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All That Jazz

By Page Leggett | Photography by Jon Strayhorn

Posted: Monday, Jun. 23, 2014

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Here’s a surprising contradiction: Although Charlotte is a city without a center city jazz club, there’s a waiting list for memberships to a jazz series. Then again, the Jazz Room has serious cred. Husband-and-wife team, Lonnie and Ocie Davis, created the series. Both studied jazz performance in college in New Orleans, the cradle of jazz. Ocie, a drummer who’s played with The Ellis Marsalis Trio, currently tours nationally with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, among others. Lonnie plays flute; both are music educators.

The couple never intended to leave the Crescent City. But after being displaced by Hurricane Katrina, they spent a year in rural Virginia. Lonnie says they realized they “wanted a city with a vibrant music scene.” Neighbors suggested they visit the Queen City. They’ve been here since 2006.

Lonnie became immersed in the arts community through her work with the nonprofit Community School of the Arts. She felt Charlotte was missing an organization dedicated to jazz education and performance, so she and Ocie founded the nonprofit Jazz Arts Initiative in 2009.

The Jazz Room concert series, established last April, is one of the most visible – and audible – ways the organization promotes jazz. While the Jazz Room isn’t a smoky bar (a relic of the past, anyway), it is in a space that’s dimly lit, moody and – despite its location on N. College Street near the corner of Trade and Fifth – feels a little clandestine.

The Blumenthal’s Stage Door Theater turned out to be the perfect spot for a pop-up night club. “This place really feels a lot like a jazz club,” Lonnie says. “We’ve been very intentional about the way we set the room up. There are cabaret tables lit by candlelight. It’s dark, and the audience is very close to the action on stage. It’s a real listening room experience.” Of course, there are drinks. (What jazz club doesn’t have a bar?)

The Stage Door’s maximum seating capacity is 199, but some shows are configured to seat even fewer. The Blumenthal’s former rehearsal space was converted in 2008 into a small black box theater, says Technical Director Bill Dantos. The space works for the Jazz Room series because, he says, “The intimacy of the room makes for a higher energy experience.”

  But can a downtown that hasn’t had a jazz club since Jonathan’s Jazz Cellar closed nearly 20 years ago support a monthly jazz concert series? The unexpected answer: Yes. Lonnie Davis says every concert has sold out in advance. “There is a demand for great music here,” she says. “We are filling a void.” She attributes the success to enthusiastic word-of-mouth and a network of jazz lovers in Charlotte.

Jazz Arts sells season memberships, as well as single tickets, to the Jazz Room. The series is so popular that the Davises have added a second show this season – one is at 6 p.m., and the second generally starts at 8 p.m. Upcoming performances include a tribute to Charlie “Bird” Parker on July 25 and one to George Gershwin on Sept. 19. Lonnie preferred to keep the series at Stage Door and add a second show rather than move to a larger space for one big show. The space is just right for the mood they want to create.

The diversity of the audience delights the Davises. “We see retirees, college students, young professionals, couples having a date night – a real mix,” says Lonnie. “There is good energy at every show.”

While the intent of the series is to spotlight local and regional talent, the Davises also attract national and international acts such as trumpeter Christian Scott, who played June 19. “We want to give a platform to the very talented professional jazz musicians we have in this area,” Lonnie says. “Some of these performers are used to playing in restaurants where they’re the background music. Here, all eyes are on them. People are listening to every note.”

The club may feel like a hidden secret, but the performers are getting the spotlight they deserve.

Single tickets are $10 in advance at carolinatix.org and $12 (if available) at the door. Memberships and more information are available at thejazzarts.org

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