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Tony Falco, who made The Falcon a gathering place and a destination, has died at 65

Tony Falco
Kraig Withak
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Tony Falco, founder and proprietor of The Falcon, a Hudson Valley jazz haven.

For years after I first got to know The Falcon and its founder-proprietor, Tony Falco, I liked to voice a stray opinion: that the work going on there, 70 miles upriver from New York City, exemplified just what’s sorely needed to sustain the culture and infrastructure of jazz. Support from on high — institutional investment, arts endowments, major grants — is critical, but hardly enough for the task. If on the other hand we had a dozen Tony Falcos distributed across the country, the reality for improvising musicians in the United States would be immeasurably better.

This was always pure conjecture, of course, because we don’t have a dozen Tony Falcos. There was only ever one, and his death on Oct. 28 struck a solemn blow to the jazz community both in and beyond the Hudson Valley. Falco was 65, and according to a statement from The Falcon, he died after a six-month struggle with complications from COVID-19.

The best measure of an arts presenter like Falco is twofold, involving both an audience and a cohort of artists. Both constituencies are evidently reeling from the loss. “Tony Falco was one of the most beautiful human beings I have ever known,” pianist and organist John Medeski tells WBGO. “How he built The Falcon from his home to the amazing venue we have all played and love is an inspiration and lesson in how to manifest a vision. Tony was a visionary. Always kind, generous, and a true lover of music, art and most importantly, community.”

The Falcon, a handsome multilevel space on Route 9D in the agricultural hamlet of Marlboro, NY, has been a true pillar for the surrounding community, and not just those predisposed to support its musical mission. At Falco’s firm insistence, there was never a cover charge, even when the bill featured A-list attractions.

Not quite a decade ago, I saw Pat Metheny at The Falcon with a brand-new cohort he called the Unity Band, featuring Chris Potter on saxophones, Ben Williams on bass and Antonio Sanchez on drums. (They played several nights as a workout before heading into the studio.) In 2019, saxophonist Joshua Redman made a similar decision when it was time to reunite his '90s quartet — reconnecting with pianist Brad Mehldau, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade, for a pair of concerts that was filmed and later featured on NPR Music via Jazz Night in America. (There's Tony at the top of the video, welcoming the crowd and introducing the band.)

Redman Mehldau McBride Blade (Live at The Falcon) | JAZZ NIGHT IN AMERICA

Jack DeJohnette, a drummer, composer, NEA Jazz Master and longtime resident of the Hudson Valley, has taken part in other all-star gatherings at The Falcon, including one that I reviewed for the New York Times. He remembers Falco for his passion and his commitment to hospitality. “It was important to him that the artists enjoyed playing there,” DeJohnette says. “He wanted to make it as comfortable as possible. While also, at the same time, giving the community a beautiful multi-arts space.”

Falco was always working to improve that space, notably with a tiered outdoor deck he built himself, alongside Marlboro Falls. This feature proved a lifesaver last autumn, when The Falcon resumed presenting music, but only outdoors — skirting a New York state restriction on nightlife by not announcing the calendar, and making dinner service central to the experience. The first of these outdoor shows I saw was by Sex Mob, led by trumpeter Steven Bernstein, with Medeski as a guest.

“He really was like some kind of supernova that kept (literally) building until he wasn’t here anymore,” Bernstein says of Falco. “Every time we played The Falcon, he was showing us new additions, building paths, adding artwork. The last time I saw him he was talking about horses. He loved music, he loved humanity. If there wasn’t enough money when he finished counting the donations after a musician’s set, he’d throw in more. I’ve been around plenty of club owners and presenters in the last 40 years...Tony was more like a pure love spirit with a Staten Island accent.”

Anthony Falco was indeed born in Staten Island, NY — on Sept, 12, 1956, to Ferdinand and Margaret Falco. He grew up with six siblings: Gennaro, Julia Ruffo, Eddie, Tommy, Freddy and Christopher. They survive him along with his wife, Julie Farrell, and six children, two of which the couple adopted.

Falco met Farrell at SUNY New Paltz, where he earned a degree in Environmental Science in 1983. He went on to own and operate several water treatment facilities in the Hudson Valley, along with a water testing facility, Environmental Labworks, located two stories below the main stage at The Falcon.

In an earlier iteration, during the early 2000s, the venue existed as an extension of Falco’s home. Its origin story provides a window on his ingenuity, and his appetite for taking chances. A 19th-century Methodist church in Marlboro had been sitting on land recently acquired by the U.S. Postal Service. Falco purchased the building (which the Postal Service didn't want), carefully disassembled it, and rebuilt it behind his house, right down to the stained-glass windows. He soon began presenting salon-like concerts in the space, and often hosting the artists at his home overnight.

By 2005, feeling the need for a bigger space (and facing some pressure from his neighbors), Falco had purchased a 19th-century button factory — more recently, functioning as a cabinet warehouse and a roller rink — and started an ambitious renovation of its 3,500-square-foot main space. I covered this expansion with a piece in the Times, for which I caught the first duo summit of pianist Fred Hersch and bassist Larry Grenadier.

The Falcon went on to encompass not only a main stage upstairs but also The Falcon Underground, billed as “a pub beneath the club,” and home not only to a second stage but also The Avalon Archives, a museum of rock ‘n’ roll memorabilia overseen by collector Ned Moran. Prior to the pandemic, there was usually music going on two stages at once, with a full-service kitchen on both levels.

Donny McCaslin Trio at The Falcon
Nate Chinen
The Donny McCaslin Trio, with Dezron Douglas and Johnathan Blake, performing at The Falcon on Oct. 10, 2020.

During the height of lockdown, The Falcon was one of the precious few places I experienced live music —not just Sex Mob but also a blazing Donny McCaslin Trio, and a special convocation of Medeski, guitarist Marc Ribot and drummer Joe Dyson. Every time, I wound up having a warm and encouraging conversation with Tony before or after the show. At a time when there was so much to be dispirited about, especially for anyone who operated a jazz venue, he was hopeful and determined. And in his unassuming way, he took evident pride in what he’d built, and what he was doing to keep it going.

That spirit was part of what endeared Falco to his wide circle of friends, many of whom happened to be the musicians he featured and nurtured. Guitarist and composer Julian Lage is one of these; he was one of the first people I heard talking about The Falcon, back when it was still in Falco’s backyard.

“Tony was the most incredible human,” Lage tells WBGO. “His kindness, passion and love for the music and the musical community brought out the best in absolutely everyone who was lucky enough to be around him. His vision propelled the art forward for so many of us and not only brought people together, but taught us how to be a community. He did so with tremendous grace and love. From the moment we met, he was always my guiding light.”

The Falcon will honor Tony Falco with memorial events this Saturday and Sunday; more information here.