The lineup assembled by WCVE jazz host Peter Solomon changes from month to month. Tonight it’s an unconventional quartet: Solomon and Doug Bethel on trombones, Greg Jarrell on tenor sax and Alan Parker as one-man rhythm section on guitar.
Last month it was a three-trombone octet, a relatively big band given the miniature confines of the coffee shop/bookstore. They played on the street until a policeman showed up and apologetically shoehorned everyone back inside.
“Just imagine a band and an espresso machine and maybe a half-dozen people in your walk-in closet, and you’ll get the feel,” Solomon says.
The café is on 17th Street, across from the Farmers’ Market at the bottom of Shockoe Bottom. The concept for the performances was born in the market. When Solomon played there with an early version of the band, he met espresso entrepreneur Margaret Doyle, who was running her mobile coffee-catering business Café A Go Go from a market stand.
It was a fast friendship. “Peter has an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz,” Doyle says, “especially the music from the late ’40s to the early ’60s. We’ll never see talent and raw energy like that again.” It was the music Doyle’s World War II-era parents had played in her home while she was growing up in Southside Chicago.
When the nearby 17.5 Café went on sale, Doyle bought it to anchor her growing business and to fulfill a longtime dream. “I always wanted to have my own venue,” Doyle says. “Not a typical smoky club, but an informal, no-cover place. And not late-night; I like Bogart’s, but their shows may start at 10 and I get up at 4:30.”
Solomon put the first show together in January, and they’ve been happening almost every month since. There is no publicity — not even for Solomon’s show — and the advertising is all word-of-mouth.
That’s in keeping with the eclectic nature of the venue, the polar opposite of a coffee chain’s retail trendiness. Mostly comfortable everyday furniture is scattered through its narrow space; giant fishing-lure statues hang overhead. One wall sports a show from a local photographer, another a socially conscious “Postcards from the Heart” from inner-city students. Family pictures are scattered throughout, including one of Doyle as a child wearing an MP helmet and holding a plastic machine gun.
A small rack of CDs that are on sale is across from a coffee counter covered with fancy breads, croissants and scones. Upstairs, along with more seating, is a discriminating selection of heavily discounted books.
As the band plays, the occasional customer comes in; eventually there is a crowd. Halfway through the two-hour show the place is packed; the applause for solos is stronger and more sustained.
Solomon plays with passionate intensity; Bethel is a font of fluid invention. Jarrell’s solos grow in confidence and power as the evening progresses. Parker is perpetual motion, playing a walking bass line, adapting his chording to the others’ improvisations and taking daredevil solos that tumble from one idea to the next, from funk rhythms to single-note, speed-demon runs, with a brief flash of something that sounds like The Who.
There are breakdowns, but there are also sustained sections of uncanny synchronicity. “It’s extremely naked — there’s no hiding when things go wrong,” Solomon says. “[Charlottesville trumpeter] John D’earth taught me that if you just play the stuff you sound good on you’re just spinning your wheels. You need to commit to every note, play what you’re a bit uncomfortable with, and you raise the bar.”
D’earth, a brilliant and supportive player who energized the band on its last two gigs, has a conflict tonight, as does longtime band member, ex-House of Freaks drummer Johnny Hott. For the last few songs, the evening fading gently into night, college age clarinetist Jacob Wise sits in. His family watches nearby.
It’s a big small moment, listening as he trades fours with the older players; it’s the kind of intimate informality that defines the place. Margaret Doyle remembers her mother baking pies and brewing endless pots of coffee for her fireman father’s friends. She’s conjured up a bit of her childhood kitchen in this narrow slice of the Bottom.
She hasn’t just given the music a venue; she’s given it a home. S
That Time of the Month band will play the 17.5 Uncommon Café on Aug. 16.