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The man behind the revived Musicians Exchange is rested, ready, and only a little bitter

"Ask me a question; I'll give you my answers," announces Don Cohen, owner and founder of Musicians Exchange in Fort Lauderdale. "I have a lot of opinions about things."

He sure does. After all, it's been almost five years since the city condemned the original Musicians Exchange headquarters at 723-735 W. Sunrise Blvd., and four years since its replacement space in Delray Beach shut its doors, leaving a void in Cohen's life as well as the hearts of the area's music community. Since then Cohen has been operating the production-and-management firm and musician-referral service from his home. That is, until Monday, March 26, when he hung the sign at the new home of Musicians Exchange at 1015 W. Broward Blvd. As Cohen says, it beats getting a real job -- not that he'd have an easy time landing one anyway.

"No one wants to hire us overqualified guys," groans the 48-year-old. "They all want young kids out of school."

Don Cohen surveys Broward's musical landscape from his Musicians Exchange vantage point
Joshua Prezant
Don Cohen surveys Broward's musical landscape from his Musicians Exchange vantage point

Besides, Cohen would likely be lost without a performance/congregation space where South Florida instrumentalists can hang out and talk about the music scene -- or lack thereof. He began the original Musicians Exchange in June 1976. To his eyes and ears, the landscape has changed vastly (musically and otherwise) since then, and not for the better.

"There's nothing wrong with all types of music," he begins, "but [dance music] has definitely taken over South Florida. All due respect to rap and everything else, but what happened to real music? Where did it go?"

Trust me: Cohen's rather skinny definition of "real music" (old-timer-friendly blues, jazz, folk, and roots-rock) is more than alive and well in Fort Lauderdale: Last week our area welcomed Ben Weaver, Gary Primich, John Mooney, Joe Louis Walker, Little Charlie and the Nightcats, Muddy Waters kin Bob Margolin and Jerry Portnoy, Paul Dandy, Mr. Downchild, Rod Piazza, Mose Allison, and Jack Williams. With the old-boy network as healthy as a decathlete, it's hard to fathom what so worries Cohen: a stray synthesizer wandering into O'Hara's looking for a fight?

"The city is not the friendliest to live music," he maintains. "We're still in the Deep South here, politically."

He points out that when Musicians Exchange operated at the Sunrise Boulevard location and hosted free parties in its rear parking lot with live music, beer, and hundreds of attendees, Fort Lauderdale quickly squelched the festivities.

"The city didn't like us putting on free concerts," Cohen recalls. "They cracked down on us pretty quickly."

So why return, just a few miles from the original location? "I was getting bored," he says. Even so, he admits that he might be fighting a losing battle -- again. "Live local music is not the most popular thing in the world. To be honest the public didn't really support the original music thing."

The new Musicians Exchange is ready to offer what support it can. Cohen has a list of plans: to lease office space to music-related businesses; to operate as a referral service for musicians seeking each other and to play parties, weddings, and events; to rent equipment and studio time; and to buy/sell/trade instruments and accessories. Though the venue looks tiny from the outside, it does have 18-foot ceilings and can seat 125 people. The problem with hosting events of that size, however, is parking: Only about 50 spaces are now available.

"We're looking to open another bar downtown," Cohen explains. "We'd be cutting off our nose to spite our face to do it here. So we're looking at an enterprise zone somewhere 'cause there seems to be a bit of incentives.

"Though the incentives are geared more toward minorities than to white guys," he complains in a gruff, phlegmy voice.

Although he stops short of suggesting a support group for us ever-oppressed, melanin-challenged males, Cohen is clearly feeling squeezed out by the continually increasing hordes of youngsters with their turntablemaphones and mixamoboes. "I have a lot of opinions about that kind of thing, because I am a musician," he quips. His area of expertise centers around other white blues/rock artists who make up Broward County's status quo: you know, the type who'll be playing Stevie Ray Vaughan covers at Cheers long after the mooing of homebound cows has faded. For example he manages young blues band Josh Smith and the Frost and operated as a talent buyer for Toni Bishop's, Frannipalooza, and Alligator Alley. He helped found the Riverwalk Blues Festival, the Fort Lauderdale Cajun and Zydeco Festival, and the South Florida Blues Festival.

In essence Cohen is trying to bring his 1976 value system back to West Broward Boulevard in 2001, and he's slightly dismayed by the way the musical climate has changed. "In the early '80s, the culture was probably a little bit stronger than what it is today," he says. "Because of the DJs and everything else... all the kids are into rap music."

Obviously this is one old fart who is not content to remain deadly silent. Cohen plans to bring the new building up to code so it can be used as a retail outlet. He has recruited production whiz Nick Funk and his mobile studio to allow local artists a place to record. So Musicians Exchange is back -- same as it ever was.

 
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