June 2003 By Lee Mergner
Can a Club Be Too Nice?: The Kennedy Center’s New Prototype for the Jazz Nightclub
I have seen the future of the jazz nightclub and it doesn’t have a ringing cash register. Or a surly waitress. Or a crappy piano. Or a lousy sound system. Or a smoky or otherwise rank atmosphere. I know, I know. How could it be a proper jazz club without all that?
A few years back I interviewed Charles Lloyd for BET on Jazz inside a prominent nightclub during the afternoon, well before his show that night. Under the bright and unforgiving TV lights, his feet sticking to the filthy linoleum, Lloyd screamed out, “Oh my God. How can I play in a place with a floor like this?” Easy, Charles. Just put your lips together and blow—and close your eyes. Besides,until now, jazz players didn’t have much choice in the matter, unless they could sell out bigger concert halls.
The KC Jazz Club at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., is attempting to break the mold (no pun intended) of the stereotypical jazz nightclub. Taking over a room that had been a library on the third floor, the KC Jazz Club has a capacity of 160 and features an ample stage and state-of-the-art sound system. It’s an intimate yet open room,with a high ceiling and walls cushioned with thick drapes, creating a soft and warm sound not a given in black-box rooms. The club serves drinks, but you have to go to a cash bar staffed by a red-jacketed usher-type to get them. To be honest, I kind of miss the usual neurasthenic and jaded waitresses, whose hot-and-cold demeanor always remind me of at least three of my ex-girlfriends. Besides the usual beverages, the KC club also has the typical theater munchies, such as carrot cake and granola bars.
The resources of the Kennedy Center are both obvious and subtle. A captive audience of theater and concert attendees can come up to the jazz club from any of the Center’s four theaters for a drink and late-night set. And how many clubs have access to an inventory of Steinway pianos? At a recent concert there, when Jacky Terrasson took aim at a couple keys and came down with a Tyner-like hard thwack, he had to know that a piano tuner was in all likelihood just a walkie-talkie call away for the next set.
The man behind the drapes is senior vice president Derek Gordon,who has worked for both the Center’s education and jazz departments and has partnered with Dr.Billy Taylor in programming both his radio show and other Kennedy Center jazz events. However, the soft-spoken Gordon humbly credits Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser with the idea for developing the club, and it’s obvious he’s not just sucking up to his boss.
“A little more than two years ago,when Michael Kaiser first arrived at the Kennedy Center,we had a special event at the Educational Resource Center for our donors. It was the first time we ever loaded in what is now a club setting for the space. We had invited Dr. Taylor to be our special guest that evening and to perform. Michael and I had talked in the past about finding other ways to present jazz. As we were sitting at the event, he said,‘Well this ought to be your jazz club.’ That was license from our new president to basically create the program. We got the ball and ran with it.”
What’s most incredible is that the comfortable club comes and goes. “Literally,we load that environment in and out, just as we would load in a theatrical set,” Gordon says. “Our business is theater. We have the capacity to transform spaces and therefore we were able to create a new venue within the center,while at the same time keeping space available for other uses. But it’s expensive. We’re a union house.”
Can it work over the long term? Or will it require some demented heiress on her deathbed to bequeath piles of cash to keep it afloat? “We’ve worked out a structure in which we can make the club work. But it would be unrealistic to say that any art form presented here at the Kennedy Center could be presented solely on ticket sales. It doesn’t work that way. That’s why we are a nonprofit organization. We’re not here to make money. We’re here to keep the music coming.”
To be fair, there are some other performing arts institutions, such as Joe’s Pub in New York City, that include a hybrid theater/club venue, but few wear the club status on its sleeves like the KC folks do. Still,Gordon isn’t out to do in traditional and legendary styles of nightclubs, as embodied by the Village Vanguard or Blues Alley or Yoshi’s. “We don’t want to be the only game in town. That’s why we encourage all the clubs out there. We’d also like to bring in some artists that people are less familiar with. It’s really about building audiences and supporting the careers of these artists, because without the artists, what are we doing?”
I believe the answer is selling liquor, based on the long history of jazz in clubs.
If the KC club is missing anything, it would be a history of its own. Give it time.
Originally published in June 2003