CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

The Scene: Rudy’s Jazz Room in Nashville

The jazz club stands apart in a honky-tonk town

Rudy's Jazz Room
Rudy’s Jazz Room (Courtesy of Adam Charney)

Nashville isn’t a city that most people would immediately associate with jazz. Until recently, the world’s country music capital didn’t have a single jazz club. But that changed in May 2017, when Rudy’s Jazz Room opened on a quiet block in the Gulch, the trendy Nashville neighborhood that sits between Music Row and the Lower Broadway honky-tonks. Since then, the club has established itself as a destination, showcasing a formidable array of local and regional acts and drawing nationally recognized performers such as Christian McBride, Charlie Hunter, and Jason Marsalis.

Rudy’s founders, childhood friends Adam Charney and Michael Braden, both in their late forties, knew they were taking a risk when they left their jobs in the software industry to launch the club, soliciting investments from friends and family while raising money on Kickstarter for a Steinway grand piano. Still, they had an intuition that they were fulfilling a vital need. Nashville has always supported a sturdy, though somewhat invisible, jazz network, according to Charney. “Most of the guys backing the country artists are actually jazz players, and they’re just playing country to make the money,” he told JazzTimes. The problem, simply, was that they didn’t have a local club.

Charney, a Nashville native who plays jazz guitar, felt their pain. Wanting to create a loose, casual environment in which Nashville jazzers would feel welcome, he modeled Rudy’s after Smalls, the lively basement hangout in Manhattan’s West Village where Charney spent a good portion of his post-college days before moving back to his hometown.

The club, which seats 85 people, is still distinctly Nashville-flavored. It’s named after Rudy Wooten, a saxophonist who died in 2010 and with whom Charney played regularly. Rudy’s brothers are bassist Victor, guitarist Regi, keyboardist Joseph, and drummer Roy (a.k.a. “Future Man”); all are fixtures in Nashville’s music scene. Regi, a mentor to Charney, plays every Wednesday at Rudy’s. Other local acts have included guitarist Robben Ford, vocalist Laura Mayo, saxophonist and Dave Matthews Band member Jeff Coffin, and drummer and Count Basie Orchestra alum Duffy Jackson.

While Braden is the club’s head chef, serving Creole dishes that nod to his New Orleans heritage, Charney does the booking. Though his affinities lie with straight-ahead jazz, he seeks to feature funk, manouche, and salsa as well. On Sunday nights, Rudy’s also hosts a jam session, attracting students from local universities as well as the Jazz Workshop, a local nonprofit educational institution.

Bobby Watson and Curtis Lundy perform at Rudy’s Jazz Room
Bobby Watson and Curtis Lundy perform at Rudy’s Jazz Room (Courtesy of Adam Charney)

Nashville’s jazz musicians appreciate that they now have a place for working out ideas on stage without leaving the city. “Rudy’s plays a pivotal role in enriching the presentation of Nashville’s talent in jazz, blues and contemporary music in a way that has been truly inspiring and uplifting,” said local tenor saxophonist Rahsaan Barber.

The club has even influenced at least one jazz musician to settle in Nashville. French guitarist and producer Jérôme Degey played at Rudy’s not long ago and was so invigorated that he decided to stay put. “I felt instantly that everything was ‘right’ in the setting, the decoration, the mood,” Degey, previously a Palm Beach resident, told JazzTimes in an enthusiastic email. “In my experience it’s the club, the ‘outlet’ that actually creates the community. Musicians need a place to meet, exchange, and play.”

Before opening the club, Charney thought he was aware of most of the jazz musicians in town. But over the past three years, he’s been astounded by the number of performers who have come to play at Rudy’s.

“I didn’t even know half of them,” he said. “It just brought everybody out of the woodwork.” 

Rudy’s FACTS

  • Rudy’s Jazz Room is located at 809 Gleaves St., Nashville, TN 37203; phone (615) 988-2458
  • Open all week and featuring mostly local acts, including Regi Wooten and Friends
  • The room, which seats 85, is modeled after Smalls Jazz Club in Manhattan’s West Village
  • Go to rudysjazzroom.com for the schedule

Matthew Kassel

Matthew Kassel is a freelance writer whose work has been published by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Slate, and The Columbia Journalism Review, among other publications.