You can't ever relax when managing a jazz club, according to Vancouver club owner and musician Cory Weeds.

A pillar of the Canadian jazz scene: Cory Weeds' Cellar Jazz Club  photo:Doug Randle
A pillar of the Canadian jazz scene: Cory Weeds' Cellar Jazz Club  photo:Doug Randle
Weeds bought the Cellar Jazz Club in 2000. It has appeared five times on Downbeat's list of the world’s top 100 jazz clubs, and is a pillar of the Vancouver, and Canadian, jazz scene. It offers jazz from local, Canadian, and international musicians, usually seven nights a week. Some better-known acts who have appeared or are scheduled to appear there include: Christian McBride, Russell Malone, Renee Rosnes, David 'Fathead' Newman, Tom Harrell, Benny Golson, and Kenny Garrett.

But that doesn't make it a fully secure proposition, nor is it likely that any jazz club can be that.

“We're never out of the water. I think there's a misconception that if you can get past the first five or six years or whatever it happens to be that you're home free. We're never, ever home free. Never. Not after 12 years, not after 14 years, probably not after 20. We're always two or three bad weekends away from being in trouble and that's just the way it is running a jazz club, at least the kind of jazz club we run.”

Which may be one reason why he excoriated jazz students in late 2012 for not showing up to live jazz shows.

Weeds combines running the Cellar with also operating a record label, Cellar Live, which releases mostly live recordings, many actually recorded in the club. On top of that, he is an active jazz musician, playing alto and tenor saxophone and leading several groups under his own name, and playing in a Hammond B3-based band, The Night Crawlers.

He is currently on tour across Canada and the U.S. with his quartet and trombonist Steve Davis, playing music which will end up on a new live CD [read related story: Cory Weeds swings across the country and into Ottawa].

Seeing both sides

Weeds' experience as both a club owner and a musician has been instrumental to his success.

“That's the biggest thing that has made it successful for me. I understand things from both sides. I really do. I don't think there are too many people that can actually say that. I'm not just a musician on the side. It's a big part of my life and a big part of my career. I've seen it all from club owners and presenters. There are two sides and when you don't understand one side, it's really tough.”

If, on his current tour, “we get to the club and it's a door gig, for example, the club's packed but the club owner's plumbing, his toilet's plugged or a pipe burst and that cost him $500 and he's giving me this sob story, I have to understand that because it happens to me all the time.”

“It happens to me where I'll have a band on a bonus structure and the night in question will be really good but the week as a whole was really awful and I don't give them as much as I probably should have and they're looking at me like 'we thought it was going to be a little more than that'. That part of it is tough.”

Raising the club's profile - through recordings, mailings, and even his own tours

His own profile as a musician also raises that of the club. When Weeds tours, he said, he's recognized as “'Oh, you're the Cellar guy'. Some people know me more as a club owner than they do as a saxophone player, which is fine by me. I have all these advantages that just keep the name in people's minds all the time and other jazz clubs don't necessarily have that.”

“We changed the name to Cory Weeds' Cellar Jazz Club about two years ago, which I wasn't a huge fan of. I have a board, like an advisory board, that helps me with some things. It was a really smart decision because now it's not just a club. It's got my name attached to it. All those things work together.”

Even the Cellar Live record label helps, by increasing the club's name recognition in the city and across North America. “In Vancouver, it comes to a point where, 'God, we can't talk about The Cellar again. It's just another show at The Cellar. Who cares?' But a record comes across their desk, so there's a story or there's a record review.”

“I'm just lucky that way. I have my fingers dipped in a lot of pies and it helps. It's funny because the end result isn't a big fluffy blanket of comfort.”

Raising the profile of the club – through bringing in well-known jazz artists – has also been important to the club's success: “sometimes not the most financially smart moves, but I've managed to do it and not put us in jeopardy.” Publicity is also important: through local media, social media, and via his 1700-name weekly mailing list.

A regular customer will just get out of their chair and go up to the table and say, 'Can you please shut up? I'm trying to enjoy the music.'

It helps that Vancouver has a strong jazz scene, he said, “We've got a lot to draw from here.” And. to many jazz fans, the Cellar has become “an important place. I think people recognize that. Aside from the fact that I make my living at it, it's a really important place to a lot of people. The will to continue is stronger than I think it would be if I was doing anything else.”

The Cellar has a group of investors “who are jazz hands who have seen us through some pretty rough times financially who have been there to help us out. Every company, I think, has that. I try to run my business as a viable business and, for the most part, I have. We're not going to lie. We're not in a business that we're ever going to get rich in and there are going to be down times.”

“It's never a sleep-easy kind of thing where we're going to be cool for the next three months so I don't have to worry. I have to worry about it every single day. I have to worry about it this weekend. As I'm sitting here talking to you, I've got another computer with this real time reservation system. I'm just peering over at it and it's like it's 55 tonight, that's not enough people. We need 70, come on. I'm looking at tomorrow. It never ends. It never, ever ends.” [The club capacity is 85 seats.]

Advantages and disadvantages in every city

One of Ottawa's major jazz venues, the restaurant Café Paradiso, closed in July, 2012, after 14 years in operation. Another restaurant which offered jazz closed three months before that, and another club suspended its regular jazz evening this January. Weeds didn't want to comment on specific places, but noted that it would be “hard in a smaller city like Ottawa to make something like a full-time jazz place work. It's tough.”

He also pointed out that each jazz club in each city has different advantages and disadvantages.

The Yardbird Suite in Edmonton has the advantage of being run by a non‑profit association. The Rex in Toronto is at the corner of one of the busiest intersections in Canada. “If you go to The Rex at noon on a Wednesday it's packed in there with people drinking beer and having food. They own the building. There are a lot of things that they have that we don't.”

The Cellar has an extra disadvantage: its location in Canada, with the Rocky Mountains, the Prairies, and the US border surrounding it makes it much more difficult to bring in visiting musicians.

Despite Seattle's great jazz scene, Vancouver jazz listeners don't know a lot about it – and vice-versa – because of the border. “It's really hard for me to go down there and play, and it's really hard for them to come up here and play, so there's not that cross‑pollination.”

And it's no better within Canada. “Touring out here is a nightmare, because you're not around anything.” In central Canada and the U.S. Northeast, by driving 20 hours you can hit seven major cities, he said – but it takes 15 hours just to get to Edmonton from Vancouver.

How are you going to learn how to play this music if you don’t come and take these opportunities to hear the music in the flesh played by three people that have been there and pretty much done it all?

Weeds said he's had real trouble getting Vancouver listeners out to hear bands from Toronto or Alberta, because they'd never had the chance to hear those bands' music on the radio or elsewhere. “People don't really know what's going on in Toronto. Toronto is really far away. It might as well be New York.”

“Our crowd that comes to The Cellar, we go through stages. Sometimes people just come because they know it's going to be good. Then we switch over and people come to what they know and people don't know what's going on in Alberta. Why would they? It's a 15‑hour drive away.”

Keeping quiet

The Cellar itself is located in Kitsilano, between downtown Vancouver and the University of British Columbia. It's situated in a basement, underneath an Irish pub.

“People come to The Cellar because they're making plans to come to The Cellar. They're not coming to The Cellar because they happen upon it as they're walking by. That's good for us. I like that because we don't have to educate people that way. Try to play a ballad at the Rex and see how far you get. Sometimes you can do it. It's pretty noisy in there. That's fine. I love the Rex.”

In contrast to Ottawa's former Café Paradiso, where patrons were asked to keep noise down to a dull roar during performances, the Cellar has a noise policy that explicitly states that it is “a jazz club not a bar. We are committed to providing an optimum listening environment. While the performance is in progress we ask that you keep the volume of your conversation to a minimum during the performance. … Please keep all cell phones and pagers off or on vibrate mode and if they do happen to go off please answer them outside.”

Weeds said the policy works, and the club rarely has a problem. He usually reminds the audience to be quiet and that the club wants them to hear the music, and then, “the crowd polices themselves. We don't have to do it anymore. A regular customer will just get out of their chair and go up to the table and say, 'Can you please shut up? I'm trying to enjoy the music.'”

The policy has offended “a lot of people along the way, but that's fine. Those aren't the people you want anyway.”

He said a lot of it was educating inexperienced listeners. “What they want to do is they want to see a jazz band. They don't want to hear a jazz band because they don't understand the music, they want to see it. You have to educate them and say 'You paid $17 to get in, why would you talk? You can go upstairs to the Irish pub, not pay any cover, and hang out and drink beer and talk to your friends all night long.' "

There still can be the rare noisy table – usually the one who ordered the most expensive wine and food – and the club has to suck it up, “but it's never really bad”, he said.

Really smoking after the third night of playing together

Decades ago, clubs would book touring acts for several days or even a week, which rarely happens now. However, the Cellar has worked against that trend by booking musicians in for three or even (in case of an upcoming show by bassist Christian McBride) four-day runs.

Weeds said the idea is to have Friday and Saturday pay for the musician's appearance, and “so Sunday is gravy”. It also allows him to have a lower cover charge on Sunday to attract students and to make shows “accessible to as many people as I can.”

“That's the concept. It doesn't always work. I've had Joey DeFrancesco out a couple times and it's worked brilliantly where basically Friday and Saturday pays for the three night run and then Sunday is total profit. It doesn't always work that well, but it works well enough that I keep doing it once in a while.”

“It's great to see the bands on the third night, too, because they're really smoking after the third night of playing together. It's rare that you can string nights like that together.”

Why don't students attend live shows?

But it's still a risk – which he said was what inspired a controversial blog post about low student attendance at live jazz shows. That “rant” initiated a lot of discussion in jazz circles in early December, 2012.

At the Cellar, students pay no cover charge for the second set of the night, or on some student Sunday shows – as long as they meet the bar minimum. Weeds said he was trying to make the music accessible and affordable for students, to encourage them to “be able to soak up everything that there is to soak up.” But at they weren't showing up, for example at a show featuring some well-known NYC musicians.

“How are you going to learn how to play this music if you don’t come and take these opportunities to hear the music in the flesh played by three people that have been there and pretty much done it all?” he wrote in his blog post. “This is only one Sunday of many in the past few months where the tickets have been seriously discounted and the student turnout has been appalling and quite honestly embarrassing.”

Weeds said he stood by everything he wrote: “Students are somewhat lazy. I don't want to paint everybody with the same brush, but times have changed and I think that students, a lot of times, are coddled and are spoiled.”

“It's the way it is. When I was young, growing up wanting to play this music, nobody ever had to coddle me or push me to go hear music. That's what you did. Now I guess you can just sit home and go to YouTube and hear all your favourite players and you don't necessarily have to get out.”

He said the club would continue to offer student discounts “because it's important. It is important for the young people to get out and listen to this music and be a part of this music.”

Staying in the mainstream

Weeds' own style of music – and that offered in the club – is firmly centred in the jazz mainstream. We asked Weeds if an avant‑garde jazz pianist like Vancouverite Paul Plimley, to give an example, would ever play the Cellar.

The answer: “Probably not.”

He said he respected that kind of music, but didn't like it. And more importantly, “my crowd won't like it. We used to have an avant‑garde night and it didn't do well. That's not the kind of music where you say let's get some friends together, go down and have some beer, and enjoy a nice steak and listen to that kind of music. It's not something that I'm comfortable with having at my club for those reasons.”

On the other hand, “I've booked a lot of music at The Cellar that I don't like. [But] for me, booking a club, I've got bills to pay. If Paul Plimley comes to me and says yeah, I can bring 80 people down there that are going to come and eat and drink, then I'll book him. Absolutely I'll book him, regardless of how I feel about the music or not.”

Dedication to a jazz club dream

There's one last factor that so far has led to the Cellar's success: Weeds' own dedication to his dream.

“I only ever wanted to run a jazz club. I didn't want to do anything else. I've only ever wanted to run a jazz club so I've never deviated from what I wanted to do. Yes, we have blues sometimes and we have singer/songwriter stuff, but we're a jazz club.”

“For 12 years I've been hammering that home and I've never deviated from that. That consistency has helped, too.”

    – Alayne McGregor

Related stories: