Through two decades, I’ve been on the giving side of the Sammy.
Up to the stage the smiling winners would march. I’d hand over the shiny, black Syracuse Area Music Awards trophy to the rightful recipient of the Brian Bourke Award for Best New Artist, and all was right in my world. Heck, some years they enlisted me to also present the trophy in another category as well. Always, I was ready. These folks deserved the applause and the attention from the Central New York community.
Between the last edition of the Sammys — on 11/11/11 in Oncenter — and Friday night in The Palace Theatre on James Street, my world changed. My job writing about music and entertainment for the big newspaper and web site in Syracuse was no longer after the layoffs of Jan. 31.
Some calls had come from people who believed that after 29 years of delivering daily ideas and angles and hopes and dreams to the literal and figurative doorsteps of CNY (the first eight in sports and the last 21 in music and entertainment) it was my turn to experience the other end.
I was reluctant.
The feeling was deep. A journalist wants to write the news, not be the news.
I said no thank you a couple of times, in full-blown, very stubborn Bialczak mode.
Then they double-teamed me.
Frank Malfitano, founder and executive director of the M&T Jazz Fest and creator of the Sammys, informed Sammys chair Liz Nowak that he thought it was appropriate to give the Founders Award to myself and Molly English-Bowers, the veteran editor-in-chief who recently had been let go by the Syracuse New Times.
It was only the second time founder Malfitano deemed somebody worthy of his award. The last time, it was given to the folks at WSYR-TV for meritorious coverage of the entertainment scene.
I couldn’t say no any longer.
Entering the Palace with my wife, Karen, Nowak spied me and said to stay near the front and be ready.
Indeed, the Founders Awards would be first on the program.
Master of ceremonies Skip Murphy started the evening by calling Tim Fox of the aforementioned Channel 9 to the mike. A letter from Malfitano was read; he was busy running his Legends of Jazz Series show featuring James Carter at Onondaga Community College.
Malfitano was effusive in his praise for myself and English-Bowers.
She was called to the stage first, and gave her thanks with a very sad voice. Her dismissal came weeks after my layoff, and with no advance warning. In comparison, the folks at the paper had been told who was staying and who was going on Oct. 1.
I feel like I’ve known Fox forever. One year he even interviewed me during the St. Patrick’s Day parade as I was part of the paper crew pulling a giant balloon down South Salina Street. No surprise that the talented TV producer had done his homework. He told the theater how I had come to Syracuse via Ward Melville High School on Long Island and the University of Maryland-College Park. Orange Nation embraced me nonetheless, Fox declared. The audience laughed.
And I had decided.
This was a good thing.
I was happy.
I started my moment on stage with a little joke about Malfitano, famously known for bestowing great praise about the musicians he loves and brings to town. Thanked the Malf Man, so important to the cultural vibrancy of this community, for being understated as usual.
After lightening the mood just a tad — I strained to hear a couple dozen chuckles, maybe — I seriously thanked Malfitano for pulling the Founders Awards out of the Sammys closet. I thanked Nowak. And, of great importance, I thanked everybody in the theater and plenty of folks not there. A writer is only as good as his or her story, after all, and the Central New York community had given me so many interesting stories to write.
I heard a loud and genuine applause. Walking off the stage, I remember hoisting my Sammy high and waving to the Palace Theatre.
The getting was as good as the giving.
I nestled my Sammy in my hands the rest of the show, carefully handing him to Karen when I was called to the stage for my coveted regular duty along with friends Ron Keck and Jeremy Johnston of Subcat Music Studio. The Vanderbuilts won the Brian Bourke Award. They heard their just cheers.
Karen and I took my Sammy across James Street to Chadwick’s, which we consider our Eastwood neighborhood bar. Karen bought three beers at my request. One for each of us and another to place in front of my Sammy.
Heavy metal band Killaton was already there with their Sammy. We talked to the musicians and their wives and we tipped beers toward each other. Sammy is sharp, we decided. They wondered how they would share their trophy.
My Sammy, shiny and full of significance, sits atop the bookshelf in our living room as I type.
We’ll give Sammy a good home.