The Mom-and-Pop Jazz Shop that Could

October 19, 2016

loft-opening-dayby Dan Bilawsky

It’s early evening on a Thursday in August, and it’s relatively quiet in the idyllic suburban streets of Stony Brook, New York. But it’s a different story inside one particular building there on Christian Avenue, where life is stirring at The Jazz Loft – a 6,000 square-foot performance venue, educational center, and museum that’s quickly become a cultural landmark and hotspot since it opened in May of 2016. The sound of a solitary saxophonist warming up for the evening’s performance is wafting down the stairs, and other musicians, one by one, slowly join the chorus. Eventually, these individuals form a whole, and The Interplay Jazz Orchestra – one of three Long Island-based big bands with a monthly residency at The Jazz Loft – is complete. Such a slowly coalescing gathering is hardly out of the ordinary on jazz-friendly stages, but it’s noteworthy nonetheless because of what it represents: it serves as an analogue for The Jazz Loft itself, where one man’s passion for music and history have served as a magnet for others, drawing support and, ultimately, forming a whole.

As patrons arrive and mill about before the performance, that man – Dr. Tom Manuel, a trumpeter, educator, and historian who’s been a part of the fabric of Long Island’s jazz scene for the last two decades–is at the center of the action. He wears many hats at once –greeting friends and guests, operating the handicap elevator, moving boxes to and fro, helping with drinks, and serving as emcee. He’s quick with a smile, a hand, a story, or a joke. In short, he’s a born host. But more than that, he’s a preservationist with a deep and abiding love for all things jazz. Were it not for that passion, The Jazz Loft would never have even been an idea floating in the endless sea of possibility.

Lauren Kinhan performing with a big band at the Jazz Loft

Lauren Kinhan performing with a big band at the Jazz Loft

As a teenager trying to find a way into the music, Manuel befriended many jazz elders in the area – figures who took a liking to the up-and-comer. The mentor-student relationships that were formed eventually blossomed into full-out friendships, and many of these sage figures gifted their instruments, music, and mementos to the young trumpeter. They saw him as a keeper of the flame and a respectful guardian of tradition, a role which seemed to take to him before he ever thought about taking up the mantle of archivist, and many others through the years would continue to bestow their personal effects upon him. Eventually, Manuel amassed an incredible collection of jazz memorabilia –so much so, in fact, that it filled up his entire home and drew the interest of a writer from New York’s Newsday, which ran an article titled, “Trumpeter’s ‘amazing’ trove of Long Island jazz memorabilia needs permanent home” in May of 2014.  At that point attention begat attention and the stars aligned. Gloria Rocchio, the president of the Ward Melville Heritage Organization, read the piece, reached out to Manuel, and eventually made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: a forty-nine year lease – for one dollar per year – on a space to house his treasures that would double as a place to cultivate a jazz community.

From there, a grassroots movement sprung up, as both benevolence and sweat helped to quickly transform that space – a two-story stone building that was once home to the Suffolk Museum. Nearly half a million dollars was raised through small donations, four major unions – plumbers, contractors, painters, and electricians – generously donated their time and talent(s) to help with the makeover, and Manuel, aided by his close friends and supporters, put his all into the renovation project. That work began on May 21, 2015 – the day the lease started for his non-profit – and, poetically enough, the venue had its grand opening one year later, “to the very day,” as Manuel happily notes.

 Since that opening, a wide array of top shelf talent has come to occupy The Jazz Loft’s stage – a tiered construct built from the remains of the Roseland Ballroom’s dance floor. The list includes up-and-comers like vocalist Melanie Marod, regional favorites like guitarist Steve Salerno and the aforementioned Interplay Jazz Orchestra, and world-renowned artists like the New York Voices’ Lauren Kinhan, drummer Matt Wilson, pianist Richie Iacona, trombonist Ray Anderson (who sits on the venue’s board of directors), pianist-vocalist Freddy Cole, and trumpeter Warren Vaché. Other initiatives, including a lecture series, an innovative music therapy program geared towards patients and caregivers (“Young At Heart”), workshops for children and families, and more are due to take place as The Jazz Loft continues to expand its outreach during its first year in operation.

 Those happenings, and many others that will likely pop up, serve as main attractions, but the holdings of The Jazz Loft – those thousands of items that once filled Manuel’s home – may have equal or greater drawing power. That much was clear as Manuel shared many intriguing sights and insights during a thirty-minute tour. First up was a display case containing ephemera from the long career of Frank Modica – musical agent to jazz stars like trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, pianist Dave Brubeck, and saxophonist Stan Getz. The items housed there – photographs, tour information, and more – barely scratch the surface when it comes to Modica, yet they provide a decent picture of his contributions. From there we traveled to a separate room – a fireproof vault that once housed the paintings of artist William Sydney Mount. Now it plays host to the photographs of Bernard Seeman, whose work appeared in numerous magazines and graced many an album cover in his day.  Only a few dozen photos hang on the walls, but Manuel is quick to note that the collection includes more than two-thousand of his photographs. Laura Vogelsberg, who serves as the director of communications for The Jazz Loft and happens to be related to Seeman, was instrumental in bringing his work there.

 As we continue to move from place to place, wall to wall, and display to display, jazz history comes alive. Arthur Prysock’s possessions shed some light on the under-appreciated, Count Basie-associated, Billy Eckstine-influenced singer’s life; Milt Hinton’s collection of 78s sit neatly inside a piece of his furniture in a room that, essentially, contains the late bassist’s basement setup; and saxophones and custom-made luggage that once belonged to the legendary Louis Jordan, a jazz and jump blues giant who was also a rock ‘n’ roll pioneer, rest safely behind glass. On the second story, where the musical performances take place, more treasures abound in various rooms, nooks, and crannies. There’s a fully restored Deagan vibraphone that once belonged to Teddy Charles, a jazz notable who worked with everybody from Miles Davis to Charles Mingus; a library/holdings room which contains hundreds of books and some rare recordings, including a never-heard duo encounter between Charles and drum icon Max Roach; and the performance space itself, lined with the jazz-inspired paintings of Greenport-based artist Vincent Quatroche and others. Each and every item, big or small, has a story behind it, and Manuel is more than eager and willing to tell those tales.

  As the conversation carries on, it’s plain to see that there’s already a fairly solid infrastructure in place for The Jazz Loft. Manuel has a smart and dedicated board of directors aboard for the ride, he’s tapped into talent on the local and national levels, he’s kept his eye on the need for fundraising, and he’s developed a partnership with Stony Brook University, which will move its Manuel-run pre-college jazz program to The Jazz Loft and provide some extra storage space for the archives. All of that points to a bright future for this venue, but it also points out the fact that this is very much a DIY endeavor driven by Manuel and a dedicated volunteer base. There are no paid employees to do the heavy lifting – “If I don’t do it or a volunteer doesn’t do it,” Manuel remarks, “it doesn’t get done” – and everything from paying bills to greeting tourists to dealing with musical logistics essentially rests on his shoulders. But he seems to only see the joy, not the burden, associated with all of that. Dr. Laura Landor, the director of education and community outreach for The Jazz Loft – and Manuel’s fiancé – lovingly and jokingly dubbed the place “the mom-and-pop jazz shop,” and it’s an aphorism that truly fits. Manuel and those who surround him have every intention of continuing to spread the gospel of this music through The Jazz Loft–a one-of-a-kind venue offering glimpses into the past, sounds of the present, and hope for the future of jazz.

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