Thursday, June 4, 2009

When a jazz venue closes

Earlier today I was interviewing bassist Adam Linz when he told me that the upscale Italian restaurant D’Amico Cucina was closing. I hadn’t yet seen the StarTribune story or read the company press release. Now I know the reasons: the times, the economy, parking problems, the proximity of the new Twins stadium.

Both the Strib story and the press release talk about the restaurant’s history, reputation, food and wine. Neither mentions that for 22 years D’Amico Cucina was a jazz venue. Not a jazz club, but a place where you could go to hear jazz on the weekends because owner Richard D’Amico liked it.

For 22 years, bassist Gordy Johnson and pianist Benny Weinbeck played there. For 15 years, starting when he was 19, Linz had a regular gig there. So did pianist Tommy O'Donnell.

All those years, all those weekends, all that music. The regular gig. The loss of these things makes me sad.

Whenever HH and I went to NYC, we would make our way to Ruth’s Chris on West 51st, where pianist Rick Germanson had a regular gig in the bar. We would sit at the bar for dinner, the better to hear him play. That ended several months ago.

Last year, Cue restaurant at the Guthrie featured jazz every weekend for several months. It has new owners and no one believes the music will return. The Phil Aaron Trio (with Tom Lewis and Jay Epstein) had a regular gig in the Chez Colette Lounge at the Hotel Sofitel for many years. Saxophonist Irv Williams ("Mr. Smooth") played the Top of the Hilton in St. Paul from 1968–74. Where are the regular gigs these days? Will anyone ever play anywhere again for 5 or 10 or 20 years?

Upscale restaurants are great places for live jazz. Piano jazz, or piano-bass jazz, or even piano-bass-drums jazz (as long as the drums aren’t too crashy) makes fine food taste better. It adds excitement to the air. It’s sensuous and unpredictable. It makes you want to start off with a dry martini, then order a bottle of wine, then work your way down the menu, simply because everything goes so well together. Piano and steak. Piano and lobster. Piano and bass and gnocchi and chocolate truffle cake. You enjoy your cocktail and smile at your dinner partner and converse in lower-than-usual tones and laugh, and once in a while you look over at the musician or musicians, men in suits and (less frequently) women who have taken time with their hair and makeup, and one is seated at a grand piano and one is embracing a double bass and it’s all good. Maybe they take requests and maybe they don’t, but chances are they play something you know, and on the way out you leave a tip in the jar on the piano.

Lose the live music and you lose more than the music. You lose the sophistication, the energy, the elegance, and the surprise that live performance adds to the ambience and the air itself. Pipe music in and it's like buying your food from a vending machine.

Everyone at D’Amico, including staff and musicians, got the news about the closing yesterday or today. Linz called it “a great ride…really one of the best gigs I’ve ever been fortunate to play.” Weinbeck called it “awesome.” Johnson is in NYC this week playing at Birdland with Stacey Kent. I hope he knows…I hope he doesn’t.

D'Amico closes its doors for good on June 27. There will be many opportunities between today (June 4) and then to hear Linz and Weinbeck and Johnson. Check the live jazz calendar at the top of the blog.

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