The AlphaSoul Café in Hintonburg, a regular jazz venue and the location of the 2013 Ottawa Jazz Festival jams, is closing its doors.
Its last music night will be Saturday, December 21, with the Berekete Afrobeat Band, organized by local saxophonist Adrian Matte. On Friday December 20, Matte's quartet will hold down the café's last jazz show, as they have on Fridays for the last 2 1/3 years.
Owner Rachel Russo said the reason for closing was simple: she and Maxine (her daughter and co-owner) were worn out, after non-stop 12-hour days since April, 2011.
“We're exhausted. We've lost two significant members of our family in the last year and it's just too much. We just need to take a break and stop.”
She said they would continue the AlphaSoul name and looking to create a new art-and-music venture starting in late spring or early summer, 2014 – but not a restaurant.
“AlphaSoul is music. It's really more about music than it is about a restaurant. Anybody can have a restaurant; there's lots of them around. But to create music is different. We need to hear their voices, so it's been really exciting in that respect. I hope to continue introducing music because AlphaSoul is not dead. It's going to keep on going. We just don't know its transformation yet.”
Russo owns the Wellington Street West location and said she would be looking to rent it to a new restaurant, but there is no guarantee a new venue would feature music.
Matte said he was told in mid-November, along with the restaurant staff, that the restaurant would be closing just before Christmas. “The sense I got from Rachel was that they weren't making enough money to sustain it.”
“We weren't filling the place every time we had music,” Russo said. “Oftentimes of course we did, but it would be nice to have just in the theatre they call it, more butts in seats, you know. So that time will come. I think it's more in the future. In a couple years I think this area will be really hopping. And so for us it's an opportunity to go and do more exciting things. We're still going to be part of the music scene but in a different way, without the bricks and mortar.”
Music was integral to the café
The café started featuring jazz in the summer of 2011, only a few months after it opened, with Matte's Ottawa Folklore Centre Jazz Band.
“Music right at the outset became an integral part of us because we were always into music,” Russo said. “Adrian was Maxine's voice and guitar teacher, and he had the Jazz Band, and he was hoping to do something in public with them. So they played here on a Saturday afternoon in the summer. And it was a madhouse in here – everybody loved it. And so then we started thinking about having music.”
By August, the OFC Jazz Band was playing at the café one Friday evening a month. “And then they told me that people were coming in on Fridays and asking where the band was,” Matte said. “So I just told them, OK, I'll have a group there for [all] the Fridays.”
For “most of the time the first year we didn't make any money at all [on the Friday jazz nights],” Russo said. “But it didn't matter. That was the spirit of the place. We had to keep trying to change the way people think. Sometimes you have to take risks and you take your losses when you're trying to effect change. We felt that if we just kept going this would work.”
“The owners were really, really supportive,” Matte said. “I think they were in general really, really supportive of all kinds of live music. I could tell that they got excited when that was happening in the café.”
December to February tended to be the quietest period, he said, but “there would be these up and downs where we literally never knew whether we'd be playing to a packed house or somebody would be organizing a party or it would just be dead. So we never really knew what we would be faced with when we were playing.”
Audiences on Friday nights tended to be about half regulars, and about half people who were discovering the café for the first time, he said.
The Friday jazz nights evolved to being “always our best nights”, Russo said. In 2012, AlphaSoul expanded music to Saturdays, with both jazz and indie music nights. This September, they added jazz on Tuesdays.
“But the more music I introduced, the more tired we became. The big plan was to have music every day, but to do music every day and a restaurant every day, is too much.”
A welcoming approach to music
Jazz fans John and Kareen Jackson live near the café, and had been regulars there for about two years, going to hear the jazz first on Fridays and then Saturdays and Tuesdays.
John Jackson said he immediately felt the café's “welcoming approach” the first time he went there. When combined with good food and good music, he said, “you just can feel relaxed through the whole set. They also had this vision about having more and more types of music. So for us, even though it's true we live close, it became a place we just wanted to go.”
If a venue isn't welcoming, he said, you can feel it, but AlphaSoul felt “like home. This is one of the most comfortable ones I've ever attended.”
Bringing jazz festival jam listeners out in droves
Russo's most ambitious effort with the café, however, was her decision last May to host the late-night jams for the 2013 Ottawa Jazz Festival, when the jams were at risk of being cancelled for lack of sponsorship. And although it was an expensive proposition, she's still very enthusiastic about it.
“A lot of people still talk about it and it was very exciting. It was uplifting. It was exciting to have it in a neighbourhood and not downtown.”
And it attracted the jazz fans. “Everybody was here, and they were here in droves! There was always at least 20 people standing outside waiting to get in, but you could hear it really well outside too because it's all glass windows.”
For musicians, the festival shuttle made it accessible “so they were comfortable about coming and they could have drinks, they could relax, they could really let their hair down. And they had a ball! Because it was a small intimate place and that's what musicians like, because that's where they grow in, that's where you get your first gigs.”
She said it was more like a New York club. “In New York City, you touch the musicians, you speak to them. When everybody would start going home, the musicians would be on the back patio and people would be chatting with them and having drinks with them. It really got [to be] a nice personal space. It was a tremendous opportunity to hear unbelievable music, because they were excited about being here, and they were excited about playing together, even when they didn't speak the same language, they played amazing music together.”
Hosting the jams “put AlphaSoul on the map as a destination to go listen to music and certainly to go listen to jazz,” Matte said. “What I immediately saw was the change in the attendance. There were a lot more people coming to listen to the band after the jazzfest. Part of that was a lot more musicians came to the place. And after that I started to see that a lot more groups were coming in. There were duos or singles or other groups that were taking other nights. So they were generating more business from people coming in to see the shows. And also they started offering a greater variety of artists so they were extending their musical policy.”
“I know and it's on the public record that it cost a lot of money for them to do that [host the jams] and that might have also contributed to difficulties. I can't imagine that they would have recouped what it cost them to sponsor the jazz festival [jams]. I'm aware there were a lot of people that were unhappy about the fact it was going to be held off-site, that it was in this tiny café that has limited sight lines. But definitely the people who were there and the musicians who came down really really enjoyed it. I think overall it was positive in that sense,” he said.
Hosting the jams was monetarily feasible, Russo said, but “we gave a lot of stuff away. We gave a lot of food and drinks away because we've got people from France, we've them from Scotland, we've got people from all over and they're our guests. I think most people would know that most musicians don't have a lot of money. It was an opportunity to fête them. And they appreciated it and they played their heart out while they were here. So I suppose if you were very strict about the 10% we would have made a lot more money, but that wasn't my idea. This is a time to be joyous and to appreciate these fabulous musicians. Because a lot of them came back – if they were in town, they came back! Which was really fantastic.”
"A year or two away from really hitting the kind of peak that they'd hoped for"
Matte said he was disappointed that AlphaSoul was closing, and not just because he was losing a regular gig. “It's a blow to the scene in Ottawa because they're closing just where we were getting to the point where I was very happy to see that other musicians were coming in.”
“Not only are we losing a place where music was happening on a regular basis, but this was a good place to go in and to work. It was a really healthy environment. They were very, very supportive.”
Jackson said that the music at AlphaSoul kept improving, and it wasn't an afterthought. “It's what the place was really about and what they wanted to do. It's not just we'll have jazz and it will be nice.”
“It probably was a year or two away from really hitting the kind of peak that they'd hoped for.”
Matte said he would be looking for a new location, especially since his current quartet, with guitarist Alex Moxon, bassist Mark Fraser, and drummer Ted Zarras, has been playing well together.
At AlphaSoul and at the Stella Luna Gelato Cafe, he had managed “to get jazz happening in places where there wasn't before”, he said. “So I would much prefer to find a place that right now doesn't have any music, or doesn't have a music policy, and then start to bring that in there. That's the ideal thing. Obviously I'll try to find whatever kind of work I can. But it's just a matter of finding the right people to work with.”
Jackson said he was saddened by the closure. For a lot of people, it will be “another downer”, following the closure of Cafe Paradiso in 2012. “I think they're going to get a little discouraged, although I guess Zola's is trying to do something, and there still is Vineyards.”
In the last 18 months, three downtown locations regularly offering jazz have closed: Café Paradiso, Levante Bistro, and Burgers on Main. The Elmdale Oyster House and Tavern in Hintonburg stopped booking jazz when it was taken over by new management,
For us it was never really about just having a restaurant. There's a line – “be the change that you want to see” – so I was a shirt-maker and I changed this place to become a café that would be a meeting place for people to come and enjoy themselves. We wanted to be art, music, always good food.
– Rachel Russo
Russo has lived in Hintonburg for 20 years, and said one of the reasons she and Maxine originally opened the café was to contribute to the community. “For us it was never really about just having a restaurant. We've been through a lot as a community together because it was a really rough area and it's really the community that changed it, not the city. The governments don't come and do this for you; you have to jump up and down and make the moves yourself, make the changes yourself. Effect the change. That's what we did. There's a line – “be the change that you want to see” – so I was a shirt-maker and I changed this place to become a café that would be a meeting place for people to come and enjoy themselves. We wanted to be art, music, always good food.”
But others are now taking up these possibilities, she said, with many new restaurants opening in Hintonburg, and jazz moving to locations outside the downtown core, such as Brookstreet in Kanata. “So as far as I'm concerned we've had great successes here and it's already spread. And all those people who are doing it all in their ways, even way out in Brookstreet, they're changing the face of Ottawa.”
For her and Maxine, the next few months will be “a time for us to explore life again and create new things”. They plan to rest, and get to hear the opera again.
They'll plan new ventures (“there's already a lot of good ideas than are gelling”) and expand AlphaSoul's current website. And in four to six months, the countdown clock on the website will ring: “there's a lot of exciting stuff that will happen, [but] just how it will happen and when, even I don't know.”
– Alayne McGregor
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