What is jazz? Ask Charlotte’s musicians and you’ll hear a spectrum of unique takes.
Bassist John Shaughnessy calls jazz “music of the moment,” citing the genre’s reliance on improvisation. Similarly, drummer and composer Alfred Sergel believes improvisation — along with creating new melodies both within and without structure — is an integral component of the genre.
“Jazz is a language and it also has a soul,” says Seth Nanaa, drummer in experimental duo Ghost Trees. “It is intently defiant of rules and cultural norms.”
But leave it to Jonathan Gellman to take an historical view.
“Jazz is the American classical music,” Gellman says.
It’s the one art form born in this country, he continues, invented and nurtured through gospel, then transformed into the blues before ultimately becoming what we know today as jazz.
In the 1980s and early ’90s Gellman owned and operated Jonathan’s Jazz Cellar at the corner of 7th and North Tryon streets. After a successful 10-year run, the Uptown venue shut its doors in 1992. But come October, Gellman will be drawing on his experience and expertise to help launch Middle C Jazz, a new Uptown club located at 300 S. Brevard St.
The venture is a labor of love for its co-founding partners and owners, father-and-son duo Larry and Adam Farber. Larry has been in the music business 46 years, starting with talent agency Hit Attractions in 1973. He’s been booking acts and nurturing talent with East Coast Entertainment since he opened the agency’s Charlotte office in 1986, and he’s currently a senior partner with agency. In 2007, his lifelong dream to host world-class music legends in an intimate setting came to fruition with Music With Friends, a successful private membership club now in its 13th season with concerts at McGlohon Theater three times a year. Now he’s ready to cross the no. 1 item off his wish list.
“It’s been [my] dream for well over a decade to have a world-class jazz club in Charlotte,” the elder Farber says, “one that would rival the clubs that I’ve experienced throughout the country.” Son Adam, a senior associate real estate broker with Colliers of Charlotte, joined forces with dad to help make the family’s musical vision of a cool and welcoming sweet spot for the city’s jazz lovers a reality.
“We created this from a lifelong passion for music and shared love for our hometown,” Adam says. “We want Charlotte’s live music fans to have a venue where they can belong.”
Choosing an Uptown location for the club was a no-brainer, Adam continues, though the Farbers wanted to avoid the city’s center at Trade and Tryon, choosing instead to create a stand-alone operation that offers easy access to patrons who would normally avoid the congestion and hassle of venturing uptown.
Middle C’s location in Second Ward also carries historic significance, as it sits in what was once Brooklyn, a historically black neighborhood that was home to its share of jazz bars and musicians before being razed in the ’60s and ’70s to make way for “urban renewal” projects that displaced thousands of residents and led to the demolition of 1,480 buildings.
Today, Middle C Jazz sits on the light-rail line and boasts its own parking deck. The 4,000-square-foot club is part of a shared space. A hallway will connect the music venue with The Public House, an eatery launched by restaurateur Chris Healy and his partner Delano Little, former anchorman and reporter who covered Charlotte sports at WBTV for 29 years.
“We were going to open a restaurant ourselves but then we found out that Adam and Larry were also looking at the property for their club,” Little says.
The two pairs of business partners decided to collaborate, he continues. While the club and restaurant each hold separate leases at the location, they plan to work in tandem. Food will be prepared by a single staff, but each establishment will have a separate menu. The main kitchen will be on the Public House side, although Middle C Jazz has a small kitchen as well. The Public House kitchen will run food to the music venue down the shared hallway, and both spaces will have bars and their own outdoor patio space. Since both businesses share the same contractor in D3 Studio, there will be visual similarities between the two spaces, Little continues.
Middle C Jazz, which takes its name from the middle note on a piano’s keyboard, will launch its musical calendar on Halloween weekend with Thursday and Friday sets by the Alejandro Ziegler Tango Quartet. A Sunday, November 2, set featuring soulful R&B-infused jazz vocalist Maria Howell will include a meet-and-greet session in a private room at the restaurant.
Last summer the Farbers recruited Gellman to be Middle C Jazz’s director, a savvy choice given the 58-year-old music business veteran’s familiarity with the music.
“How great is it that we were able to hire the one guy that had the most successful jazz club in Charlotte from 1982 to 1992?” Larry Farber asks.
Gellman, however, knows better than to try to recreate what’s already been done. He’s busy looking at the future.
“Where jazz is today is by no means where it will be tomorrow,” Gellman says. “There are all kinds of genres and emerging styles.”
A quick perusal of Middle C Jazz’s performance calendar shows what Gellman refers to as the five genres of jazz. The entire spectrum is reflected in the 200-seat venue’s projected lineup, which includes regional and national acts like Steve Tyrell, Bob James, SpyroGyra, Taj Mahal, Chick Corea, Pat Metheny and Chieli Minucci and Special EFX.
A genre familiar to aficionados and newbies alike is mainstream jazz, which is also known as bebop, Gellman explains.
“It’s what purists would call real jazz, which means that everybody who wrote the music is dead,” Gellman adds with a chuckle.
A second and similar category is jazz legends, which Gellman describes as older highly established artists toward the back side of their respective careers. Emerging eclectic grooves comprise a third genre. A fourth category is world-beat-based jazz. Gellman’s fifth and final classification is smooth jazz, which he slots in with R&B and funk.
“We’ve got that beautiful backbeat all the way to the esoteric digital genre,” Gellman concludes.
His scheduling strategy would include booking an emerging band at an early 7 p.m. show, prior to an appearance by a genre legend.
“I’m trying to blend the audiences in this huge pool of diversity,” Gellman continues.
While Gellman is tasked with putting a global-level jazz room on the map strategically routed between Washington D.C. and Atlanta, ticket sales and outreach for the club is the purview of Middle C Jazz’s sales and marketing manager Katie Rothweiler. Gellman recruited Rothweiler, whom he knew threw a collaboration the two had worked on at the Cube, a performing arts space formerly located in NoDa.
Gellman thought Rothweiler, who is also part of the aerialist, belly-dancing and fire-performance duo Satarah, would make a great addition to the Middle C Jazz team, despite her relative lack of jazz knowledge.
“If you throw out names of modern current artists, I may not know them,” Rothweiler says, “but I love the vibe the music creates.”
After meeting with the Farbers, Rothweiler was won over by the father and son’s enthusiasm and passion for the project. She has since taken a deep dive into jazz, populating her Spotify playlist. The main reason Gellman wanted Rothweiler on board was because she has close connections with Charlotte’s arts and performing arts scenes, she reveals.
With regular programming slated for Thursday through Saturday nights and some Sundays, Rothweiler is tasked with creating special events for other nights of the week.
“My ideal situation is to have a lot of different types of visual art and performance art. It could be music, dancers and sculpture,” Rothweiler explains. “My goal with Middle C Jazz is to make it a place where a lot of people feel comfortable.”
She sees the venue as a haven for people who aren’t into the boisterous party scene exemplified by the EpiCentre, or arts and music fans priced out of upscale events at Blumenthal venues. “You’ll notice that our ticket prices are really reasonable.”
For the immediate future, Gellman does not see booking local acts to open for headliners, primarily because Middle C Jazz will not be scheduling openers of any kind. Middle C Jazz will be a ticketed venue, he says, and the shows won’t typically have breaks.
“There will be solid in-your-face [music] for 60 to 75 minutes, and then we’ll turn the room,” he says.
With a 7 p.m. and a 9 p.m. show on most nights, there won’t be time for openers. But Gellman sees a scenario for local performers at Middle C Jazz.
“Every local act that feels like they’re a fit for us, I want them to come and talk to me,” he maintains.
One scenario sees the club pairing a local act that could sell 300 to 400 tickets in a week with another act that could sell about the same, and then having the two acts share a calendar for that week.
But will the audience come? Is Charlotte ready to once again embrace jazz in Uptown?
“Whatever you’re doing, if you do it well and present it honestly and openly you’ll build your audience.” Gellman says.
For her part, Rothweiler believes Middle C Jazz’s chill atmosphere could draw the kind of crowd that avoids Uptown — middle class patrons of the arts and music who can no longer find venues in traditional arts districts like Noda and Plaza Midwood where rising rents have forced clubs to shutter.
“I think that we’ve lost a lot of good places for music, especially the small and mid-size venues,” she says. “I think that we as a city are ready for something new right now.”
She feels the club could forge a bridge between the arts community and the Uptown crowd, which traditionally works in finance.
“It’s going to create a meeting space for people from different walks of life.”
Little has hopes that the two South Brevard Street businesses, which together cover about 12,000 square feet, can bring a renaissance to the Second Ward. The opening will coincide nicely with the development of Brooklyn Village, going in where Marshall Park currently stands, in an area known more in recent years for government services than a thriving nightlife.
“I’d like [Second Ward] to be a destination place where people can walk around and visit a couple of different places when they’re out on the town,” Little says.
Will this influx of new people uptown bring many harboring misconceptions about jazz? Gellman certainly hopes so.
“I’m looking for people to walk into [Middle C Jazz] and be blown away,” he says. “When they see the level of commitment and compassion these people have for their music, it’s going to be surreal.”
“There are certain ingredients that make a great city,” Larry Farber adds.
While praising Charlotte’s opera, dance, stage and sports offerings, he insists that a dedicated jazz club has been needed for far too long. He applauds the city’s Uptown musical offerings at events like Jazz at the Bechtler and the Charlotte Jazz Festival, plus semi-regular shows at venues like Stage Door Theater, saying they have fostered Charlotte’s appreciation for jazz, but says now there’s room for a venue that can serve fans of the genre year-round.
“Where we distinguish ourselves [from the other venues] is that we are all about the music.”
Citing the club’s acoustic design and state-of-the-art sound system, he maintains that Middle C Jazz will be the only club in the city that was built just for jazz.
“As a guy who’s been doing this since 1973,” Farber says. “I hope that this will be a great contribution which will make Charlotte proud.”