Double Dutch

How two best friends from Holland gave up nursing and became club owners

Willa and Corrie Alexander aren't related, but it's natural to assume that they are. Granted, they don't look much alike, and the statuesque Corrie literally towers over her diminutive friend. But they not only share the same surname, they both have the exotic-in-the-Valley accents of their native Holland. More important, their thoughts always seem to be in lock step.

They have an uncanny way of finishing each other's sentences and arriving at conclusions at the same time, sometimes even uttering sentences in unison. Over the past nine years, during which they co-managed three Phoenix group homes, Willa and Corrie's telepathic bond would occasionally ruffle the feathers of their staff workers.

"Willa would come into one of the facilities and tell them something, and an hour later I would come and tell them the same thing," Corrie says in her gravelly smoker's voice. "They were so focused on the fact that we had talked to each other and were on their case. They'd say, 'Why'd you tell us twice?' But we didn't know what the other had said."

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Dealing with a sensitive staff was only one of the headaches that the two friends encountered in their group-home business. Between the three facilities, Willa and Corrie were responsible for the care of 30 Alzheimer patients, and the agonizing nature of the condition eventually became too much for the women to bear.

"With all due respect to the elderly, you're always in that atmosphere, especially if you run your own business," Willa says. "If you're just a nurse working at the hospital for eight hours, at night you can change clothes and go home. For us, it was a 24-hour business, seven days a week."

Willa and Corrie decided to sell off their group homes, even though they had yet to focus on what they wanted to do next. Then they remembered a goal they'd had almost a decade ago to open a club. Three days after deciding to go into the club business, Willa saw a newspaper ad that announced that the Melody Lounge was up for sale. So, with the same impulsive boldness they'd brought to all their business endeavors, they became bar owners.

The Melody had special meaning to them, because in its heyday as a jazz mecca, the bar was a favorite hangout for Willa and Corrie. "We came here on Monday nights with Dave Cook's jam sessions," Willa says. "We were really taken with it."

Three weeks after its reopening, under the new name Club Melody, the bar is showing some signs of its old vigor. For one thing, Willa and Corrie are both unabashed jazz fans, with an appreciation for the legacy created by Melody owner Dave DiLorenzo, before he sold the bar in 1997.

On March 1, Cook returned to the Monday-night slot he'd held at the Melody for nearly 10 years, before falling out with owners Ab Latouf and Michelle Yngelmo, who bought the club from DiLorenzo two years ago. The March 1 show was a stirring reminder of what makes Cook so special. With his small electric combo Intensity in tow, he graciously presided over the night's activities, bringing a revolving cast of virtuosos to the bandstand. Guest organist Joey DeFrancesco positively stole the night, ripping into one audacious solo after another.

Willa and Corrie want to build an unchanging weekly schedule that audiences can come to expect, but that effort is still a work in progress. They have the soulful Hammond B-3 jazz of Royce Murray and A Touch of Blues on Tuesdays, and the group will also host Sunday-night jams. They've also got R&B singer Patti Williams locked in on Fridays, and jazz singer Dennis Rowland is also performing at the club. But the owners are still searching for a strong Saturday-night act, and they're not sure how committed they are to the salsa nights they've experimented with.

While they've tipped their hats to the bar's history--returning DiLorenzo's old wrought-iron Melody sign to the front window and putting up framed newspaper clippings about Cook--they're quick to emphasize that they don't want to be chained by the past.

"A lot of people are saying, 'You need to bring the booths back.' A lot of people are dwelling on the old Melody Lounge," Corrie says. "But we strongly but kindly tell everybody, 'This is Club Melody. It's new management, it's a little different.' It's not a neighborhood bar anymore. But we do like to have the jazz back here again, because we both love jazz."

The two women both hail from the same Dutch city, Soest. Corrie worked her family's flower shops, while Willa was one of her regular customers. In 1973, Willa moved to Phoenix and worked as a registered nurse. Sixteen years later, Corrie followed her American husband to the Valley after he was transferred here by the Air Force.

"I ran into a Dutch lady who's also from Holland," Corrie recalls. "She said she had a friend from Holland she wanted me to meet. I said, 'When are you going to introduce me?', because I was hungry to meet people from there. She introduced me to this friend, and this friend opened the door, and it was Willa. We looked at each other and said, 'Hey!'"

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