Music industry grad connects downtown musicians

Syracuse transplant Max Puglisi fell in love with his city after fostering a community of creativity at downtown jam sessions.

Max Puglisi spent three years in the city of Syracuse before he started living in it.

While studying music industry at Syracuse University, Puglisi didn’t like the city he was in. Once he finally left the Hill his senior year, though, he said he fell in love.

“It never really seemed like anything was going on here until I got down there,” said Puglisi, who grew up in Rochester. “And then, all of a sudden, these past two years, Syracuse has blown up in terms of culture.”

Photo: Chase Ferren
Max Puglisi said he found a home in Syracuse after connecting with the local music scene.

Having graduated in 2014, Puglisi now works as live music coordinator at restaurants Alto Cinco and Otro Cinco, plays in two Syracuse bands, and is involved in community-oriented projects focused on musician collaboration. “I love it here now,” he said. “I don’t want to leave it.”

In addition to his solo music acts – many of which involve rapping Top 40 hits from the early 2000s – Puglisi plays guitar in soul-funk band Chiggin and in a psychedelic band called Formidable Duke, which he and his bandmates describe as “rocket ship music.”

Some weeks, the weeks he calls “heaven weeks,” Puglisi plays out every night, sometimes more than one show. He plays around the city in places like Maxwell’s, SPITHOUSE, Otro Cinco and Alto Cinco. In July, he helped launch Overpass Fest on Onondaga Creekwalk, a community-focused music project.

Every time Puglisi talks about a successful project, he deflects any compliment by paying credit to others – coworkers, musicians, project contributors and past professors.

Everyone else, though, gives much of the credit back to Puglisi.

Michael Heagerty, a local entrepreneur, brought Puglisi onto his team to start Overpass Fest, a weekly open jam along the Creekwalk. Heagerty said once he had the idea to start Overpass Fest, he didn’t hesitate to contact Puglisi.

“His jam network that he worked on – got people to show up, got people to hang out and jam – just opened up and poured onto the creek,” Heagerty said.

The weekly events started with three small bands and quickly grew to include nearly a dozen musicians at the most recent event, due in large part to Puglisi’s influence, explained Kali Wallenbeck, Heagerty’s intern and Overpass Fest co-organizer.

At Alto Cinco, Puglisi started Tuesday night open jams more than a year ago. He had hosted an open jam there before while working as a concert manager at Bull & Bear. Like Overpass Fest, the sessions are open to all musicians.

Jeremy Allen, who works with Puglisi at Alto Cinco, said events have been continually successful.

“It's always good because it's a meeting place for musicians to coordinate and for meeting other musicians,” Allen said. Allen often plays guitar at the jam sessions while Puglisi plays drums, or any of the dozens of other instruments he plays.

“There’s just no point in counting them at this point,” Puglisi said. The only instruments he can’t play, he said, are brass instruments.

Puglisi said the Alto Cinco open jams have become a regular expectation for local musicians to play at and collaborate with other players of all ages and experience levels.

“It's people that I've met along the way,” Puglisi said, “people that I encourage day to day to come out.” A seven-piece funk band called Casaroja started at a Tuesday night Alto Cinco jam session.

Connecting Syracuse musicians, Heagerty said, is Puglisi’s specialty.
“He's aligned musicians that don't normally get opportunities to come down and jam,” he said. “Max has always been good at making sure that people are excited about this scene and he's sticking to it.”

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