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A More Accessible Jazz At The Bistro Opens This Week

Jazz at the Bistro's new season opened Friday, October 3.
Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio

Expectations are high for the new Jazz at the Bistro space.  Local vocalist Erin Bode, 37, said anticipation is high among local musicians.

“It’s just going to revitalize our motivation and our zest and zeal for making music in Grand Center,” said Bode.

Jazz St. Louis announced plans for a 10 million dollar renovation of Jazz at the Bistro in May of 2014. The completed project will be the third largest jazz institution in the country, falling only behind Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City and the SF JAZZ Center in San Francisco. The project includes a fully remodeled bar, seating area, stage, balcony, office section, and educational center for Jazz St. Louis’ Jazz U.  Executive Director Gene Dobbs Bradford stresses the new venue’s accessibility for all members of the St. Louis community.

“People around the world see this as America’s great contribution to culture,” said Dobbs Bradford. “It could only have happened here and we want to share it with as many people as possible. We don’t want anyone to feel excluded.”

While Dobbs Bradford spoke he stood on the new, low stage.  A scissor lift stood inactive to his right.  The seating area was unfinished - a simple concrete floor covered by hammers, sawhorses, buckets of tools and various construction materials such as sheetrock and plywood.  The sound of drills and saws erupted intermittently throughout the space.  The shallower stage will bring the audience closer to the performers, making it less like a theater and more like a club. The executive director said the new design makes musicians more accessible to the audience. 

The new stage during construction at Jazz at the Bistro.
Credit Willis Arnold/St. Louis Public Radio
The new stage during construction at Jazz at the Bistro.

Dobbs Bradford believes the new space will even be more welcoming to people previously uninterested in Jazz.

“I think this will encourage some people who have been on the fence to come out and give Jazz a try,” said Dobbs Bradford.  There will be a separate lounge area with TVs broadcasting performances from on stage.  The executive director hopes the screens entice attendees that accompany friends and aren’t initially drawn to the music. 

The space will also be more physically accessible.  The renovated space includes ramps, an elevator, and wheelchair accessible bathrooms.  The artist’s greenroom has also been expanded to include additional space and a shower for performers to use after performances. 

Vocalist Erin Bode is slated to play the new space on Valentine’s Day 2015.   She’s looking forward to the space offered by the new stage.  The old one often felt too small.

“That was always a challenge at the bistro, because you have to have the beautiful piano, and then there’s the drum kit, and there’s very little space left for anything else except a bass player and a singer,” she said, laughing. 

Bode thinks the new space will engage both the audience and musicians, providing for a better all-around experience. The added space allows musicians to concentrate on the music.

During renovations a worker could be seen through the new elevator shaft.
Credit Willis Arnold/St. Louis Public Radio
During renovations a worker could be seen through the new elevator shaft.

  At the Bistro, Gene Dobbs Bradford steps off the stage and heads up the stairs in the back.  He briefly passes through a corridor of offices. He explains the new offices will be more accessible for staff, highlighting past frustrations with running back and forth between the bistro and Jazz St. Louis old offices around the corner. 

He walks around the new balcony, describing the expanded view available after renovations to audience members on the second floor.  Up another small set of stairs is Dobbs Bradford’s “favorite part,” the Centene Jazz Education Center and Jazz U.  According to the executive director Jazz St. Louis’ education and outreach activities reach over 10,000 students every year.

One student, eighteen year old Nathan Pence of Bishop DuBourg High School is excited about the new space. He feels a kinship to Jazz U.

“Everything that I am today as a musician I definitely owe to Jazz St. Louis and Jazz U,” said Pence.  He expressed significant interest in the space’s new practice rooms and computer set up including musical notation software.  The Jazz U student plans to record his college audition tapes in the facility’s new classroom and media production lab.  He says the program’s already changed his life.

“If I’m stuck in the middle of nowhere Jazz will always going to be a part of my life,” said Pence. 

The new Jazz at the Bistro has a private reception on October 2nd. The venue will open to the public October 3rd.  Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra will play both nights.  Wynton Marsalis will be a guest on Cityscape this Friday at noon.

Workers carry and install sheet rock in late August.
Credit Willis Arnold/St. Louis Public Radio
Workers carry and install sheet rock in late August.

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