Café Coda looks for its next home

After a promising start, the jazz club must leave its current space by August 15.

Saxophonist David Murray and percussionist Kahil El'Zabar played Café Coda on June 18. Photo by Scott Gordon.

Saxophonist David Murray and percussionist Kahil El'Zabar played Café Coda on June 18. Photo by Scott Gordon.

Update, August 22, 2017: Café Coda has vacated its downtown space, and is currently hoping to reopen at some point at 1222 Williamson Street. But the venue has yet to set a firm date. Over on the venue's GoFundMe page, co-founder Hanah Jon Taylor has a video about the space and is seeking additional donations to get Café Coda through the transition. The original version of this story remains below.

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The jazz club Café Coda has filled a void in Madison's venue landscape and tapped into a supportive following since it opened up in February, but it will have to leave its location at 113 W. Dayton St. by August 15. Founders Hanah Jon Taylor and Susan Fox are eyeing a new space on Williamson Street but have yet to seal the deal on that location, so Madison will almost certainly be without a vital music venue for at least several weeks.

Fox and Taylor knew from the start that the downtown space would be a temporary one for the venue—it's in a six-story building that developers plan to demolish to make way for a new hotel. The building's current landlord, Harold Langhammer, reached out to Taylor last fall after hearing about the venue's successful crowdfunding campaign. Café Coda has used the space without having to pay rent and utilities, Taylor says, but the venue does not get a cut of alcohol sales, so it's been financially reliant on ticket sales and grants—this in a town where music venues usually depend to a large extent on bar revenues. Taylor and Fox expected to have a bit more time in their current space, and they are questioning the fairness of Langhammer's decision.

"If you examine the city procedures connected with the demolition of the building, it's probably not going to come down until after the first of the year," says Taylor, a veteran sax and flute player who has also operated other venues and jazz programming in Madison. "I think that Mr. Langhammer thought that it was probably wise to cut bait and evict most of the tenants in the building to cut down on his operation costs." Langhammer did not return requests for comment for this story. We will update it if he does.

Taylor also voiced his chagrin about the situation during one of the venue's finest moments so far, a June concert from two avant-jazz giants, saxophonist David Murray and percussionist Kahil El'Zabar. The performance was excellent and the place was packed—and not just with the older listeners you'd usually expect to see at jazz shows in Madison. (It's a little-appreciated fact that Madison has a lot of enthusiastic jazz musicians and listeners under 40.) As Murray and El'Zabar took a break between sets, Taylor addressed the crowd about Café Coda's predicament, saying, "Believe it or not, they're gonna build another. designer. motherfuckin' hotel." 

That said, Taylor and Fox sound upbeat about the venue's future and the support it has attracted so far. They've raised more than $13,000 via GoFundMe since last fall, and even before the venue opened, an anonymous donor gave them a Yamaha concert grand piano—something very few venues in town have. In addition to hosting national heavy hitters like Murray and The Bad Plus' Dave King, Coda has weeknight programming including a Thursday Latin jazz jam hosted by members of Golpe Tierra. That latter event has helped bring in members of the Latino community who felt a bit displaced after the Cardinal Bar was sold and turned into the Nomad World Pub, Taylor says, and Cardinal owner Ricardo Gonzalez has been involved with Coda as well.

Café Coda isn't the only promising development in Madison's jazz scene in recent years—the Greater Madison Jazz Consortium has organized a well-curated series of shows highlighting local and regional artists' original works, and Arts + Literature Laboratory on the east side has been booking above its weight with shows from artists including Ken Vandermark and Roscoe Mitchell. But Café Coda is the only space in town that's entirely dedicated to jazz and creative music. Judging by the turnout at shows like David Murray's, and the venue's packed soft opening in February, Taylor and Fox are right to say that the idea of a jazz club has resonated with the community. "It's not like we're doing it alone," Taylor says.

The new space they're eyeing on Willy Street would require some renovation and a new liquor license. The current space has food, and Taylor would like to offer that at the potential new location as well, but he envisions partnering with a caterer, as the new space does not have a kitchen and constructing one would be very expensive. It's not yet clear how neighbors or the Marquette Neighborhood Association will react to the proposal, but Taylor and Fox anticipate they'll be easier to win over than the condo owners who lived above the first space they selected for Café Coda. They say the landlords at the potential new space have been very supportive so far. Marquette Neighborhood Association president Lynn Lee did not return a request for comment, and other MNA board members declined to comment on record until more details are known about the project.

"[We'd have] only three upstairs neighbors rather than 250," Taylor says. "It's easier to invite them to the party."

And really, finding a physical space has been the hardest part of the journey for Café Coda. As Taylor, Fox, and supporters of the venue have reached out to landlords in the search for the next location, they've often been ignored or greeted with confusion, Taylor says.  "You would be surprised at the false notions that we get when we go to people who have had places that we might be interested in," Taylor says. "They look at me and they say, 'We don't want to open a bar.' And I go 'excuse moi, I'm not talking about opening up a bar, I'm talking about opening up a first-class music listening establishment that happens to sell alcohol and tapas.'"  

Taylor says he'd like to reopen in a new spot by early September. Fox thinks that's a bit optimistic. In any case, Café Coda has accomplished a lot in six months and tapped into a pent-up demand for greater access to jazz, at a time when a lot of folks might doubt whether opening up a jazz club is a worthwhile endeavor. Relocating so early in the venue's life will be a tough process, but probably not too tough for a project that has defied the odds so far.