A jazz club's survival is no small feat, but owner Cory Weeds is in it for the long haul
Cory Weeds, owner of the Cellar, a longtime Vancouver jazz club, was ready to leave the business last year before the club's minority owners pledged their support for him.
In his decade of running the Cellar Jazz Club, there were times when Cory Weeds felt he would walk away from it all and do something else a little less stressful for a living.
One of those times came just last year.
"I had an investor meeting to plan an exit strategy," Weeds recalls. "I wasn't sleeping. I was stressed out. I wasn't having any fun, and didn't feel I could handle it any more."
The minority owners -- there were five at the time -- pledged their continuing support and managed to talk him out of throwing in the towel, one of them pointing out that, all stress aside, where else could he live a life filled with the music and the people he loves?
"That was a big turning point for me," says Weeds, 37, who has stuck around to celebrate the club's 10th anniversary today, with hopes of starting another 10 years at the helm.
Ten years of survival for a jazz club in Vancouver -- or any city -- is a feat comparable to jogging through a mine field daily for a decade. Given the fact that most clubs prefer canned sounds to live music, that jazz is not a populist music form and that Vancouverites prefer being outdoors on a beautiful summer night, the odds are against anyone making it. Yet Weeds has not only survived, he's making plans for the club's future.
"I have a very supportive wife and a core of good friends who help me keep things in perspective," says Weeds, who has a toddler son and manages, between his and his wife's income, to pay a Vancouver mortgage. "And it's important to the scene to keep going. If the Cellar is gone, what is left of the Vancouver jazz scene in terms of being able to hear the people you want to hear on a regular basis?"
That desire to hear the many fine musicians who make up the Vancouver jazz scene was the reason Weeds opened the club on Aug. 8, 2000. (Technically, the Cellar passed its official anniversary a month ago, but summer is a slow time, hence the September anniversary date.)
Let's go back to the late 1990s. Weeds, who was born and raised in Burnaby and who attended music programs at Capilano College (now Capilano University) and the University of North Texas, had just returned from the road playing alto sax with a jam band, and hoped to hear his passion, jazz.
"I had been travelling in rock circles and I just wanted to listen to [local jazz musicians] Campbell Ryga and Oliver Gannon and Ross Taggart and Brad Turner," Weeds says. "But there was no place. The Alma Street Cafe was gone, Cafe Django was gone. There were a few things here and there, but not a lot. So I thought, 'Damn. I can do this.'"
Weeds spent some time in the B.C. Institute of Technology's Venture Program, learning how to form a business plan. He promoted a concert, a band led by American saxophonist Eric Alexander, in 1999, at the venue where the Cellar now stands, passing his card to the club owner in case he ever thought about selling. The owner didn't call, but he did put the club up for sale, and Weeds, with money from his parents, bought the business.
"I honestly thought, 'This is going to be the shortest, most expensive ride of my life,'" Weeds says. "I had no expectations of getting past a year. I thought that I could go back to school and get a job and spend the rest of my life paying back my dad.
"At the end of the first year we were pretty dire. We didn't have any money. But we had some investors come on board, and we slowly built things."
Having been on the road with different bands, he knew the old nightclub model needed to change.
"I was always frustrated by the fact that at clubs it was always musician versus club owner. We never seemed like we were ever working together," says Weeds, who felt if a musician was in charge, then he and the talent would be on the same page.
They have been. Musicians who play the 85-seat Cellar at 3611 West Broadway often have a choice: They can take a guaranteed income from the club, or they can "work the door," the latter meaning the musicians collect all money from the door cover charge, while the club keeps all money from bar and food sales. Whatever the arrangement, the entertainers do not get ripped off.
"The performers' well-being is very important to Cory," says drummer Dave Robbins, who frequently plays at the club. "I have never felt taken for granted or taken advantage of. I consider Cory a friend and think he feels the same way. I also think he is friends with a lot of the jazz musicians in Vancouver. If he ever needed help I'd go out of my way to give it to him."
The other reason musicians appreciate the venue is that management insists the audience respect the music. This doesn't mean people at the club cannot converse, but if they're speaking loudly and making it hard for other patrons to hear, someone will tell them to tone it down. That usually isn't the staff: Cellar regulars tend to act as the Noise Police.
Some years ago, Weeds branched out to form a record label, Cellar Live, which has released, to date, 55 titles.
Weeds knows he will not make much money from the label, but wants to keep it going as a way to document the music in Vancouver over the years, and to help keep the club on the public's and the media's radar.
Says Weeds: "Without the support of the local musicians, the Cellar simply ceases to exist. We're not like Jazz Alley in Seattle, which can bring in McCoy Tyner for a week, then bring in Branford Marsalis. This club thrives because of the local musicians, not only for their trust and support, but for their talent. This club is so easy to book with quality music.
"The fact that we're in it for the long haul and people can play their music makes it work. They know I am never going to question their music ... I'm not going to tell you you're too loud, I'm not going to tell you what to play and I'm not going to tell you I don't like your music."
Currently, Weeds is the majority owner of the Cellar, and he has three minority owners.
"I can't say enough about what they've done for me, both financially and emotionally," Weeds says of his guardian angels.
"We want to continue what we're doing, continue to improve, continue to put out records, and work on our long-term viability."
For the anniversary celebration, Cory Weeds's Cellar Jazz Club hosts New York band One for All from tonight to Sunday. The club will also unveil a wall of posters and photos from the original Cellar club that thrived a half-century ago.