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The Last Saturday Night at Cecil's

Closing time for Cecil's Jazz Club

Of course, unlike most Saturday nights, the place was packed.

Some people were there for the first time, to see what they had been missing. Most were regulars, there to pay their respects, to enjoy the music, to soak it in for the last time.

The ambience of a real jazz club, one that had literally and lovingly been put together by the owner — a real jazz musician — the drummer and producer Cecil Brooks III.

Brooks bought the building on Valley Street in West Orange 11 years ago. He spent nearly two years fulfilling a musicians' dream:  fashioning his very own jazz club, the kind of place he'd want to play in, the kind of place other musicians would want to come to play, the kind of place he'd want to hear the music he loved played live the way it should be played.

Brooks ripped up the floor underneath the bandstand and put in thousands of pounds of sand to make the sound better. He took out the old thin windows and put in windows as thick as bricks to make the sound better. He put soft wood panels on the walls to absorb the sound. And then he installed a great sound system, the kind somebody who made music for living would put in to fit the dimensions of the club.

And when Cecil's opened on July 4, 2003, the space was just right: a rectangular room, not too big, not too small, tables and chairs close to the musicians, not a bad seat in the place. Even the bar was just right: nice and long and classy with polished wood, it stretched along one side of the room with a perfect view of the stage, backed by incongruous but cool stained glass pictures of medieval peasants drinking beer.
A Neighborhood Place
It worked. It was a real jazz club, the kind of jazz club you'd imagine a jazz club would be like be in the fifties when Miles Davis played in smoky jazz clubs around the country. The kind of jazz club that hardly exists anymore, even in New York City, where tourists are hustled out after one hour long set, after having dropped $50 a person or more.

No, Cecil's wasn't that kind of place. It was a neighborhood jazz club, for God's sakes, the kind of place where the cover was $15, drinks were reasonable, odds were you'd run into someone you knew, and you could stay as long as you wanted.

And Cecil's was in the most unlikely of neighborhoods — suburban New Jersey.

But there was a reason that Brooks opened the club where he did. Jazz is urban music and people who live in Montclair and the Oranges and Maplewood are oriented toward the city. Many, if not most of them work in the city. If they didn't like being close to the city, they probably wouldn't live where they did. And there are a lot of them — hell, almost 800,000 people live in Essex County, most within a half hour drive of the club.

Among them are a lot of jazz musicians, who, like their neighbors, also want to be close to the city but have a house and a yard where they can raise their kids.
Perfect on Paper, But …
On paper, everything lined up: a nice club, a good location, local talent and a fertile customer base.

Except not enough people came.

The sad fact is that jazz simply isn't a popular music form. Jazz only accounts for about one percent (one percent!) of music sales, and even from that anemically low number, the perennial best-sellers are musicians like Davis, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk who have been dead for a long time. Except for WBGO-FM, the music isn't played on the radio and for the most part it isn't performed on TV. Quick, name three popular young jazz musicians … see what I mean?

Even in the "hip" suburbs, close to the city, not enough people came. Maybe too many had kids. Maybe too many were content to stay home and watch something on their big 50-inch flat screen high-definition TVs. Maybe too many just didn't know about Cecil's. Maybe Brooks should have promoted the place more. Maybe all those Jersey, and for that matter, New York-based jazz musicians could have done more to spread the word and show up once in a while for gigs, even if they didn't get paid a lot.

Thelonious Monk's son T.S., himself a well-known jazz drummer and a South Orange resident thinks record companies don't promote jazz the way they do other music because they can make so much on sales from the back catalogs of dead musicians without lifting a finger (and he should know). He also thinks too many jazz musicians are too laid-back and not enough are showmen who are able to attract an audience.

Maybe he's right, maybe jazz musicians just don't swing enough, maybe the music's just too cerebral for most people.
Who knows?

Whatever the reason, not enough people came to keep the place going.
Richly Rewarded
But for those who knew, and cared enough to get out of the house, well, they did keep Cecil's going for eight years, which is pretty damn good for a jazz club in the suburbs.

And they were richly rewarded. It was hard for Brooks to book  — and pay  — big name musicians, but some, like Christian McBride and Joe Lovano and John Hicks came anyway. And even if the musicians who played at Cecil's weren't well known, they were always good. They always played their ass off. They dug playing in the kind of cool little club that is nearly extinct in front of an audience that appreciated what they were doing.

And in addition to featuring good music and a great sound system, Cecil's had a great vibe. It really was a neighborhood place, in the best sense.

In a racially mixed neighborhood, it really was racially mixed. And let's face it, how many private establishments are, even in the liberal New York suburbs? Not too damned many.

Local musicians like Dave Stryker and Bob Devoe and Don Braden and Monk and McBride did come, and did play, and did bring their friends and neighbors. And Brooks nurtured local musicians and let young players like Bruce Williams and Freddie Hendrix play in front of an audience and develop their talent.

Hell, Brooks would let local teenagers come up and play if they were any good, and most of them were.
So the people who appreciated what Cecil's had so generously given them for the last eight years showed up on Saturday night to say goodbye, as did Monk and a steady stream of other musicians. They heard a trio with Brooks on drums, Mark Elf on guitar and Mike Logan on bass play a set; they saw Don Braden and Winard Harper come up and jam, they saw their friends.

Cecil himself was upbeat and buoyant and showed no sign of bitterness or defeat.

The switch went off about a year ago, Brooks told the audience, and if he couldn't continue to give it 150 percent, then it was time to do something else, in his case, playing gigs and producing records. He had no regrets, he said, what you put out in the universe will come back, and Lord knows he put a lot of good music out there.

There were times Brooks felt like he was putting on a party in his house and people weren't appreciating it, he admitted afterwards, but he shrugged it off.  He didn't want the last night to be an obituary, he wanted it to be a celebration, because that's what Cecil's was all about, that's what it had always been about, "a celebration of the human experience and total musical expression."

He's right.

It was.

And for eight years, Cecil threw a great party.

Meg Beattie Patrick February 28, 2012 at 01:57 AM
It was a special place. Thank you, Cecil.


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