groups who stopped at the store on their way to recording sessions at the experimental label, Cadence Records, in Redwood, New York. Some artists still stop by on their way to gigs, but others book shows to try out new material or simply to play for a hip audience.
After 30 years, some of the artists Kohn has gotten closest to are gone. He especially misses the late trumpeter Smoker, woodwinds player Willem Breuker and violinist Billy Bang.
"Billy Bang was a close friend," Kohn says, tearing up. "He played for me five times before getting him into the jazz festival where he became a star. One night, after the show, we talked until 3 a.m. about his 'Vietnam' record, which he hadn't recorded yet. He told me about being a tunnel rat. You give a guy a pistol, shove him in a hole and he crawls through it, shooting anything that moves. That's gonna fuck you up."
Looking back over the decades, Kohn is proud of hipping Rochester to artists as diverse as Steve Lacy, Amy Helm, The Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, Wanda Jackson, Bill Kirchen, Peter Bernstein, Jenny Scheinman, Mary Halvorson, and many more.
Kohn has no shortage of stories to tell. In 1999, Ken Vandermark was playing at the Bop Shop when he got a call informing him he'd won a MacArthur "genius" grant. And just last month, Kohn brought The Sun Ra Arkestra to Lovin' Cup and, he says, "We were all on Saturn for a couple of hours."
"It's all about the passion that you get out of it," Kohn says. "I still don't own a television. I read books, listen to music, and go see whatever art I can. People need to know how to stimulate themselves, open their minds up, and be curious. Don't pigeon hole things immediately. Some free jazz is difficult even for me. I describe it as audio Pollock."
Kohn says he couldn't have put on close to a thousand concerts without the help of his wife, Jann Nyffeler, and good friends like Robert and Donna Iannapollo.
And the shows just keep on coming. A mini-festival following Thanksgiving will feature: the Dave Rivello Ensemble in its 25th anniversary concert on November 23; No Fast Food, with Dave Liebman, Drew Gress and Phil Haynes, on November 24; and Barry Altschul and 3Dom Factor, with Joe Fonda and Jon Irabagon, on November 26. December concerts include Canadian pianist Marilyn Lerner and New York guitarist Pete McCann.