This is the place (to build a jazz club)
It’s natural for cities like New York City, San Francisco, New Orleans and Chicago to have incredible jazz clubs. The owner of Avant Groove, John Vecchi, believes that Salt Lake City should have one too. “I always thought I’d build this place in the Bay area,” says Bay-area native, Vecchi, as we marvel at the high ceilings and luxurious décor of the newly remodeled building on Pierpont Ave, directly behind the Rose Wagner. Vecchi works in tech start-ups and moved to SLC a few years ago. While SLC has many jazz musicians, fans, summertime jazz concerts and SLC Jazz Festival, there is a lack of permanent jazz clubs in downtown SLC. Rather than building Vecchi’s club in the Bay, it became clear to him, Salt Lake is the place (to build a jazz club).
They’re already hearing feedback to the tune of, “Salt Lake has been dying for a place like this!” Vecchi’s goal is to bring the world’s best jazz musicians to Utah, and recreate the feeling of jazz clubs from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. Venues such as Gallivan Center, Red Butte and Deer Valley serve as great outdoor venues for touring jazz bands in the summers, but Vecchi’s wish is to allow local and touring musicians a jazz club for them to play in year-round.
Friday, September 8, Avant Groove’s Grand Opening party was held, with music by Vecchi’s own jazz band, Elastic Jazz Quintet. The quintet helps define Avant Groove’s musical style, with guitar (Andres Reyes), piano (Tony Elison), drums (Aaron Merry), bass (Jake Bills) and saxophones/vocals (John Vecchi). They cover everything from Frank Sinatra, Wes Montgomery, John Scofield, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, to Kenny Burrell. The quintet’s music set the scene for a more mature era for this space.
The building has come a handsome ways from its former days as Baja Cantina, a 1986 Gastronomy endeavor, which became Inferno Cantina, a Mexican restaurant and club, and later a club called The Office. The neighbors sighed with relief that the building was getting a new owner and complete makeover: the nightclub days of the decade past had earned it a bad wrap. I’ve always admired the building, with its many arched windows lining the south wall, brick exterior, and spacious layout, however the reputation kept me from going there. The place definitely deserves to shine.
To scrape away the juju from the past few of years, while remodeling, Vecchi stripped the building down to the original beams from 1890, when it was first built. Vecchi brought in Suzette Eaton (who designed the interiors of Stanza, Current and Under Current) to completely reinvent the space. The white beams and walls stand out among the dark ceilings and floors. The chandeliers resemble trumpets and trombones, alight with Edison bulbs. The wood surface of the bar and the palm leaves in tall, white marbled vases creates a cozy coastal vibe that swept me away from feeling landlocked in the city. The main stage has curtains draped around it, bringing a posh, elegant vibe.
Opening night, the jazz club was a flurry of activity. A mixed clientele of both young and old, fancy or casual, gathered around the center bar. People quickly filled the small and high tables, and various little couches and lounge areas. Patience was a virtue while the small staff hustled to attend to all the guests food and drink needs.
The food menu, curated by their next door neighbors at Christopher’s Prime Steak House & Grill, offers decently priced options for a complete dinner; flatbreads, salads, sandwiches, small and sharing plates. The Mushroom Ravioli was delectable, a bit crispy on the edges, with burnt onion butter, dried cherries, and wilted arugula. The Lamb Loli-pops were good, but a little overdone. The Barbeque Chicken flatbread was decent. The drink list that was done by Vecchi and Josh Eaton, offers cocktails, beer, wine and a separate menu with a variety of martinis. The craft cocktail menu had a half-dozen appetizing-sounding drinks. I settled with the Bebop Sazerac. It was delightful.
Salt Lake doesn’t have any major jazz clubs to compare Avant Groove to, but Salt Lake does have a high caliber of dining experiences and craft cocktail menus in the ring. It takes a lot to wow the Salt Lake dining scene, and Vecchi has quite the undertaking. Owning and managing a jazz club is uncharted territory for both Vecchi and his GM, Damien McKnight. Their vision is clear, however the execution and operations seemed to be making their way through a steep learning curve. I’m hopeful that they dig deeper into the pool of talented and experienced dining scene professionals that SLC is blessed with.
I can speak from experience in the dining scene, yet I’ve never visited one of the establishments Vecchi is modeling the place after, nor did I live in the era at the height of those great jazz clubs. Unfamiliar as I am with jazz clubs, at the opening I did encounter local jazz musician Alan Michael, of Alan Michael Band. Michael spent a great deal of time playing in, and as a patron of the great jazz clubs in New York City from the ‘60’s to the ‘90’s. The thing about the greatest jazz clubs, he says, is that nobody really cared about the food and the drinks, it was about the music. People paid $20-$50 per person at the door and crowd into tiny jazz clubs caring about one thing: hearing great live jazz music. Everything else was a side note, apparently.
Two elements that were certainly not a side note at Avant Groove: the ambiance and the music. Beyond the details, the opening of Avant Groove is of greater significance: SLC now has a hip jazz bar to boast about.
Avant Groove is open Wednesday through Saturday, 7pm to midnight. Thursday night, October 5, Alan Michael Band is playing. If you’ve been waiting for a chance to check the place out, I would swing by then.