• Nathan Nicolau

A Night at Middle C Jazz

I had to thank fate for bringing me here. That and my two passions: poetry and jazz.


In 2020, I released Nights at the Turntable to great acclaim. The chapbook was my love letter to jazz music, its people, and its art form. Lizzie Taylor, the marketing lead from Middle C Jazz in Charlotte, came across the book at Park Road Books and reached out to me with high praises. She then gifted me one could the best gifts a stranger can give me: free tickets to a jazz club. I snatched that up right away.


Despite loving the music for a long time, I had never been to a jazz club, where all the action happens. I can say that Middle C Jazz was the best introduction I could have. Jazz was born in live settings, going back to New Orleans funeral processions and late-night romps. Middle C Jazz understands this by having an intimate, low-key atmosphere filled with low blue lights, cocktails, and enough mood to keep one up at night. While the atmosphere harks back to the famous jazz clubs of the 50s (namely Birdland or Mintons), the programming shows jazz at the cutting edge even when referencing jazz's yesteryears.


Enter Jason Marsalis, the vibraphonist who, like his late father, Ellis, wasn't afraid to branch out beyond the traditional American Songbook or the New Orleans fare his family is associated with. He drew from standards from the likes of Lionel Hampton and his fat post-bop material while maintaining a humble, soft-spoken stage presence. He apologized before playing the Lionel Hampton numbers, saying he wasn't going to play them like the old RCA-Victor Benny Goodman recordings before launching into "Sweet Sue, Just You" as a sparse bossa-nova, once again highlighting Middle C Jazz's preference to have one foot in the past and another in the future.


I ordered "The Dizzy Date," one of their signature cocktails named after the jazz clubs they pay homage to (Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola). I looked around and wondered if I was the youngest in the room. At heart? No. In spirit? Debatable. The small venue was full of spirits as Maraslis's quartet blazes through Charlie Christian's "Seven Come Eleven." My date with Dizzy arrived. Sweet notes with attacks of bitter fire. Worthy of the name.


"Taking notes?" a man in a tan suit asked me. I joked about how it's all I do anymore.


"Whatever inspires you," he said, "That and a good martini." He eyed Dizzy before walking away. As if on cue, Marsalis quoted "The Girl from Ipanema" and "So Nice (Summer Samba)" in his solo, which got a few good chuckles out of me. Every jazz lover knows that jazz has a sense of humor, and Middle C Jazz made me feel more than welcome to let my guard down.


I learned from Monk to leave your body to the music. I foot-patted and wiggled my shoulders the entire night, shaking off that day's worries. Marsalis' band was tight with synergy, the likes you won't find in Charlotte, NC. Dizzy agreed. I finished talking to him before the next song: John Scofield's "Hold that Thought," with its visceral moodiness. Two ladies walked in and sat down as the opening notes sizzled—a perfect set-up for a movie. Jazz truly is life's soundtrack. "You, the night, and the music," as the song goes. Middle C Jazz truly is the perfect date-night spot if you don't mind a little adventure with your date.


Marsalis and his band deconstructed songs only to rebuild them into vehicles for expression. The last songs in the set were all compositions by Jason's father, whom he called the interruption of the New Orleans music canon. "Magnolia Triangle" ringed of Duke Ellington's "Caravan" with its driving, eastern-inspired bass rhythm and thunder drums. The band sparsed "Orchid Blue" so much that I didn't even know they were playing it. Anything can happen with jazz, especially in a live setting. I kept my eyes glued to the interplay happening in front of me.


And before I realized it, the set was over. As Marsalis signed off with the blues (Jazz's father), I'm reminded of one of the poems in Nights at the Turntable that fitted the night perfectly:


Behind the market

across from the voodoo shop

selling oddities and feathery masks

on the French Quarter

were a group of young boys

playing "St. Louis Blues" on their horns.

I took a peek around the corner

through the crowded streets

just to get a look.


No hats out for money,

no dollars or cents thrown at them,

just a bunch of kids

beaming

and

snapping

and

shouting

and

spinning

around like they were showing

it for Jesus on the judgment day.


And here were these people

walking past the joyful spirits

without a second glance.

It made me mad

(and it really shouldn't have).

That's when I turned

to someone next to me and said,

"That's the most beautiful thing I ever saw..."

then he said,

"Yeah, we see that every day!"


The fact that Middle C Jazz gets to see such talent and energy every night is nothing short of brilliant, and I am honored to be personally invited to see it. I look forward to my next visit. Who knows, maybe fate will invite me one more time.

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