Music & Nightlife

A legit jazz club is about to open in uptown. Can these guys get enough people to care?

Larry Farber knows, in his heart of hearts, that he could be making a colossal miscalculation.

Despite all of the meticulous research and planning and attention to detail the 68-year-old longtime entertainment booking agency mogul has put into Middle C Jazz — a nightclub set to open Saturday in uptown that represents an ambitious and audacious bet on there being a healthy appetite for jazz in Charlotte — he realizes there’s a chance he might not be able to squeeze a dime’s worth of profit from his latest labor of love.

In fact, he’s starting out deeper in the hole than he initially anticipated, having recently purchased a like-new Yamaha C7X grand piano with $25,000 out of his own pocket.

“We didn’t have it in our budget,” Farber explained last Friday, eight days out from the planned opening night, as he sat in an office chair pretty close to where the piano eventually would be positioned on the club’s stage. “So what did I do?”

“You bought it,” the club’s director, Jonathan Gellman, chimed in.

“We didn’t have to have it,” said Farber, who co-founded the club with his son Adam, 33. “But I wanted to have a sort of signature piece. ... And I didn’t want to go back to the investors and (ask for more money), so I just said, ‘I’ll buy it. When we make money, you can pay me back. If not, I’ll have another piano in my house.’”

On Monday, the gleaming grand piano was rolled onto the loading dock and into the space with giant windows that look out at the corner of Brevard Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard; massive, sound-absorbing curtains were installed, blocking the view but helping to create the desired cellar-like atmosphere; and big, boldly colored musical notes were affixed to the bar.

On Tuesday, everything from soda lines to the soundboard were expected to go online, and a deep cleaning was to sweep away every speck of construction dust. On Wednesday, wall art and other bits of decor were to arrive, along with a collection of furniture that includes an army of chairs — dozens of which will be one-of-a-kinds within the club, the only common theme being that “they’re all sick-comfortable ... two-hour chairs you won’t want to get out of,” Gellman said.

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Inside the Middle C Jazz club on Monday, October 28, 2019 in uptown Charlotte. Xavier Tianyang Wang xwang@mcclatchy.com

And on Saturday night, during back-to-back concerts featuring Gastonia-born jazz singer Maria Howell and a quartet led by Charlotte’s Noel Freidline, a capacity crowd of about 200 people is expected to settle into those seats at each show.

After that, things get more difficult to predict for the Farbers, Gellman and this club.

But it all comes down to one key question: Can they get enough people to turn out to take in a musical genre that has struggled at times to find a foothold here?

A brief history of jazz

The last truly significant jazz nightclub in uptown Charlotte was a place called, simply, the Jazz Cellar.

Open from 1984 to 1994 at Seventh and Tryon streets, the tiny stage at the head of the cramped, cave-like room routinely welcomed homegrown and regional talent but also occasionally was graced by artists who could fill venues thousands of times larger, from Eric Clapton to Prince to B.B. King.

Both the Jazz Cellar and the restaurant and bar above it, Jonathan’s Uptown, were owned and operated by Jonathan Gellman, whose real-estate-developer father Bert owned the building. In the early ’90s, Jonathan relinquished his role to his dad to spend more time with his new family; Bert kept the staff in place for a couple more years but eventually sold the building and retired the company.

Jazz became an afterthought around town for the next decade and a half, as various incarnations of city jazz festivals struggled and — according to a variety of local musicians — a handful of attempts to re-create even a modicum of the Jazz Cellar’s magic left much to be desired.

It wasn’t until about 10 years ago when the genre started showing signs of life here: In 2009, Lonnie and Ocie Davis founded what’s now known as JazzArts Charlotte (it was originally the Jazz Arts Initiative), and hosts shows every month as part of its The Jazz Room series at the Blumenthal’s Stage Door Theater; the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art’s monthly jazz series, “Jazz at the Bechtler,” has been a steady success since launching the year the venue opened, in 2010; and there are now two major annual celebrations of jazz in Charlotte — the weeklong Charlotte Jazz Festival in the springtime and the one-day Queen City Jazz Fest in June.

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Ziad Rabie, shown playing saxophone at a Jazz at the Bechtler event in June, says of Middle C Jazz: “It’s going to be a challenge. But one thing you can be sure of: If you don’t really give it a world-class try, you can be sure that nothing will happen, and I think that you have to admire the fact that Larry and the investors that he put together are stepping up to try to push music to that level in the city.” Charlotte

But jazz enthusiasts looking for a weekly fix were out of luck.

Says Noel Freidline: “I would have people ask me that all the time, whether they were coming in from out of town or locals ... they’d be at the Bechtler and they’d go, ‘This is great, but is there someplace we can go hear music besides the first Friday of every month?’ And I would direct them to JazzArts, but I’d say, ‘Unfortunately, there aren’t any jazz venues in Charlotte.’”

It was in August 2018 at a Bechtler jazz concert featuring Howell, in fact, that Farber spotted Gellman in the crowd, approached him, and announced he had an idea he wanted to pitch him.

‘Don’t go into nightclubs’

Farber’s entire career — his whole life, really — has revolved around live music.

He learned piano from jazz pianist-arranger Ziggy Hurwitz and started his first band, The Nightcaps, at age 12, and as a teenager his parents would sneak him into jazz shows at places like Nixon Brothers’ on Independence Boulevard and Keyboard Lounge on Monroe Road.

After graduating from UNC Chapel Hill in 1973, he started cutting his teeth in business working for talent agency Hit Attractions; then in 1986, he opened EastCoast Entertainment with two partners and over the years has helped the company (recently re-branded as ECE) grow into the country’s largest regional entertainment agency, one that books thousands of acts per year for weddings, country clubs, fairs, festivals, etc.

During those early years with EastCoast, he was a regular customer at Jonathan’s and the Jazz Cellar. But his experience with music clubs from the other side of the table was limited.

Fresh out of college, he had opened a beach-music club out on Monroe Road called The Boardwalk, a lark that lasted from 1974 to ‘77. And since 2007, as a side business, Farber has run a club called Music With Friends in Charlotte, a membership-based club that brings acclaimed performers — often notable nostalgia acts — to uptown’s McGlohon Theater for private concerts three times a year.

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Glenn Frey performs at a 2012 Music With Friends concert. Diedra Laird dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

Gellman, meanwhile, hadn’t looked back since moving on from the restaurant and nightclub business in the ’90s. A third-generation builder, he’d had several professions since, all related to construction and none remotely related to entertainment. Not long before Farber approached him, Gellman had sold an HVAC company he had developed, so he had some time on his hands.

But he needed to be convinced.

“I let Larry talk for like two minutes,” Gellman recalls, “before I said, ‘Are you doing this to make money, or are you doing it because you really want to do it?’ If he’d answered ‘to make money,’ that would have ended the (conversation). Because this is a horrible way to try to make a living. I mean, if you’ve already got money and you want to make more, you don’t go into nightclubs. You just don’t.”

Getting it all together

The Farbers already had the space picked out.

Adam, who is in commercial real estate and gets credit for creating the lease, liked the ground-floor space at 300 S. Brevard St. because it wasn’t “jumbled up in the EpiCentre, on Trade, or in the Fifth Street bar corridor,” he says. “We wanted to be a little bit different, to stand alone, and make it as easy as possible for folks to get to us.”

It was right by the light rail, right next to major hotels and the Convention Center, barely a block from an on-ramp to the interstate, and near the gateway to South End and its now-countless condos full of young professionals. It was, the Farbers felt, perfect.

They just needed someone to run it, and after running into him at the Bechtler, Larry Farber was determined to land Gellman.

“Every person that I talk to about (Middle C Jazz) will go, ‘Do you remember Jonathan’s?’” he says. “It’s like that Earth, Wind & Fire song — ‘Do you remember the 21st day of September?’ Well, in Charlotte, the jazz equivalent is, ‘Do you remember Jonathan’s?’”

At any rate, when Gellman asked Farber that question two minutes into his pitch, Farber didn’t hesitate: “I’m doing it,” he told Gellman, “because I really want to do it.”

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Maria Howell, shown in 2013 arriving at the Los Angeles premiere of “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” will perform on opening night at Middle C Jazz. Jordan Strauss Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP

Of course, his goal isn’t to lose money, either. His priority, he says, is paying back the group of 29 investors who have backed the project to the tune of $1 million.

And the way to do that, he believes, was to create Middle C Jazz in the image of his favorite jazz clubs — by hiring Gellman, by having in-depth conversations with owners of joints like NYC’s famed Blue Note and Hilton Head’s beloved Jazz Corner, by asking jazz musicians to share what they love and hate about some of the places they’ve played.

“A lot of people just want to throw music in a corner,” Maria Howell says. “But I have actually walked through Middle C Jazz, and they care about the nuances that would cater to the musician.”

To be sure, this isn’t a jazz-themed restaurant, one where the focus is on the food and the expectation is that patrons will hold conversations at their tables while musicians make what’s basically background music and say “We’ll be back to play some more in a little bit” every 20 minutes or so.

The slightly elevated stage with that grand piano will be the focal point of the room, and Gellman has spent months crafting a space that has been acoustically optimized to deliver pristine sound no matter where you are in the room.

“But there are naysayers, for sure,” Farber says. “I have some friends that when I was talking about, they go, ‘Well, I don’t like jazz.’ And, ‘Do enough people really understand jazz?’”

‘It’s definitely not the ’50s’

His counterargument is this:

One, he only needs to fill the space with 190 to 200 people three nights a week (the club will only offer concerts Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, and will be available to be rented out for corporate functions or private events on other nights); and two, the artists that Middle C is planning to bring in might surprise you.

“There’s so much crossover,” Farber says. “It’s almost like country music, in terms of how it’s evolved. Country sounds more poppy. I mean, people used to go, ‘I hate country.’ Well, country’s not what it was 20 years ago. Nor is jazz.”

Jazz is, in fact, full of surprises and, these days, younger artists who disrupt the stereotypical definition of the genre — Exhibit A being the first big name on the club’s schedule: The Joey Alexander Trio, which drops in for two shows on Nov. 23, is led by an Indonesian pianist who at just 16 has already made four studio albums and been nominated for three Grammys.

“Jazz music is a big word, and it covers a lot of ground in 2019,” adds Ziad Rabie, a Charlotte saxophonist who serves as artistic director for Jazz at the Bechtler. “It’s definitely not the ’50s. So much has happened since the be-bop era, with the different fusion (types), the improvisation in jazz, and so many different styles and rhythms and cultural influences ... it’s just grown to a gigantic genre.”

For his part, Farber is willing to give Charlotte time to warm up to the concept.

As a testament to his commitment to Middle C Jazz, his partners, the investors and to his idea that the establishment will help push Charlotte even closer to becoming a world-class city, he pre-paid for two years’ worth of rent at 300 S. Brevard St.

“I’m putting all my reputation — everything I’ve got — in it. My blood, sweat and tears,” Farber says. “But if in two years, I’ve done everything possible and we’re not successful, I won’t regret it one bit. I would regret not trying, more than anything.”

And if nothing else, he’ll have another piano.

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More information on Middle C Jazz: www.middlecjazz.com.

Théoden Janes has spent 12 years covering entertainment and pop culture for the Observer. He also thrives on telling emotive long-form stories about extraordinary Charlotteans and — as a veteran of 20-plus marathons and two Ironman triathlons — occasionally writes about endurance and other sports.
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