Guest column: Madison is ready for a real jazz club

The city could actually support a viable nightclub that elevates jazz and improvised music.

Madison has a long and colorful history regarding its engagement with live music. At one time, all music genres were well represented and supported with venues that gave new and old music fans a sense of context and allowed them to experience a performance with maximum impact. From the mid-’70s to -’80s, short-lived nightclubs like Merlyn’s and the longer-running Bunky’s gave people the best of all worlds.

To a great extent, that value is still important here, but national trends have had a negative impact on the diversity and options that are readily available. For many years now, Madison has lacked a viable nightclub that features jazz and other improvised music genres as a primary element.

You have to go back to the early ’70s to find a plethora of venues in Madison that combined live music and fine dining as functioning norm. Such designs were created “from the ground up,” meaning that music was included in the original business plan, and in many cases the room itself was designed for optimum music presentation, along with the other amenities.

So why don’t we have venues like this now?

It’s easy to dismiss the issue by arguing that if Madison was supposed to have that kind of model, it would have already happened. But I would counter that people don’t miss what they’ve never experienced.

Current demographic studies suggest that Madison has a growing number of young professionals with discretionary income, and the city is having trouble keeping up with the demand for housing. While the city has always had a large number of restaurants, those venues that also support live music have largely been a function of convenience rather than vision or design. Evidence of this kind of pattern can be seen in many of the spaces which are merely multitasked as a performance space instead of having attributes which make it clear that presentation of live music is a space’s primary function.

Madison badly needs a venue that combines the best of all worlds: A well-run restaurant that includes a performance area, complete with a grand piano, sound system and modular seating to allow for a conversion from restaurant to club environment. In addition, a room must have built-in acoustics that are sympathetic to the subtle aspects to performances not using electronic instruments.

The most recent example that successfully employed some of these parameters was the late lamented Restaurant Magnus, owned and operated by Christopher Berge. Having performed there on many occasions, I can vouch for the fact that such a business model is not easy to sustain, and that it was amazing that RM was able to stay in the game as long as it did under often adversarial conditions.

I would submit that the economic climate in Madison today would allow for the above-described model, and a developer with enough motivation and vision could make it happen. The former lounge at the Madison Concourse Hotel was a good example where such a model was able to continue, thanks to the support of the late Cal Worrell, the former general manager, whose interest in the jazz idiom became the vision for the lounge. I’d like to see someone step up and make something similar happen, while the economic timing is good.