Shuttered SideBar in New Orleans Continues To Provide Creative Outlets

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Helen Gillet performing at the Broadside as part of outdoor programming by SideBar in New Orleans during the pandemic.

(Photo: Dennis McDonough)

“Behold! The sky’s a shining shell!”

Gazing out at the socially distanced crowd gathered at the open-air Broadside Theatre in New Orleans, where the moon was rising behind him in a purple-streaked twilight sky, the Seattle-based saxophonist Skerik took a moment to drink it all in at. It was mid-April 2021, and for his first event in front of “real live individuals” since the pandemic started, he traveled from Seattle to play with two frequent co-conspirators: New Orleans-based cellist Helen Gillet and Portuguese percussionist Pedro Segundo. The three hit the stage like long-lost siblings, and proceeded to create a kaleidoscopic forcefield of sonic invocations and improvisations that levitated the players and audience alike. Which often happens at a Scatterjazz/SideBar show.

The Broadside show was the latest incarnation of SideBar, the little venue that could. Originally housed in a way-off-the-beaten-track watering hole, where lawyers from the nearby Orleans Parish Criminal Court once talked shop in the shadow of Orleans Parish Prison, SideBar became a nexus for a far-flung network of creative musicians, from local stalwarts like New Orleans free-jazz founding father Kidd Jordan, James Singleton and Simon Berz to visiting artists like Hamid Drake, Mars Williams and Simon Lott. It also spawned multi-day events like SideFest, held during Jazz Fest season, where Gillet was scheduled to play her annual set of duos with Skerik and saxophonist Jeff Coffin in 2020 before the lockdown led to its cancellation.

“SideBar grew into an incredibly important place for the fertile exploration and advancement of music,” said Gillet, who was an integral part of that scene from its earliest days. “And New Orlean musicians need that. All these players who are great at making people move their butts and party are extremely talented musicians, and they need an outlet for their active, creative minds.” And though the physical venue closed last August, SideBar has continued to provide that outlet.

Just days after the pandemic killed live music, when most venues across the country were struggling to adjust, SideBar founder/owner Keith Magruder started streaming high-quality shows from the shuttered venue. Last fall, those streams migrated to Magruder’s own SidePorch, a block away from the old SideBar, where he hosted the 2021 SideFest In Exile, complete with crawfish boil. Together with his Scatterjazz partner Andy Durta, a longtime curator of creative music in New Orleans, he took it to the next level by producing a regular Wednesday Scatterjazz/SideBar series at the Broadside, which also hosts special SJ/SB events. So far from shrinking SideBar’s reach, the pandemic has actually expanded it.

“Keith jumped on [streaming] right away,” Gillet recalled. “Those first few weeks of the pandemic, when we were all losing our minds, I was just holding it together watching those SideBar streams. And while we were sad to see the SideBar go, it’s the people not the place, and now we have the Broadside. It’s gone from this tiny venue to this giant outdoor movie theater stage. The Broadside is a celebration of what the SideBar was.”

What did the original venue offer? SideBar patriarch Jordan, 86, a 2021 United States Artists Fellow, summed it up succinctly: “We got to do what we do,” the saxophonist said. Which was by design.

“We want everybody to do what they do,” said Durta, who hopes to lure Jordan to the Broadside soon. “But Kidd, especially. It was a great honor to have him there so often, almost always in a setting he hadn’t been in before.”

Drawn by the freedom to explore their creativity in an intimate venue, world-class musicians came from all over to play in a tiny room where the sound ricocheted off weird trapezoidal angles in unpredictable ways.

“Musicians loved that sound,” Durta recalled. “Before the pandemic hit, we had a jazz educators conference, we had Instigator Fest, we had the great Dave Leibman. And when [Netherlands-based percussionist] Michael Vatcher came to town for the first time, we had Vatcher-Vest, a pun on ‘fest.’ Five nights of Michael playing with Phil Mitman, Audrey Chin and all kinds of great people.”

Vatcher-Vest was just one of countless highlights in a room where Gillet’s new duo project with Coffin was born, and Jordan traded road stories and riffs with fellow elder-statesman saxophonist Dickie Landry and rising star Aurora Nealand. And now that SideBar has metastasized into the Broadside, with an ever-growing livestream archive, it’s opening the ears of larger audiences in New Orleans and around the world.

“If we can secure funding, fingers crossed, we can get SideBar back up and running,” said Magruder, who’s applied for a Shuttered Venue Operators Grant specifically created for small venues. “At a new, bigger and better location. Meanwhile, we’ve got the Broadside and SidePorch, which my neighbors really enjoy.”

In whatever form it takes, SideBar may be just what the doctor ordered coming out of the pandemic.

”I feel like accepting how difficult this time has been can truly be felt through improvised music,” said Gillet, who was on deck to play a Scatterjazz/SideBar show at the Broadside with Coffin and preeminent New Orleans drummer Johnny Vidacovich when we spoke. “I know for a fact that my audiences have been responding to the grittiness and visceral qualities in the music. The discomfort, met with resolution at times. It feels familiar to people right now, so I think it’s an important art form.” DB



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