Over the past few years, the Blues, Views & BBQ Festival strayed from its local roots.
Crowds poured in from the tri-state region. They heard great music, ate smokin’ barbecue, and their kids played in bouncy houses and on slides.
The only thing lacking was Westporters. For some reason, it was hard to find our neighbors there.
The event — set for August 31 and September 1 , at the Levitt Pavilion and library parking lot — has been reimagined this year. Founder Bob LeRose returns as a producer. He, Westporters Peter Propp and Crispin Cioe have reached out to local businesses.
Though they’ve scrapped the BBQ portion of the event, they’re bringing in top acts like Lawrence, Anders Osborne, Southern Avenue and the Main Squeeze.
“We view the event as Westport’s hometown festival,” Propp says.
This summer, 3 interns helped maintain that hometown feel.
In the spring, Taylor Barr — a 2019 Staples High School graduate who heads to George Washington University soon — joined the team.
He recruited rising seniors Emily Stone and Emma Vannart. The trio worked on social media, strategy and sponsorship sales. They’re now distributing posters and postcards around town.
From left: Taylor Barr, Emma Vannart and Emily Stone.
Propp calls the interns “an unstoppable force.” They helped bring on West, Earth Animal and Greenwich Medical Spa as new sponsors.
“They analyze problems, crack jokes, are thoughtful and smart,” Propp says. “It’s been really fun to get to know them.”
As Blues & Views draws near, more volunteers (of any age) are needed. There’s work to be done before — and of course during — the festival. For more information on the event, click here. To volunteer, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Way back in 2008, Bob LeRose launched the Blues, Views & BBQ Festival.
The owner of popular Main Street restaurant Bobby Q’s wasn’t really sure if a downtown music-and-food event would fly.
From modest beginnings, it soared.
“Blues” expanded to funk, soul and rock. Acts like Blues Traveler, Spin Doctors, James Montgomery, Sister Sparrow, The Revivalists, Popa Chubby — and Charlie Karp — rocked the Levitt Pavilion stage.
The Levitt stage offers some of the best music anywhere.
Barbecue tastings and contests expanded from the library parking lot to the Imperial Avenue lot. Kids’ bounce houses and slides sprang up. Non-profits set up informational booths.
Thousands of visitors poured into Westport every Labor Day weekend. It was a huge event — so big, it was hard to pin down exactly what it was.
This year, organizers have one goal: Bring back the winning formula.
They’ve reduced the footprint. This year’s festival — set for August 31 and September 1 — will use the Levitt Pavilion and library parking lot only. “We’re renewing our focus on community,” organizers say.
They promise a killer music line-up, tons of family fun, interesting vendors, great food, convenient parking (including the Imperial lot), and affordable ticket prices.
They’ve also changed the name. It’s now Blues & Views — no BBQ. There may be a barbecue food truck, but the cooking competition is off the table.
However, LeRose returns as a producer. He’s joined by Westport tech entrepreneur/marketing strategist Peter Propp, and Crispin Cioe. The Blues Hall of Fame saxophonist/ songwriter/Westport resident has played and recorded with James Brown, the Rolling Stones, Solomon Burke, Tom Waits, Ray Charles and the Ohio Players, plus many others.
A high-powered steering committee of music-loving locals is helping too.
Planners hope to see more Westporters than ever at the 12th annual Blues Views & BBQ Festival — along with tons of visitors.
Blues Views & BBQ: a weekend for all ages. (Photos/Dan Woog)
Saturday — which focuses on New Orleans/Southern vibe music — includes the Anders Osborne Band. Sunday features funk and soul, with Brooklyn’s Lawrence as headliner.
Other performers include Jake Kulak and the Lowdown, Kat Wright, Southern Avenue, Flow Tribe, Neville Jacobs, School of Rock, The National Reserve, The Commonheart, High & Mighty Brass Band, and The Main Squeeze.
More details — including Jesup Jam’s kid-friendly food and fun activities — will be announced soon.
Tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. today. For early-bird prices and more information, click here.
In high school, Peter Propp’s rock band played covers of the Clash, Talking Heads and Pink Floyd all around Albany. Later, in New York in the 1980s, he had a (quick) gig at CBGB. He went corporate, then got into tech. But he never left music behind.
Growing up in Westport, Orphenian and 1981 Staples High School graduate Suzanne Sherman liked James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. She earned an MBA at Columbia, worked in the recording industry, and is now a longtime and much-loved music teacher at Greens Farms Elementary School.
Peter and Suzanne got married. They share a love of all kinds of music.
Suzanne Sherman Propp and Peter Propp, ukes in hand.
They started playing last year, in a Westport YMCA group led by Steve Forlano. When they heard about Connecticut’s Got Talent competition in Norwalk, they submitted a video.
They were selected, and played the Kinks’ “Sunny Afternoon.” That advanced them to the finals, where they performed the Turtles’ “Happy Together.”
Excited by the competition, Steve and Peter decided to produce a Ukulele Festival. They found a perfect, intimate venue: Westport’s Suzuki Music School, on the lower level of Colonial Green.
The event is set for Saturday, September 29. Workshops run from noon to 5 p.m. Concert doors open at 6.
Peter has plenty of experience running tech and business events, for IBM and as CMO for the Stamford Innovation Center.
A music festival is a wee bit different.
He booked national talent like Victoria Vox, and organized a great lineup including the CUkes from Westport, Abe Deshotel (Norwalk) and the Educated Fleas (Bethel).
The Ukulele Festival also features food trucks and local music vendors. Instruments will also be available to borrow.
Peter has had plenty of help, including Factory Underground (handling the live sound). Steve Forlano will be MC and workshop leader.
So who will come? With ukulele’s growing popularity, Peter expects people ages 10 to 70, from all over New York and New England.
Tiny Tim died in 1996. But I’m sure he’ll be there in spirit too.
On Monday, “06880” introduced a new series. “This Is ABC” is a photo-essay project my sister, Susan Woog Wagner, and I began last fall. The goal is to highlight the many facets of A Better Chance of Westport — the program that provides academically gifted, economically disadvantaged and highly motivated young men of color the opportunity to live in Westport, and study at Staples High School.
Today’s post features an ABC host family, and a Staples High School teacher.
THE PROPPS: HOST FAMILY
Suzanne Sherman Propp grew up in Westport with 3 siblings, in a close-knit family. She and her husband Peter have 2 children, Rose and Bennett. As a music teacher at Greens Farms Elementary School, her life is filled with kids.
So when a friend suggested she and her husband would make a great A Better Chance host family, they considered it. But the timing was not right.
Then 6 years ago, Eric Seidman became president of ABC’s Westport board. He and Suzanne had been classmates at Colgate University. The Propps got to know the organization well.
One day, Suzanne saw Rose at a Staples High School football game. She was hanging out with Khaliq Sanda, an ABC scholar. “He was like a magnet,” she says of his outgoing personality.
She and Peter thought again about being a host parent. Rose and Bennett were all in.
The application process included questions about how the family spends typical weekends. Hiking, concerts, movies, hanging out, occasional trips to New York, they wrote. They were approved, and looked excitedly toward meeting Manny Ogutu.
“It was love at first sight,” Suzanne recalls of that first day at Glendarcy House. “He gave us the warmest, nicest hug!”
He spent his first weekend — Labor Day — at their house. That’s when she discovered he loves apples. A lot. Little things like stocking the kitchen counter with apples went a long way.
Manny Ogutu, with an apple.
For 4 years, Manny spent 3 Sundays a month — from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. — with the Propps. One weekend a month, they shared the entire weekend. (A second family hosted Manny whenever the Propps could not.)
Manny and the Propps developed comfortable routines. Peter and Manny bonded over a shared love of superhero films. They also plowed through the original “Star Trek” series.
Manny is “a good kid with a great heart,” Suzanne says. Time together included “eating, crashing, homework, hanging out.” Peter taught Manny how to ride a bike, and make a bacon egg and cheese sandwich. They took him to Six Flags, and “Kinky Boots.” When Manny went to the prom, they took photos.
But Manny was more than a member of the Propp family. He joined the extended Sherman clan too. Suzanne’s siblings, nieces, nephews and parents get together often. Manny was embraced by all. He returned the love.
Manny Ogutu (rear), with the extended Propp and Sherman families.
Manny called Suzanne’s parents by their nicknames: Papa and Savta. He wrestled with the cousins, and did a Final Four bracket with everyone. “He’s like a mensch!” Suzanne marvels.
Manny developed a special relationship with Suzanne’s father, Larry (“Savta”).
In the same way, she and Peter became part of Manny’s family. They spoke every week with Manny’s father Nash, and his mother Stephanie. Suzanne sent photos galore.
During the college process, the Propps took Manny to schools like Colgate and (with Nash) Union. Nash came from Bayonne, New Jersey to join Manny and the Propps for special events like Passover, Shabbat dinner and bat mitzvahs.
Over their 4 years together, the relationship evolved. In the beginning, Peter says, “we didn’t know if we were there for support and kindness, or if we should insert ourselves more in his life.”
They struck a balance. When Manny mentioned difficulty seeing a clock, the Propps worked with ABC to make sure he saw an eye doctor, and got new glasses.
Manny enjoys Halloween with the Propps.
Sometimes they followed his lead. When Manny was interested in doing the AIDS Walk in New York, they joined him.
“Manny is naturally happy and content,” Suzanne says. “I’m not sure how much we really did for him. I think he knows a lot of people in our family care for him, and he felt very comfortable with us. And he got a lot of support from many other people in Westport too.”
As for the hosts, Suzanne says, “I got another kid to love like crazy.”
Suzanne Sherman Propp, and Manny Ogutu.
“We love this area. But there’s not a lot of diversity,” Peter notes. “We believe it’s important to get to know a ton of people. You have to get involved personally to affect change. Getting to know Manny helped us. He inspired me to do more entrepreneurial work in Norwalk. And Manny showed me the importance of embracing opportunities and relationships.”
Being a host family is satisfying. But it takes work.
“You can’t be passive,” Peter explains. “You have to be willing to get involved. When your kid is around, he should be a priority — just like with your own child. You have to make sure he gets discipline, quiet, sleep, transportation and food.”
“You can’t project your own image onto him,” Suzanne explains. “You have to find out what makes him happy. And then support him as much as you can, no matter what the challenges.”
Peter Propp helped Manny learn to ride a bike.
Manny is now a freshman at Carleton College in Minnesota. He and the Propps text and call often.
Suzanne says, “Manny was a gift. He was the perfect addition to our family. I cry every time I think about it.
And, she adds, “There’s always a bed for him here.”
Manny with part of the Propp and Sherman extended family, at the holidays.
MAGGIE GOMEZ: TEACHER/ADVISOR
In 2004, A Better Chance was a new organization. Board member Mary Lou Huisking — a Staples High School staff member — asked newly hired math teacher Maggie Gomez to serve as a one of the first ABC “mentors.”
It was an inspired choice. After graduating from Greenwich High School and Union College, Maggie taught in Barbados, then served in Malawi with the Peace Corps. She was used to helping in any way she could.
Maggie was matched with Charles Winslow. He was also one of her 9th grade students. “We were both new to Staples,” she recalls. “We figured things out together.”
They ate lunch once a week, in the math office, throughout his 4 years at Staples. Steadily, their relationship grew.
“He gave me great insight into A Better Chance,” Maggie says. “The boys make it seem easy, but I got to understand their struggles. What they do is really, really hard. They’re always under the microscope. Not many teenagers would leave their friends, and go to a foreign environment where they’re always scrutinized. I give them lots of credit.”
Their bonds remained strong, long after Charles graduated. When he got married in Florida, Maggie was there.
So were the scholars he had shared Glendarcy House with, and his host parents. The connections forged in Westport reinforced for Maggie the importance of A Better Chance, for everyone involved.
“I was so flattered to be invited,” she said. “This is what it’s all about: a great support system, and seeing how it continues.”
Maggie Gomez meets with an ABC scholar. (Photo/Susan Woog Wagner)
The program gradually phased out teacher mentors. But Maggie remains involved. She’s now the “faculty academic liaison,” serving as a bridge between Staples and the ABC board.
Part of her role is speaking with the scholars’ teachers, especially before ABC’s academic standards committee quarterly meetings.
Almost always, she says, teachers compliment the students. “They’re so well-spoken and reflective,” teachers tell Maggie.
“Even the freshmen,” she marvels. “And even with the less-than-stellar stuff. These kids are held to really high standards. I’m astounded how well they do — and in hard classes. Then they run track, or play in the band. Their time management skills are really impressive.”
She checks in with the scholars too, asking about classes and making sure seniors are on track with college application processes.
Maggie is also involved in the selection process for new scholars. She helps organize tours of the school, making sure to pair Student Ambassadors with prospective students who share their interests and personalities.
But she’ll always have a soft spot in her heart for Charles. Maggie’s first mentee spent a Semester at Sea while attending Cornell University. He gave Maggie a picture of himself, standing in front of the Taj Mahal.
“I see it every day,” Maggie notes. “It reminds me of the amazing things he’s doing, and how important this program is for so many people.”
(More “This Is ABC” stories will be posted tomorrow. For information on A Better Chance of Westport, click here. For information on the Dream Event fundraiser on March 17, click here.)
It sounds like a tech version of those Russian nesting dolls: starting a start-up whose goal is to create more start-ups.
That’s the best way to describe the Stamford Innovation Center. And — in a city known more for high finance than high tech, and a county filled with corporate commuters — it’s already made its out-of-the-box mark.
Westporter Peter Propp is the SIC’s vice president for marketing. He’s a passionate advocate for the organization, whose cooperative workspace, creative programming, networking opportunities and educational events offer entrepreneurs and early-stage start-ups a place to gather, collaborate, and innovate.
Peter has plenty of experience in the tech world. Much of it came at IBM, where he was a global marketer in charge of, among other products, the WebSphere Application Server and Studio.
IBM is to start-ups as GM is to Tesla. But Peter has leaped into his new role with gusto — and many good ideas.
“I like starting things,” he says. He points with pride to FairCo TEEM (Fairfield County Tech, Environment, Entertainment and Marketing) meetups. He helped grow the group from 4 people gathered above Bogey’s in the summer of 2010, to nearly 400 members. Events are held throughout the area.
“There are so many smart, accomplished, experienced people here,” Peter says. “A lot of them would like to reduce the hours they spend on the train every day.”
But they need a different set of skills to bring their ideas to reality. They need angel investors. They need developers to help them build prototypes.
The Stamford Innnovation Center helps. Housed in a beautiful 1907 Beaux-Arts building — the city’s old Town Hall — across from the mall, its high ceilings and marble somehow help nurture 21st century ideas and contacts.
Right now, a start-up is building a platform for lawyers doing due diligence on acquisitions. Two women from Wharton have created a business that helps students manage their education debt.
In addition to workspace, SIC hosts events. Nine are scheduled for January, including discussions, presentations and meet-ups.
During the Stamford Innovation Center Startup Weekend, developers and designers spent 54 hours creating ideas — then pitching them, in a competitive setting.
Peter calls the Stamford Innovation a “meta-startup.” That’s not a term he was likely to hear at IBM.
He enjoyed his work in corporate America. But, he says, in that world “you need permission and consensus for everything.”
The start-up world is all about “how much you can do, and how quickly.”
At the Stamford Innovation Center, the answer is: “lots, and real fast.”
Click here to help support “06880” via credit card or PayPal. Any amount is welcome — and appreciated! Reader contributions keep this blog going. (Alternate methods: Please send a check to: Dan Woog, 301 Post Road East, Westport, CT 06880. Or use Venmo: @DanWoog06880. Thanks!)