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VANCOUVER–At first glance it seems like a typical Saturday night at this city’s premier jazz club – packed house, killing band – but a closer look reveals musicians with an average age of 16 and an overly enthusiastic audience rife with their moms and dads.
But The Cellar Restaurant/Jazz Club’s proprietor, Cory Weeds, doesn’t short-change them: He announces the student big band’s annual showcase with the same fanfare accorded the marquee acts that pass through his eight-year-old venue.
It’s one of his key roles at the cozy west side venue, accented with mulberry walls and big, vivid paintings of jazz greats.
“I can’t cook; I’m a terrible bartender; I’m not good at handling conflict,” he later claimed in a front office interview.
“I’m good at introducing the band, talking to customers and making the musicians feel comfortable.”
Burnaby, B.C., native Weeds, 34, is a musician himself: a saxophonist trained at Capilano College and the University of North Texas who is making his headlining debut at the Rex tonight.
His desire to open a jazz venue was borne of his experiences touring with pop and funk bands in his 20s.
“Club owners and musicians never seemed to work together; but if we’re not working to the same goal, we’re going to go out of business,” he said.
“I looked around at clubs and I thought, `I could do this.'”
In 2000, Weeds stumbled upon a newspaper ad for the three-year-old Jazz Cellar, which he had coveted when promoting a show there six months earlier.
He found a partner, talked his father into co-signing a loan and re-mortgaging the family home and set about transforming the 2,400-square-foot destination from “an after-hours where there was more chatter than jazz” into a music-forward supper club.
It was a tough haul, but instead of giving up when they hit bottom in 2004, Weeds and his investors dug in, remodelling the following year to increase the room’s capacity to 85 seats.
He cites the following combination for helping The Cellar turn the corner: finding a great chef, becoming a more confident owner, meeting his schoolteacher wife Alana (through a set-up by his school-secretary mom), a good economy, competent staff, patient investors and perseverance.
He also attributes his decision to “to take a lesser role operationally,” which doesn’t sound flattering until you realize that his other activities – touring as sideman to the likes of Paul Anka, Dr. Lonnie Smith and Red Holloway, and running Cellar Live, the record label he founded in 2001 – give him a pivotal role as the club’s ambassador.
“I go to New York and Toronto a lot and it all comes back to this place one way or another,” he explains.
“Without the club, the label don’t exist; without the club, I don’t play as much.”
This was a banner year for Weeds: Cellar Live, which has released nearly 50 albums, the majority recorded live at the club, beat out perennial winner Justin Time Records to win the National Jazz Awards Label of the Year and received its first Juno nominations. The club also marked its first profitable year despite the economic downturn.
With all the distractions – Weeds hosts a weekly jazz radio show, and he and his wife are expecting their first baby in May – it’s a wonder he finds time to play his horn.
“I have so much respect for musicians who do nothing but that, but I don’t have that kind of concentration; I need to do other things,” said the impresario who released his first jazz disc as a leader, the well-received Big Weeds, this summer.
“I’m not coming to turn Toronto on its ear; I’m just coming to have fun and entertain people. We’re not saving lives, we’re making music.”
Just the facts
WHO: Cory Weeds Quartet with Pat Collins, Joel Haynes and Mark Eisenman
WHERE: The Rex, 194 Queen St. W.
WHEN: Tonight ($7) and tomorrow ($8) at 9:30 p.m. Tickets at the door.