Musician-Run Jazz Clubs: A Tale of 2 Cities


​The Century Room in downtown Tucson, Arizona, was born in 2021.

(Photo: Travis Jensen)

Players got to play. It’s long been a part of jazz history: When there’s a venue vacuum, when there are fewer places to play, players get up and create their own. In 1939, saxophonist Henry Minton opened his own club in Harlem and called it a Playhouse. In ’45, guitarist Eddie Condon did the same in Greenwich Village in order to keep his brand of pre-Swing jazz alive. Over in London in ’59, saxophonist Ronnie Scott started his own club and it’s now a British landmark.

Stateside, a new wave of jazz venues have appeared in recent years in line with this purposeful tradition. Two recent newcomers — The Century Room and Bayou Bar — are representative of this trend: both born of this DIY ethos, run by musicians who also perform in them. Both are relatively new yet already have achieved an impressive level of musical consistency and local support. While one is thinking nationally and the other is more locally focused, they’re both defying common thinking of what is needed for a jazz-focused venue to succeed in the post-COVID era.

“No one really thought it was a viable business model to set up a jazz club here because there is this belief that for a jazz club to be successful there needs to be at least 4 million people in the metro area,” says Arthur Vint, general manager and artistic director of The Century Room in his hometown of Tucson, Arizona, which includes a little more than a million people in the general area. “I heard it from several people — other bookers, agents, promoters. Phoenix is the big city to the north and is the state capitol and they do have a couple of jazz clubs. But what kept people from opening a dedicated jazz club in Tucson was that people didn’t think there was the demand for it. But then I met Shana and her husband, who run Hotel Congress.”

A drummer by training and much experience in New York City, Vint was well known to many in the jazz community as the Village Vanguard’s regular bartender between 2010 and ’20. When COVID locked down the world, he returned to Tucson, considering a career switch to help manage a growing family. In 2021, upon meeting Richard and Shana Oseran, who owned the historic Hotel Congress — a boutique hotel in the city’s downtown district that also houses restaurants, a café and a performance venue — Vint persuaded them to turn the bar into a jazz venue, a move that was not inexpensive. A few months later with a new stage, a decent piano and a full sound treatment (a $50,000 investment that soundproofed the room from outside traffic), the Century Room was born.

“We opened in February 2022 with a local group led by my first drum teacher, Homaro Cerón,” says Vint. “It was the perfect opening night. We have been at it since then, starting with two nights a week, and now a full calendar and national acts. Bill Charlap, Joel Ross, Sullivan Fortner, Christian Sands and Ethan Iverson have all come through here. Bill Frisell will be doing a solo night. I play a lot with local groups. I put together a 17-piece Century Room Jazz Orchestra inspired by the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra that plays Monday nights, and helped found The Mysterious Babies, a traditional jazz band that plays every Wednesday — swing dancers come out and we move the tables so they can dance. It’s a great scene. We do LGBTQ events every month, and now we’re doing matinees every Sunday. I found out [bassist] Glen Moore now lives an hour south in Arivaca. He was in the group Oregon in the ’70s and has played here a few times.”

Vint is fueled by an ambition to see not only Tucson, but the Southwestern corner of the U.S. — from New Mexico to Southern California — develop its jazz scene locally and also become a more consistently active corridor for national touring acts. He’s been open to collaborating with the annual Tucson Jazz Festival, university jazz programs, and venues in other cities — whatever it takes. “The [booking] agencies are so thrilled that there’s a place for their artists to play in Tucson now,” he reports. “My opening line with every agent or promoter is, look, we may not be an anchor gig for a tour but we are a great place to play on a Tuesday or Wednesday. And now we’re getting cats on Thursdays and Fridays.”

Down in New Orleans, say the word “jazz” and to most — visitors and locals alike – the sound of 1920s-era music and street parades comes to mind. In the Crescent City, it’s the style of jazz that tends to suck the air out of the room, and with it the limited resources available for modern jazz. For almost six years, bassist Peter Harris has been swimming against this current, singlehandedly producing and leading a four-night-a-week performance series at the Bayou Bar in the Pontchartrain Hotel, which consistently offers the city’s most exciting modern jazz evenings.

“I don’t know if there’s a better word for it than just ‘raw,’” says Harris, describing the energy and effect of a typical musical evening in a small bar that overlooks the streetcar tracks on St. Charles Avenue. “It’s not what I would call a listening room. I mean, there was this couple who were both screaming at the top of their lungs in response to what we were doing, which is really just jazz — but we build tension and hit a peak.”

The Bayou Bar is but one of Harris’ endeavors. Born and raised in New Orleans, Harris is a first-call bassist performing regularly with jazz groups led by the likes of Herlin Riley, Germaine Bazzle, Shannon Powell, Jason Marsalis and many others. He’s on faculty at University of New Orleans and runs an after-school music program funded by the city’s Jazz & Heritage Foundation.

In 2019, Harris was asked to take over the music booking at Bayou Bar by old childhood friend Brian Landry, an award-winning chef and the hotel’s head of hospitality. By the end of lockdown, the weekly series at the Bayou Bar became a personal priority. Part of the reason is that it now draws the city’s best improvisers: Drummers Riley and Pedro Segundo, pianists David Torkanowsky and Dwight Fitch Jr., saxophonist Derek Douget and trumpeter Ashlin Parker are all regulars. Another is that the bar, with no cover and a food menu that lives up to the city’s reputation, is free from competing with other venues for tourist dollars: The focus is almost purely on modern (and primarily instrumental) jazz and its community-building power.

“I like that we’re not just playing for other musicians or for the aficionados,” Harris notes. “The Bayou Bar proves that you can play music on a high level and still have it serve a social function for music lovers. And I mean ‘music lovers’ as a qualification. Tourists who come here and go straight to Bourbon Street or, I hate to say it, but Frenchman Street, too — let them go there. I love the local component of the clientele here. Herlin has told me these gigs remind him of the way New Orleans used to be where every neighborhood had a bar where there was great music being played.”

Harris’ words betray a delicate balance that’s peculiar to New Orleans, where too much tourist attention can be as hazardous to a venue as disinterest. For now, the Bayou Bar remains primarily a local phenomenon. Booking national names into a bar with a capacity of 60 would be superfluous. Harris prefers to informally invite visiting musicians to drop by, mentioning Peter Martin and Reuben Rogers among those he’s spoken to. His mind now is on the idea of recreating the Bayou Bar scene elsewhere.

“What I envision for the future is how to capture these special moments, like in a recording. But even more [important] is how to make this concept exportable. Can I bring this energy to a festival? How would that happen when so many who play here have their own groups? Do we take the cream of the crop? And in the bar itself I see the potential for creating a space that would be a modern jazz equivalent of what Preservation Hall is doing.

So, how many times has anyone requested the band play “Saints” at Bayou Bar?

Harris laughs. “Zero, my friend. Another win.” DB

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