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Middle C Jazz Remains the Only Music Venue Open in a Pandemic

Keep the music going

Larry Farber distinctly remembers one particular show at Middle C Jazz in May. He was watching the audience as well as the musicians at his Uptown music venue, thrilled to see producer and keyboardist Rodney Shelton taking the stage with R&B vocalist Robyn Springer. But that’s not why it was special.

It was the first show Middle C Jazz had hosted since March, when the club, along with others across the state, went on a COVID-19-imposed hiatus.

“It was like having been on a hunger strike and not having eaten for weeks, and you get that first morsel of food,” Farber says. “It puts you over the mountain.”

That satisfying view from the mountaintop had been hard-won.

A Sound Business Venture

Farber, a music industry veteran who started booking acts in 1973 with talent agency Hit Attractions, had originally opened Middle C Jazz last November. With a strategic Uptown location at 300 S. Brevard St, proximity to the light rail line and an on-site restaurant, the music club was a sound business venture. But it was much more than that.

“It’s been [my] dream for well over a decade to have a world-class jazz club in Charlotte,” Farber told Queen City Nerve last fall, “one that would rival the clubs that I’ve experienced throughout the country.”

With the club’s successful launch last year, Charlotte finally had its top-shelf music venue, one named after the middle note on a piano’s keyboard, one that hit the sweet spot for Farber’s lifelong dream.

Then last March, as the coronavirus surged through communities, the country began to close for business. After being open for only four months, Farber was forced to put shutters on his dream.

“We had sold out the first weekend in March which was wonderful,” Farber recalls. “But then we started hearing about COVID-19.”

After one more sold-out show on the second weekend in March, Farber pulled the plug.

“We went from boom to bust quickly,” he says “It was very depressing.”

But Farber also knew that the mandated shut-down was the right thing to do if North Carolina was ever going to stem the tide of COVID-19.

“I’m a Charlottean, a father, a husband, and I have two elderly parents,” Farber says. “I care greatly about Charlotte and I put my own best economic interests well behind that.”

Renewed in Phase 2

Farber’s patience paid off in May when Gov. Roy Cooper loosened restrictions with Phase 2 of his reopening plan. Because they were a restaurant as well as a sit-down club, Middle C Jazz was allowed to open again with limited seating capacity, a privilege not afforded any other live music venues in town.

“We’ve been open ever since,” Farber offers. The venue is allowed to seat 60 to 70 people per show under current guidelines.

Though Farber and his business partners, which include his sons Adam and Reid, are aware that they can’t break even under these conditions, they’ve jumped at the chance to open their doors and keep them open.

One reason for reopening, says Farber, is that the club wanted to retain a pulse in the city’s admittedly scaled-back music and nightlife scene.

Middle C Jazz Remains the Only Music Venue Open in a Pandemic
Staff at Middle C Jazz Club sanitize tables and chairs after patrons depart and wear masks at all times while serving patrons. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

“We wanted to give Charlotte a place to hear live music again,” he offers. One of Farber’s main missions from the start has been to host a platform where musicians can play.

“These guys have been out of work for two and a half to three months,” Farber says.

Since relaunching last spring, the club has slowly but steadily rebuilt its audience. Recently, Farber says he’s seen a shift in momentum, with the venue coming closer to maximum reduced capacity.

This means music venue staff has become doubly vigilant with a laundry list of safety precautions, including taking patrons’ temperatures, removing almost two-thirds of the club’s chairs and tables to ensure proper distancing between visitors, and putting up protective Plexiglas in the venue’s entryway. In the bathroom, they only use every other sink and toilet.

“I couldn’t live with myself if we weren’t doing everything humanly possible to keep everybody safe,” Farber says.

Financial Fallout

At the same time, Middle C Jazz has joined other businesses in pleading their case for economic aid from the state government and city council. Options include the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, a federal response to the economic fallout from the pandemic, and the proposed Save Our Stages (SOS) Act, which would provide six months of financial support to keep live music venues and theaters afloat, as well as other grants.

“We’re asking that people on the city council, people who have some money to appropriate, to consider doing so for all the folks like us.”

Farber allows that he’s found a few friendly ears, such as city council member Larken Egleston, who represents the Uptown area, and he lauds the efforts of Center City Partners’ Senior Vice President of Community and Economic Development Richard Thurmond to help small music venues.

“To be honest, it’s really easy for me to be selfish and say, ‘We want this. We want that,’” Farber says. “But I know that they’re being pulled in a lot of directions to help support all kinds of businesses.”

As of this writing, more than 1,000 independent venues have come together across the country to form the National Independent Venue Association, which aims to support local venues and help them lobby for aid.

The club relief picture is also complicated by alcohol.

Disregard for Public Safety

Last July, video surfaced of establishments skirting public safety restrictions put in place to staunch the tide of COVID-19. The footage of tightly packed, unmasked crowds at local restaurants and bars prompted Charlotte City Council to ban alcohol sales at such establishments after 10 p.m. Gov. Cooper extended the ban statewide later that month, although he raised the cut-off for sales to 11 p.m.

Farber is aware that a few clubs’ reckless disregard for public safety can tar all such venues with the same brush, but he says the alcohol curfew has had little effect on Middle C Jazz. Most of the club’s shows end before 11 p.m. anyway.

Farber is emphatic that he does not feel that the music venue industry has been targeting by politicians.

“When the governor put those things in effect, nobody, in my opinion, was trying to hurt any one particular business,” he offers. “They’re trying to bring down COVID, and they’re asking us to make sacrifices to do so. I get that.”

He feels the regulations are reasonable and data-driven, and he only asks for the assurance that once trends head in the right direction that some of the restrictions will be eased.

But all the financial aid and safety precautions will be for naught if people don’t come through the club door, Farber maintains.

Changes in Booking at Middle C Jazz

To that end, Farber and his crew took care in preparing their club before it opened, implementing a design focused on providing the best acoustics, and then augmenting the room with a state-of-the-art sound system, the best technicians on the soundboard and a four-camera system for live streaming. The result is a room absolutely perfect for musicians, Farber maintains.

But even that is not enough to make Middle C Jazz a go-to destination for music fans.

“For us, programming is everything,” Farber offers. “You can have a beautiful club, but if it’s not programmed properly then it won’t work.”

When Middle C Jazz launched last November, Farber recruited Jonathan Gellman to book the venue’s shows. It was a savvy decision given Gellman’s familiarity with the local jazz scene. In the 1980s and early ’90s Gellman owned and operated Jonathan’s Jazz Cellar at the corner of 7th and North Tryon streets. The Uptown venue shut down in 1992 after a successful 10-year run.

Then, about three months ago, Middle C Jazz and Gellman parted ways, with Gellman launching arts lab and performance space The Cube in south Charlotte. Farber, who has been booking acts for 47 years, took over programming responsibilities, assisted by his son Reid. The pairing makes for a complementary team, Farber says.

“[Reid’s] in the [music] business, and he offers a different perspective with great ideas,” he says.

With an average of five shows a week — one on Thursday, two a piece on Friday and Saturday, plus the occasional Sunday gig — the Farbers’ booking philosophy can be summed up best with the word “eclectic.”

Middle C Jazz Remains the Only Music Venue Open in a Pandemic
The Eric Brice group performs to a reduced-capacity audience at Middle C Jazz club. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

“We took a look at the word jazz,” Farber offers. “For me, jazz means improvisation, a more creative form of expressing music which captures everything from classical, smooth and funk jazz, as well as rhythm and blues, and more.”

Farber points to a recent weekend that kicked off with Brazilian jazz, with a show spotlighting Brazilian artist Reinaldo Brahn paired with legendary Charlotte session drummer Jim Brock, who has played with Joe Walsh, Joan Baez, Kathy Mattea, Joe Cocker, Janis Ian and more.  Later that same weekend, Cuban Music filled the hall, when the Buena Vista Legacy Band took the Middle C stage.

Future shows will feature still more Charlotte artists. Jazz and soul bassist John Shaughnessy, an artist equally at home with freestyle and funky, plays on October 1. Jazz drummer and songwriter Alfred Sergel IV takes the stage on October 22.

Farber is particularly psyched for the club’s run of shows from Oct. 8-10. The headliner will be classically trained, Emmy Award-winning actor Keith David (Crash, Platoon and the series Greenleaf on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network). In addition to his versatile acting and voiceover work, Keith is also an accomplished singer.

“He’s coming in and performing with Maria Howell and Noel Freidline, who in my opinion are the best jazz and R&B artists in Charlotte,” Farber says. “I think the show will be off-the-charts phenomenal.”

The Farbers have also embraced technical innovation for their bills. Several acts offer streaming versions of their club gigs at Middle C Jazz, in a kind of online simulcast. The idea to offer live-streamed versions of in-person shows was a product of COVID-19, Farber offers.

“We realized with our limited [seating] capacity that there were a lot of people who still wanted to stay at home and see our shows.” So, the Farbers made a major investment in digital cameras to live-stream several of their shows.

Feedback for the Farbers’ bookings and innovations has been overwhelmingly positive. Farber says people come up to him to thank him for reopening his club and bringing live music back to Charlotte. Since reopening in May, Farber says he delights in watching audiences react to the performances on the Middle C stage.

“I look and see people’s faces and their expressions and know that they really love [it],” he says. “It’s a rewarding experience.”

Music Venue Debate Rages On

Nevertheless, the debate over reopening music venues still rages in Charlotte and across the country. When it comes to opening safely, a central argument rebounds back and forth. We need to open up sooner because of the dire economic impact of staying closed, one camp maintains.

The counter-argument insists that if we just follow data-based precautions, we won’t be getting the kind of COVID-19 spikes that have set reopening back to square one.

Middle C Jazz Remains the Only Music Venue Open in a Pandemic
The Erice Brice Group performs to a reduced-capacity audience at MIddle C Jazz Club. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

“The sooner other restaurants and pubs open, the better it will be for them,” says Farber. He cites a New York Times article from early September that says if the situation continues for another 13 weeks, many restaurants and clubs won’t survive.

“It’s a fine balance of opening as soon as possible, but not at the cost of closing again after two or three weeks because we didn’t do things right,” Farber says. “That hurts us way more than waiting another week or two.”

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