Vancouver is littered with the wreckage of jazz clubs that have failed. Fire, bureaucracy, inertia, and indifference have all taken their toll; running a “listening room” in this city is, at best, an uphill battle. And then there’s the record industry. Those little silvery discs that contain music just aren’t selling like they used to, and no one has really figured out how to make money from the on-line alternative. As for the restaurant business, forget about it. All too often, owning a restaurant is like owning a wooden boat, except that the hole you’re throwing money into is on dry land.
So why is it that, this week, we’re celebrating the 10th anniversary of a jazz club and restaurant that, weirdly enough, is also a record label?
Well, it might just be that Cory Weeds has figured out the magic of synergy. But first he had to solve a few things for himself.
The owner, operator, and visible face of Cory Weeds’s Cellar Jazz Club was always bound for a career in the music industry, but Weeds didn’t start out thinking he’d own the stage. At first, he was intent on making it as a tenor saxophonist (and he still plays a pretty fine horn), but after studying at Capilano College, dropping out of the music program at the University of North Texas, and spending a couple of years on the jam-band circuit, the Vancouver native decided there was no place like home. Except home lacked a venue like the clubs he’d hit while touring Canada, the U.S., and Europe.
“What really sent me over the edge in terms of wanting to have a club was that when I’d get off the road, I’d want to go hear my teachers and the people I had grown up listening to—people like Oliver Gannon and Campbell Ryga and Ross Taggart and Brad Turner,” Weeds explains, on the line from his West Broadway venue. “But there just wasn’t a whole lot going on in this city. So I thought to myself, ”˜You know, I think I could probably do this.’ Not based on having any restaurant or business experience, but just based on having good relationships with a lot of the musicians in this city—and it sort of snowballed from there.”
Ten years later, the Cellar is a lively hub of local music, a port of call for players on the international jazz circuit, and home to a record label, Cellar Live, that at last count had issued 57 CDs, all jazz and most of them recorded live in the room itself. It’s fair to say that Vancouver wouldn’t be the same without it.
“We’re really, really, really lucky to have the Cellar, and we’re really lucky to have Cory so committed to what he’s doing there,” says bassist Jodi Proznick, a former Montrealer who moved to town just as Weeds was starting out. The room has certainly made a difference for her: Proznick released her 2006 debut, Foundations, on Cellar Live, and has since parlayed it into a thriving career, both as a leader and a sideman.
In turn, as Taggart notes, the label has been a kind of ambassador for the club itself, and for Vancouver. “It’s certainly brought notoriety to the local jazz scene,” says the pianist and saxophonist, who was responsible for the very first Cellar Live release, Thankfully, back in 2002.
Weeds—who’s got three discs of his own out on Cellar Live, including the recent The Many Deeds of Cory Weeds—is aware that the label is a rather unusual success story. “If you had told me when I started Cellar Live that I’d have 55-plus records on there, I would have said you were absolutely nuts,” he admits, laughing.
“The CD as the main way people consume music is absolutely dead,” he continues. “But as small-market music from a small-market venue, the CD has a whole pile of significance and will continue to have a whole pile of significance. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been in the club and people have been lining up at the break to get a CD and have it signed by the artists. It’s a souvenir of the night that they can take home and listen to—and, you know, you can’t sign a digital download card. You just can’t do it.”
Even with the club feeding the label and vice versa, it hasn't always been easy. During the worst of the recessionary doldrums, the Cellar’s future was far from secure, and even now a bad week can get Weeds worried. But he knows he’s got a few things he can count on, including a group of patient investors, a loyal customer base, and the support of local musicians. And, most of all, he’s determined to succeed.
“Sometimes it’s just the attitude you bring forth that keeps you going,” he says. “You know you’re going to go through ups and downs, and you try to anticipate them, and you try to do what you can to get through them. And so far, we have.”
With New York City–based all-stars One for All at the club Thursday through Sunday (September 9 through 12), it’s a good time to see that for yourself—and perhaps raise a glass to another decade of live jazz in Vancouver.