Jazz venues aim to keep the beat | Music
After more than a year off stage, jazz saxophonist Dave McMurray was eager to get back on the road and in front of a live audience. Over the summer, as jazz clubs slowly began to reopen and audiences tentatively took in, he began touring in support of an album he recorded primarily during the pandemic – a collection of performances by jazz of Grateful Dead songs.
McMurray is a successful musician in his sixties, but in the mid-1970s he was a 14-year-old living in Detroit who was hungry for the chance to hear and play the jazz music he heard on records. and on television. He would help set up the chairs for Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, which opened in 1934, and then stick around for the show.
“I would watch the musicians on stage so much that I probably made them uncomfortable,” he said.
One night, the great saxophonist Pharoah Sanders was performing. McMurray asked if he could play. Sanders didn’t respond, but in the middle of the show, motioned for McMurray to join us.
“If you had the guts to play, you had two choruses,” McMurray said. “You go up there and you do your thing and that has been invaluable in learning how to play.”
While many other historic jazz clubs have closed, Baker’s Keyboard Lounge has survived, in part thanks to its legacy. It claims to be the oldest jazz club in the world and received a historic preservation grant of $ 40,000 in May. But most of the other places McMurray frequented as a kid and up-and-coming musician have long closed, in Detroit and across the country. Many famous venues such as Tonic and Lenox Lounge in New York and Cecil’s Jazz Club in New Jersey no longer exist.
The closures are part of a decades-long trend exacerbated by the pandemic. Although many have triumphantly reopened their doors in recent weeks and months, jazz clubs have been hit the hardest of all types of concert halls, according to Audrey Fix Schaefer, communications manager at the National Independent. Venue Association. The group was created during the pandemic to defend places that languished for months with no income.
“Keep in mind that jazz clubs are probably the most vulnerable to start with,” she said. “They operate on very thin margins. They are art houses. If you are going to open a blues club or a jazz club, it’s because you are dedicated to this art form and love it, it’s not because you are an entrepreneur looking to win. a lot of money.
In December of last year, New York’s Jazz Standard closed its doors as owners cited “the pandemic and months without income – as well as a lengthy rent negotiation that has come to a halt.” That same month, the Blue Whale, a 100-seat jazz venue in Los Angeles, closed after 11 years. The Prime Example in New Orleans and the Twins Jazz in Washington, DC have closed for good, and in Denver, the El Chapultepec and Live @ Jack’s jazz clubs have suffered the same fate.
“It was heartbreaking. It was like I had lost a member of my family, ”said Sandra Holman-Watts, owner of Live @ Jack’s. “Not a day goes by that I don’t receive an email or text saying, ‘We need you; we need the music. “
Holman-Watts decided to shut down permanently in May 2020 when it became clear that a reopening was nowhere in sight. She now runs an entertainment production company under the old venue name and hopes to eventually reopen a new venue.
“It was my identity; that was who I was, ”she said.
A handful of jazz clubs that closed during the pandemic have been sold and are reportedly reopening, among them, the California Clipper in Chicago. A new owner plans to reopen El Chapultepec in Denver under a new name, Cantina. At both locations, the owners are said to have said they plan to include jazz in the lineup.
DC jazz fans were disappointed when Eighteenth Street Lounge, a 25-year-old venue that hosted jam sessions on Friday and Saturday nights, announced it was closing. But owner Farid Nouri quickly found a new location. The club will keep its name, despite moving to Ninth Street NW.
Uncertainty over the end of the pandemic, high rents and reduced traffic in the original neighborhood all motivated its decision to close when the lease expires.
“The writing was on the wall for me,” Nouri said.
Despite hopes of reopening, jazz historian Tammy Kernodle, who teaches at the University of Miami in Ohio, says something is lost when clubs move out of their original spaces.
“You’re going to have a whole generation of people who don’t have a sense of the real space and the story behind it,” she said. “We are losing the historical basis of sound. It’s a shame we never considered jazz clubs to be historic sites, the way we would identify a house. We should have the same kind of conscience for them to be saved.
The original Eighteenth Street Lounge, which also helped shape DC’s electronic music scene, featured multiple rooms and an eclectic collection of old-style sofas and décor. One evening, Grammy-winning jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove showed up to sit with the band after their show across town at Blues Alley.
“He was playing on the fire escape over Connecticut Avenue at 1 a.m.,” Nouri said. “It was before the days of cameras on your phone. It was a good time.”
Nouri immigrated to the United States from Afghanistan as a child. His cousin Aman Ayoubi, co-owner of the club, also arrived in the United States from Afghanistan. The Blue Whale in Los Angeles was run by a Korean immigrant, Joon Lee, and Twins Jazz in DC was owned by sisters Kelly and Maze Tesfaye, who came from Ethiopia to the United States.
“I think the hospitality industry in general has been a gateway for immigrants to establish a life for themselves in American society,” Nouri said.
Twins Jazz was on DC’s U Street, which was once known as Black Broadway, the hotbed of African American culture and business in the city. A mural by jazz composer and pianist Duke Ellington overlooks the street, but most of the original businesses, such as the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Club, which opened in 1926 and closed in 2016, have been replaced.
Ayoubi had two other businesses in the street, the Local 16 bar and the Tropicalia nightclub. He was forced to shut down Local 16 during the pandemic, and he has yet to reopen Tropicalia, where he says he owes around $ 300,000 in rent. He plans to organize jazz evenings at Tropicalia when it reopens.
“It’s absolutely heartbreaking that where we once had Black Broadway, we now have banks,” he said. “What happened to places owned by African Americans who promoted jazz and the arts? It’s horrible. Slowly, slowly, we keep losing everything. We are losing the identity of the city.
Gentrification and rising rents are among the reasons jazz clubs struggle to stay open in cities like New York, San Francisco and DC, according to jazz historian Dale Chapman, who chairs the music department. of Bates College in Maine.
“A lot of the more high-profile clubs, even the well-established and very famous ones, have extremely high overheads,” he said.
In addition to their history, jazz clubs are also crucial to the future of the genre, serving as a training ground for young musicians who have the opportunity to participate in jam sessions with their idols. Saxophonist Ron Blake, who plays for the band “Saturday Night Live,” credits clubs in Evanston, Ill. For his informal upbringing.
“It was your goal as a youngster to attend a jam session,” he said. “You better not mess around because each of your heroes has been on this stage and set it on fire at some point, so you want to do the music and yourself justice.”
Despite the fight against the pandemic, many jazz clubs across the country have reopened or are planning to do so soon. Among them: the Iridium in New York, which will welcome the public again in early November. Others, like the 55 Bar in New York, are still at risk of closing. The owner launched a fundraiser in mid-September to help keep the place alive.
While some received grants from the Small Business Administration, the funds arrived more than a year after the start of the pandemic and almost six months after the federal government adopted the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant. The program offered concert halls up to 45% of their 2019 revenues.
The Iridium managed to survive as it qualified for Paycheck Protection Program loans and has a strong relationship with its owner, according to Grace Blake, the venue’s director of programming. Amid a nationwide labor shortage that has been particularly pronounced in the service sector, the club have found hiring a challenge in the run-up to reopening.
“Someone told us she was crying when she found out we were selling tickets again,” said club owner Ron Sturm. “I am cautiously optimistic, but it is definitely a stressful and anxious time.”
Nationally, concert halls are also reporting more and more people buying tickets and not showing up, according to Schaefer. Venues make up only a small percentage of ticket prices and rely heavily on food and drink sales for profit.
“The no-show rate has been double to triple what it was before the pandemic,” Schaefer said. “We hope this will return to a normal rate once everyone feels more comfortable going out and more people are vaccinated.”
Now that he’s resumed his performances, saxophonist Ron Blake has said he’s trying to be optimistic.
“We lost a lot, but the music is still alive and the people who want to promote the music are still there,” he said. “We have been improvisers all of our lives; this is what we do. Jazz will survive.
“It’s not an easy-to-sell art form,” agreed Grace Blake. “It’s a small slice of the pie. But these are the building blocks of music. You will not get rich through it, but you will get rich through experiences.