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The Valley may not be hyped as one of the great jazz meccas on the planet, but it has long had something that more ballyhooed areas don't have: a genuine scene, a community where jazz players intermingle, exchange ideas, and sit in with each other's bands.
For years, the command center for the local jazz scene has been the Melody Lounge. It wasn't that the Melody was the most ornate or acoustically pristine club around. It wasn't. But during the past 27 years, it earned a justified rep as a warm, comfortable place that welcomed musicians. Ten years ago this month, drummer Dave Cook--one of the Valley's premier bebop musicians and a father figure to many of the scene's up-and-coming jazz players--began hosting Monday-night jam sessions at the Melody, where talented locals--and in some cases, renowned national figures--could mix it up on the bandstand with Cook's hot quintet. People from places like Hungary, Poland and Germany were known to step in on Monday nights, having heard tales about a club where players could cut loose with impunity. On any given night, Branford Marsalis, Ike Cole, Billy Paul, Buckwheat Zydeco or Joey DeFrancesco might drop in to throw down some syncopation.
But last month, Cook's revered Monday-night showcases unceremoniously came to a halt when Melody owner Ab Latouf--who purchased the bar last summer from Dave DiLorenzo--told Cook that he couldn't afford the band anymore. Latouf asked that the band take its third pay cut of the past six months, and Cook, who viewed the offer as an attempt to "dehumanize" the band, read the writing on the wall and walked away.
In a way, it was an understandable move. Even after the previous cuts, Latouf had been paying the quintet a fairly generous $400 a week, in the face of attendance that had been gradually dwindling over the past year. The real points of debate, however, are why Monday-night attendance dwindled and what the Melody's change in direction means to the local jazz scene.
Latouf, the former owner of Char's Has the Blues, emphasized when he bought the Melody last year that he wanted to preserve the qualities that made it such a haven for musicians. But it didn't take long before grumbles could be heard that the Melody was losing its vibe. Some of the complaints were over cosmetic stuff (the removal of the big padded booths gave some people the uncomfortable feeling that they were on display), but the overall effect made many jazz aficionados feel that they were unwelcome.
For one thing, the club instituted a cover charge--a sure tactic to keep musicians away--and it often prohibited musicians who were sitting in from drinking, under the rationale that these people were "working" at the club.
"Before, it used to be that if you sat in, you got to have a drink. That was part of the deal," says Ted Sistrunk, bassist for Cook's bebop group. "That deal was pretty successful. Guys would come down, sit in, have a drink, and then buy another drink or two."
Also, underage college players who in the past could come to sit in as long as they didn't drink were banned from entering by the new ownership. It was an understandable attempt to follow the letter of the law, but it flew in the face of the established order that Melody patrons had come to love.
"The new owner just didn't seem to grasp the concept of what the scene was about," Sistrunk says. "Every decision that he made, past the one of keeping the bands, was the wrong decision for keeping the scene going."
Michelle Yngelmo, Latouf's sister, and a co-owner of the Melody, says she and her brother wanted to transform the Melody from a neighborhood bar to a "real venue," and for whatever reason, Cook's band didn't survive the transition.
"Dave started losing the audience and we didn't know why," she says. In an attempt to revive the Monday business, she and her brother stopped charging a cover in January, but she says business did not pick up. She cites the departure of Jesse McGuire from the Cook band, and the fallout from a monthlong disappearance by Cook as further strains on his audience. She also says that Cook, unlike other musicians who have played at the Melody, made no effort to promote his gigs or stimulate interest.
"We're not music people," she says. "We're business people, and from the business point of view, we couldn't keep losing money."
As a result, Melody has turned Monday--once the crowning jewel of the local jazz community--into Club Latex night. Where once jazz players would come to perform on their off night, now female dancers from local "gentlemen's clubs" use their off night to dance--albeit fully clothed--to the dance music of DJs. It's part of the club's strategy to take the road less traveled, and to service markets that are less saturated than the blues and rock crowds. On Thursday nights, the club features rockabilly, and on weekends, the club is spotlighting salsa and other Latin dance sounds. Yngelmo is quick to emphasize, "It's not that we don't want live music, we just want people who'll work with us, and not rest on their laurels."
Cook derisively calls the new Melody a "titty bar" and says that the bar's owners "don't care about musicians." Regardless of who is wrong or right in this matter, the undeniable fact is that the Valley's jazz scene is the ultimate loser.
What's particularly strange is that no attempt was made on the part of the Melody's owners to capitalize on this month's 10th anniversary of the Monday-night showcases by promoting a final farewell blowout with Cook's band. Maybe the damage between the two camps was irreparable by this point.
Both Cook and Sistrunk (who also plays with the free-jazz trio Lookout for Hope) say that currently there is no one site for jazz players to congregate or for young guns to learn the ropes on the bandstands. So while Cook and his other band Intensity maintain their Tuesday-night gigs at Beeloe's, he'll continue trying to find a new home for his bebop jam shows.
"I've been shopping at three or four other places," he says. "But I've found nothing substantial yet."
Contact Gilbert Garcia at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org