In August 1995, a shuttered restaurant on Washington Avenue in Grand Center became the setting for concerts headlined by nationally known musicians such as John Pizzarelli, John Hicks, Ray Brown and Steve Turre. Under the direction of the late Barbara Rose, the Jazz at the Bistro series soon became the city's top purveyor of jazz. But those August performances also marked the last time live music would be heard at the restaurant during the summer -- until now.
Beginning June 1 and running through August, the Bistro at Grand Center will host a wide array of musical styles in addition to jazz. The schedule opens with a performance by trumpeter Russell Gunn, accompanied by his hip-hop-influenced Ethnomusicology band, and also includes Chicago-based pianist/singer Patricia Barber. But alongside those jazz performers, the Bistro will feature veteran English pub rocker Graham Parker, blues guitarist Duke Robillard, singer/songwriter Steve Forbert and the Cajun sounds of Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys.
The eclectic schedule is being assembled by Nanci O'Dea, who's working as an independent contractor out of the offices of Contemporary Productions. O'Dea says the series was proposed by the owners of the restaurant as a way to attract customers during the summer, when the Jazz at the Bistro series is on hiatus and other events and attractions in the Grand Center area slow down as well.
"The Jazz at the Bistro series won't start up again until September," O'Dea says. "The symphony stops performing at Powell Hall during the summer, and the Sheldon, Fox and Grandel are not doing their subscription series, either. So the owners decided a music series at the restaurant -- one that featured a variety of styles -- was the way to go."
In fact, previous owners of the Bistro shut down completely during the summer because there just wasn't enough traffic to merit staying open. But the current owners decided it made more sense to try making the Bistro a year-round destination.
"Myself, John Shriner and Eddie Neill took over the restaurant in mid-February," explains owner Mike Mitchell. "We were told that traffic really dries up in Grand Center in the summer, so we figured we either had to shut the doors or come up with something to get people in here. And we wanted to try and get people who hadn't been here before, either. So a music series featuring other music in addition to some jazz seemed to make sense."
O'Dea has already booked the June schedule for the Bistro, and, thanks to the help of Dagmar von Tress, a local architect and interior designer who is also a devoted jazz fan, the series will open with something special: the first appearance in St. Louis of Gunn and Ethnomusicology in a large tent set up in the triangular park outside the Bistro.
"Dagmar is a good friend of Russell's," O'Dea explains. "She knew Russell was on tour with Harry Connick's orchestra, which is booked to play at the Fox on June 1. So she got on the phone to Russell, and things just came together. After playing with Harry, Russell will walk across to the tent at the Bistro and start playing around 10:30, and we hope a lot of the audience from the Fox comes, too!"
Gunn, who grew up in East St. Louis and was a member of the acclaimed Lincoln High School jazz band when Ron Carter was its director, formed Ethnomusicology several years ago as a way to bridge the two areas of music he loves best, jazz and hip-hop. But despite the fact that both of the group's recordings have been nominated for Grammys, Gunn and Ethnomusicology have made only rare appearances in New York City and a few other areas -- and have never played St. Louis.
"Russell has always wanted to bring Ethnomusicology to St. Louis," says von Tress, "but the places that would bring him here wanted him to play straight-ahead jazz, not the music that incorporates rap and hip-hop. They felt safer dealing with more traditional jazz. But this new series at the Bistro is perfect for Ethnomusicology's sound."
After eight shows in June, the Bistro will close for two weeks for renovations. From the middle of July through August, concerts are scheduled for every Thursday, Friday and Saturday. That portion of the series is still being finalized, but O'Dea tosses out several acts she is seeking to fill out the lineup.
"I'm working to bring in blues artists like Charlie Musselwhite and John Hammond and singer/songwriters like Alejandro Escovedo and Iris DeMent," she says. "We originally had the Iguanas booked for June, but they had routing problems, so they'll be coming later in the summer. And as far as jazz, we're bringing Kurt Elling in July."
Escovedo, Parker and the Mamou Playboys have performed at other area clubs, such as Off Broadway, Blueberry Hill's Duck Room and the Broadway Oyster Bar. With O'Dea scooping up quite a few of these acts for the Bistro, the summer music scene is getting a little more crowded -- and competitive. But O'Dea thinks the Bistro is offering audiences something distinctively different than what they get in the usual music-club scene.
"The Bistro just has a different feel than a club," she explains. "It's also a very good restaurant, and there's just a different atmosphere for people. I think we'll still have some of the upscale ambiance that you have at a Jazz at the Bistro concert, but there's also going to be a more relaxed, looser feeling, too. It's definitely not going to be a 'listening room' like Jazz at the Bistro."
That "relaxed, looser feeling" has caught the attention of Jazz at the Bistro's director, Gene Dobbs Bradford. Although Bradford is pleased to see that the restaurant will remain open for the summer and is trying to attract a wider audience with an eclectic lineup of music, he has reservations.
"I think it's great that the restaurant is going to remain open all summer," he says. "We have a great relationship with the management of the restaurant, and I think the summer music will bring in folks who haven't been to the Bistro before. And I'm glad there are some good jazz artists in the lineup, like Russell and Kurt Elling, who have been part of the Jazz at the Bistro series. Hopefully that will whet everyone's appetite for the start of our series in the fall. But I have to admit I do hope that the Bistro is able to maintain its identity as the place to go to see jazz in St. Louis. That's vital."
Any new music series is a gamble, and the Bistro's summer series certainly faces some hurdles. In addition to the decreased traffic in Grand Center during the summer, there's no real guarantee that audiences really want to see a band such as the Iguanas in a setting like the Bistro. But O'Dea is confident that the concept will work.
"I think the Bistro is a great space," she says. "We'll be able to change the seating to fit the performers. For bands like the Mamou Playboys, we'll clear out tables to create a dance floor, and for someone like Iris DeMent, we can have a really intimate feeling that fits her music. It's a chance for people to hear musicians who haven't played here in a while, to hear music in a different setting -- and hear it in a different way."