Jazz pianist Marcus Johnson, improvising solos and a growing business


At an August concert in Annapolis, Marcus Johnson chatted about his wine label, Flo. (Daniel C. Britt/The Washington Post)
September 3, 2012

On a recent Sunday evening, Marcus Johnson and his jazz quintet are tearing it up at Georgetown’s Blues Alley. The full house is egging them on. Johnson finds a riff he likes, a phrase on the upper-register piano keys, and his fingers move like hummingbird wings as he repeats and repeats and repeats. You can tell from the faces of the other band members that this is uncharted territory, but they are all sticking with the groove, which becomes deeper and deeper and deeper.

Then — bam! Everyone stops on a dime. Two, three, four, and it’s off to the races again.

After a couple more similar excursions into technical showmanship, Johnson stands up from the piano and pulls out two bottles of wine from under the bench. The label reads, “Flo.” This is Johnson’s newly minted personal brand. “Jazz and wine go together,” he tells the crowd. He announces a contest: The best tweet to @flowines will receive a “Flo-Pack” — a bottle of red, a bottle of white and three of Johnson’s CDs.

The list of famous names on bottles includes racer Mario Andretti, actress Drew Barrymore and golfers Arnold Palmer and Greg Norman. Mike Ditka has a wine. Among musicians: Dave Matthews, Madonna, Motley Crue’s Vince Neil, rapper Lil Jon and Simply Red’s Mick Hucknall. There is even, sadly, a Hitler wine. But you are unlikely to find any of the above celebs signing bottles and playing concerts in Giant Food parking lots. Such shows are increasingly common on Johnson’s calendar, though, carrying the slogan, “Make your life better one sip and one sound at a time.”

Where most musicians look no further than their fingers on their instruments, expecting brilliance to be its own reward, Johnson is attempting to redefine “artist” in more job-centric terms. He scans the pages of Inc. Magazine and the career of billionaire businessman Richard Branson for inspiration and guidance. In an economy where even the winners of “American Idol” are not guaranteed strong album sales, Johnson’s business success makes him something of an exception.

Kris Ross, operations director for Blues Alley, says Johnson is “one of the few musicians who realizes that there’s a business to the music business.”

“It’s been a crazy couple years,” says Johnson, during which the musician-slash-businessman — or is it businessman-slash-musician? — launched his wine label and created the Delaware corporation Flo Brands, which supplies wines to major grocery chains such as Giant Food and SuperValu as well as to outlets serviced by Southern Wine and Spirits, the nation’s largest alcohol distributor.

In 2005, Johnson realized that the music industry was collapsing and asked himself, “What business am I really in?” His answer: the therapy business. “My job is, through music, to make your morning a little better, make your drive to work a little better,” he says, sounding like a Quiet Storm DJ, “. . . your drive home from work, cooking dinner, after dinner, late night — make it a little bit better.” This new self-definition led to the creation of Flo, “For the Love of.”

The first products were a series of thematic CDs: “Flo . . . Standards,” “Flo . . . Romance,” “Flo . . . Chill” (Vol. 1 and 2) and “Flo . . . Holiday.” Through a family contact, Johnson met with James Sturgis, director of supplier diversity for Ahold, owners of local Giant Food and many other grocery chains. Sturgis put Johnson’s discs into Giant stores, a novel idea at the time. But CD retailing was also in free fall, although Sturgis would become a champion for the musician, introducing Johnson to other retailers and wine distributors.

‘A bigger picture in his mind’

“Music is an avenue through which Marcus sees that he can reach his ultimate goal,” Sturgis says, adding: “Whatever that might be. World domination, maybe.” Sturgis laughs and says, “When you talk with Marcus, you can always see there’s a bigger picture in his mind.”

For Johnson, that bigger picture soon involved wine. In 2010, Johnson played a concert at Tarara Winery in Leesburg billed as “Flo Fest.” There he met Rob Piziali, a sommelier with Napa Valley experience. Johnson pitched the Flo Wine idea and Piziali thought the brand “had a lot of legs.” “We both really thought it was a great idea,” he says. Piziali got Tarara to create a custom wine, but the vineyard couldn’t produce enough volume. Sturgis thought the label design was “ahhh” and the wine “pedestrian.” He suggested a rethink.

Still, Piziali was so convinced by Johnson’s charm and business plan that he quit his job to sign on as Flo Wine chief executive. He took Johnson to Napa Valley to seek out bigger vineyards to partner with. The overwhelming reaction, Piziali says, was, “ ‘Wow, you guys are really onto something.’ ” That something involved not just the wine, but Johnson’s ability to promote it nationally from the bandstand. “It’s almost like taking your winery on the road,” Piziali says.

The Napa trip netted the men a meeting with Jim Ferguson, general manager of Delicato Family Vineyards and Coastal Wine Brands, one of the largest makers of custom wines. Partnering with Delicato would give the fledgling label both “good grapes” and “scalability.”

But, as Johnson recounts the meeting, Ferguson’s initial reaction was a patronizing, “So you want to be in the wine business?” Johnson countered that he was, in fact, already in the wine business and rattled off his CV: MBA from Georgetown University; law degree, also from Georgetown; winner of the Small Business Administration’s Young Entrepreneur of the Year award in 2001; time on the faculty of Georgetown Center for Continuing and Professional Development and as an adjunct professor at Bowie State University; in addition to Billboard-charting albums and an NAACP Image Award nomination.

Johnson pounds the table in recounting each bullet point from his pitch, then stops. “Sometimes, people can characterize my confidence as arrogance, but the thing about it is, I was scared as hell. Because our deal and the future of our company and our getting funding is in this meeting, and this guy doesn’t think we can do it.”

Two hours into the meeting, Ferguson came around. Flo had a wine partner, but no wine yet. And Flo still needed cash, about $2.5 million, according to Johnson. He reached out to a friend from grad school, Sean Johnson (no relation), for help with fundraising. A veteran of the restaurant and hospitality industry, Sean Johnson agreed to help “on the side” and found venture capital company the Wentworth Group, which ponied up the dough. Last year, Sean Johnson quit his job to become chief financial officer and chief operating officer of Flo Wines.

Giant steps, and more

By February, Flo white and Flo red were in every Giant Food store in Virginia, in many Target stores, in stores owned by the SuperValu grocery chain and in hundreds of outlets across the country serviced by Southern Wine and Spirits. Flo recently added Whole Foods to the list.

A self-confessed “wine geek,” Piziali says Flo is meant to be “easy drinking.” Johnson describes it as “distinguished yet kinda sexy yet kinda cool. So it’s not snotty. Or snobby. It’s fun.”

Sean Johnson says, “What appears to set Flo Wine apart, at least according to our supply-chain partners, is that Marcus is willing and able to market and promote the wine.”

Johnson laments the “happenstanceish” way most artists approach their careers and attributes this to the fact that artists are usually taught by other artists who also lack business sense. When he was president of the student council at Howard University, he lobbied for classes that would teach kids to repair instruments.

“If you can fix one saxophone a week at your crib, maybe that’s enough money to pay your rent so you can practice the rest of the time,” he says. “You’re setting some of these kids up for failure by not giving them a way to make money.”

The 41-year-old soon-to-be-father attributes his success to growing up in the diverse culture of Silver Spring and “a lot to Montgomery County public schools and to professors or teachers that I had.” He cites his band director at Blair High School for introducing him to the wonders of the Fender Rhodes electric piano and the Yamaha synth keyboard.

“We were allowed to dream,” he says. “We were given the tools to make those dreams come true.” Johnson often speaks in such lofty tones, echoing the motivational texts he loves to read.

But Johnson also credits “coming from a family of pretty smart people and motivated people.” Johnson’s four siblings are either doctors, lawyers, professors or, like him, a combination. His father got his PhD at 26 and was a professor at Ohio State “in the ’70s,” Johnson says. His mother has a master’s degree and is a psychotherapist. Johnson’s stepfather is a dentist.

“I was always introduced to entrepreneurship at an early age,” he says, adding, “But I was also introduced to music at an early age.”

Much of that music came from the radio in his mother’s silver Buick Regal, tuned to WASH-FM. The soft-rock station played Earth Wind & Fire and Stevie Wonder but also wimp-rock such as Air Supply and country-lite Kenny Rogers. Johnson loved it all. “Yeah, I like Tears For Fears, the Eagles, Depeche Mode,” Johnson admits freely. His latest album, “This Is How I Rock,” is a tribute to his eclectic musical education.

Johnson didn’t get into playing until junior high, when he heard go-go and wanted to start a band. Although his parents were supportive, Johnson says, “Still, all the time my parents were like, ‘But you’re not gonna just do music, right?’ ”

Blues Alley’s Ross and Ahold’s Sturgis use the same term to describe Johnson: a hustler. And both laugh when they say it. “I don’t mean that in a negative sense,” Sturgis says. “I can’t say I know anyone personally who works harder than he does. I think this wine is just the beginning of what we’re gonna see from this guy.”

And Johnson says he’s thinking about Flo Lounges, fragrances, hotels . . .

“Every artist who decides to make his or her living through music? That’s a business,” Johnson says. “And you are the CEO of that business music brand. You’re fooling yourself if you’re not.”

Nuttycombe is a freelance writer.

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