For area jazz fans, the news in September 2015 that indefatigable impresario and trumpet/flugelhorn player Mark Morganelli would be opening a jazz club in Tarrytown, New York, was both welcoming and exciting.
After all, jazz performances in the Westchester suburbs north of New York City are irregular at best, limited mostly to appearances in restaurants and libraries on Sunday afternoons. A bona fide emporium devoted to the improviser’s art would be an answered prayer for local diehards tired of making the oft-problematic and not inexpensive trip into the city to experience live jazz.
Nearly two years later, after careful planning and seemingly endless bureaucratic wrangling, Morganelli and his wife and business partner, Ellen Prior, finally launched their new Jazz Forum on June 9, with Roy Hargrove and his quintet taking the stage on the first two evenings the club was opened to the public. As with any new business, the endeavor has required a significant amount of courage from the couple. It’s a gamble they have bet the house—their house—on.
The idea did not come entirely out of left field. In fact, Jazz Forum had two precursors, similarly named, which Morganelli operated sequentially for four years at the tail of New York City’s loft music scene, the last version closing finally in 1983. Both haunts are still remembered today as incubators for young musicians and reliable stomping grounds for veterans looking for new audiences.
But the chief explanation for why Jazz Forum has remained rooted in the cultural consciousness around Gotham begins and ends with Morganelli, who made a name early on as an irrepressible and charismatic horn player with a knack for producing live jazz events in venues big and small throughout the Northeast under the auspices of his non-profit organization, Jazz Forum Arts.
Around three years ago, Morganelli and Prior decided to downsize and sell their spacious suburban residence. While Morganelli was still adamant about producing the Jazz Forum Arts Summer Concert Series at a half-dozen venues around the county, the notion of continuing to present the larger shows no longer seemed tenable. After all, just at the Music Hall in Tarrytown, Morganelli had produced more than 150 concerts between 1992 and 2013, testing his mettle, patience and liquidity.
Downsizing in progress, the couple decided to resurrect Jazz Forum and found a suitable location for the scheme—a two-story, 3,700-square foot building in Tarrytown, constructed in 1910, that formerly housed a bakery. With the proceeds from the sale of their home, the couple bought the building and spent another $200,000 over the next two years transforming the first floor into a jazz club and the second floor into living quarters.
Following an arduous tour through the zoning permit process and bringing the premises up to code with a new sprinkler system and off-street parking arrangements, Morganelli and Prior gave their club a soft opening at the beginning of June, the music provided by a group consisting of locally based musicians—bassist-composer John Patitucci, guitarist Vic Juris, saxophonist Tim Armacost and drummer Tony Jefferson. Then, it was on to the grand opening.
A quick tour of the 2,000-square-foot club and eatery prior to Hargrove’s first set revealed a seating area for about 75 across two dozen tables arranged in an “L,” a handcrafted black walnut bar with seating for another 10 and a viewing island with a few more seats—all with superb sight lines to the bandstand. There is also a separate room with a pool table. The club’s piano, a Steinway baby grand, is the same one that was at the first Jazz Forum when it opened in 1979.
“This is really Mark’s dream, but I have adopted it fully,” said Prior, as her husband made last-minute adjustments to the club’s sound system. “It is just so exciting. Did you know he always opens his clubs with a trumpet player?” (Dizzy Reece performed at the opening of the first Jazz Forum, and Tom Harrell at the second.) Fittingly, a replica of Dizzy Gillespie’s trademark trumpet, with the upturned bell, hangs over the bar.
In a conversation before the music started, Hargrove said: “Every bandstand is a sacred place, but being here is particularly meaningful to me. Mark is like family to me. We go back—we started collaborating more than two decades ago. So, being able to open this club is personal for me as well. Seeing his family and friends around, all that love, it’s special to have the opportunity to bring my music here.”
Hargrove invited Morganelli to sit in, as did alto saxophonist Lee Konitz and Brazilian vocalist Maucha Adnet the following weekend. All three shows were sold out. “I’m not planning on making it a habit of playing with everyone,” Morganelli said. “But when the occasion is right, well, why not?” DB