I’ve welcomed a few dozen extremely interesting guests to “06880: The Podcast.” But there’s never been one with quite the background of Jay Norris.
He’s helped market the careers of Notorious BIG, Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, Pink, Toni Braxton, Alicia Keys and many others.
He’s an innovative business leader. He knows tech, media, retail and real estate.
Jay brings people together. He builds inclusive communities. In his 6 years in Westport, he’s made a mark here. And — in new positions, like Westport Library board member and co-founder of Westport10, for Black families — he’ll make this an even better, more exciting and more inclusive town.
Click below for our fascinating half hour chat.
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Working with unknown musicians signed by Clive Davis to Arista Records, he’d head to an unfamiliar city. He’d find a venue; put influential journalists, artists and political figures together, and ride the buzz that followed. Norris developed marketing strategies for Notorious BIG, Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, Pink, Toni Braxton, Alicia Keys and many others.
He created “cultural currency,” he says. “It’s all about getting the right people in the room.”
Now the Westport resident looks forward to doing the same thing here. As a new Westport Library trustee, he brings great creativity, tremendous energy — and a vast network of remarkable friends and colleagues.
In a town filled with interesting people, Norris stands at the top of the list.
The Detroit native turned down a swimming scholarship to Stanford in favor of Howard. He majored in sociology, and was fascinated by both human behavior and pattern recognition.
That served him well, in the music industry. He studied artists and audiences. He promoted music — a subjective task — but always quantified the results.
In 1997, Norris Norris founded Tastemakers Media. It forged strategic partnerships between the music industry and lifestyle brands.
He branched into real estate investment, management consulting, and a curated retail platform for Detroit makers and innovators. In 2018 Norris co-founded Guesst, a software platform that helps property owners find complementary brands for their retail locations. He’s now CEO of the firm.
Six years ago, Norris and his wife Crystal were living in Brooklyn. With 3-year-Jacob soon to enter school; they started thinking about options. Crystal knew Connecticut through relatives. The couple explored a variety of cities and towns.
On a beautiful summer day, they drove to Compo Beach. “I felt something I’d never felt anywhere,” Norris recalls. “The vibe from people was different from anywhere else.”
He saw only 2 other Black people. That was enough to convince him he could live here.
As they searched for homes, there was just one must-have: walking distance to the train station. They found a perfect spot, 5 minutes away.
Three months ago, a Westport YMCA swim parent introduced Norris to Westport Library director Bill Harmer. Like matches Norris had made in music, there was instant chemistry.
He and Harmer talked about the Library’s cutting-edge production studios, and its innovative programming. As they discussed Westport residents’ interests and talents in art, film and fashion, Norris grew excited.
He’d been to the Library only once before. But he was hooked — by the building, and by Harmer’s “north star thinking.”
“The Library is such an added value to Westport,” Norris says. “It’s a cultural innovative hub.
“Schools in Westport nourish our kids. The Library does that for the public. It brings people together, helps us find our common denominator, and points us forward.”
It functions too as a community event space. By “community,” he hopes residents of neighboring towns will come too, to see all that Westport offers.
Norris points to the Library’s inaugural Verso Fest, a music-and-media festival held in the spring. Bridgeport educator/activist Walter Luckett brought a group of teenagers to the inspirational keynote by actor/writer/producer/martial artist Michael Jai Wright.
But Norris is not limiting his ideas to youths. As Westport’s own Shonda Rhimes proved at last month’s “Booked for the Evening,” the Library can inspire people “from 5 to 100.”
Jay and Crystal Norris flank Shonda Rhimes, at “Booked for the Evening.”
Norris hopes to tap into his broad network — men and women in film, fashion, sports and the media — to “bring subject matter experts into the room with influencers.”
He knows some of them, around the nation. He knows many others are here in town, waiting to be asked.
“We can do this!” he says excitedly. “Our lens is really broad. The best part is that Bill is really open to this. There’s no ceiling. He and the board want to hear all ideas.”
If you’re concerned that Norris has not yet mentioned a library’s traditional raison d’être — books — he says: Don’t worry.
During a Zoom interview with the current board, a woman said: “I like you. But I love books.”
Norris replied: “I hear you. I don’t want to change anything you love. I want to enhance it. We’ll send you targeted emails. We’ll customize things, so you can learn about what you want to read, when you want to read it. We’ll create programs that add to your experience, not detract from it.”
Norris’ community-building efforts don’t stop with the Library. In the summer of 2020 — right after George Floyd was killed — he and Crystal, a broker with William Pitt Sotheby’s, sat at Bartaco with another Black couple. They noted the lack of Black faces here.
Norris did what he does best: He brought people together. He created Westpor10 — a social community for people of color. Adults attend cultural events, and dine out together; they organize beach parties and other events for their kids.
Jay and Crystal Norris, with their children.
Norris also mentors an A Better Chance of Westport scholar, helping bridge the gap between the teenager’s home town, and his new community of Westport.
Jay Norris has a lot on his plate. But — echoing the title of a gold record by Celine Dion, an artist he once promoted — he’s a master at “taking chances.”
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