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HOUSE PARTY

for The Brooklyn Paper
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"If you build it, they will come."

On the first and third Saturdays of every month, a growing number of jazz fans have been coming to Clinton Hill and the home of James Morehand and Dave Polazzo. Not just clued-in Brooklynites, but also from the Bronx, Long Island, New Jersey and Connecticut. What they come to experience is every bit as charmed and unique as Hollywood’s mythological "Field of Dreams."

For the past year and a half, Morehand and Polazzo, lifelong jazz lovers, have been welcoming guests into their 19th-century Gothic Revival, brick row house for evenings of "Parlor Jazz" concerts. For a suggested donation of $15, guests are treated to fine wines or non-alcoholic drinks, hors d’oeuvres, salads, desserts and two sets of outstanding jazz, played and heard the way it was meant to be.

It is one of the best jazz bargains in New York City.

"We’re trying to give people a unique experience that they don’t get in a regular jazz club," says Morehand, 45, noting that guests and musicians casually mix and talk, as if at a house party, between Parlor Jazz sets and at the end of the evening.

"We found that when we went to clubs or restaurant-bars," adds Polazzo, 55, "that the musicians were put in a corner and had to play over people talking and the distractions of waiters running back and forth. We give the musicians center stage."

Morehand and Polazzo’s unique musical venue is a spacious, high-ceilinged, second-floor living room made cozy by its dark wood, marble fireplace and candles that throw soft light on jazz-themed paintings, photos of jazz legends and African art hanging on the walls. A recently purchased Yamaha baby grand piano is both a set piece and attraction for top-notch musicians.

On a recent Saturday, Klaro, a highly accomplished New York quartet, led by the wonderfully expressive female saxophonist Karolina Strassmayer, held the rapt attention of an appreciative audience of nearly 30 for more than two hours of inspired jazz standards and energetic contemporary originals. With no need for the usual sound-distorting speakers and amplification required in jazz clubs, each audience member was treated to the rare experience of hearing every note and chord, as if they were being played only for them.

With musicians and audience sharing virtually the same intimate space, it is easy to understand why first-rate musicians are inspired to perform at their best during Parlor Jazz concerts.

"You can play softly and people pay attention," says the Austrian-born Strassmayer, a small lady with a big alto sound.

Morehand, a Pratt Institute design graduate who now works with architects, and Polazzo, a teacher at Brooklyn Technical High School, were inspired to try Parlor Jazz in their home after experiencing the almost legendary jazz jams Marjorie Eliot has presented in her Harlem third-floor apartment since 1994. Eliot, a pianist, actress and playwright, began asking musicians she knew to come play on Sundays, as a way to cope with, and celebrate, the death of a son on that day.

"It was such a wonderful idea," Morehand recalls. "Like the days of the Harlem Renaissance and the rent parties when people used to hang out afterwards and come to someone’s home and just start jamming."

About 20 guests attended the first Parlor Jazz concert in their living room on Feb. 23, 2002. With only one exception, they have hosted their jazz evenings every other Saturday since they began. Even the Great Blackout of 2003 did not stop the show.

"Twenty-five hours after the blackout we had a show and we had a full house," Polazzo recalls proudly. The pair estimates that more than 400 guests have heard jazz in their home since they began. Their largest audience numbered more than 50 for a performance by Manhattan-based vocalist Marilyn. One night, the audience was only two.

"We always do a show, and the musicians always get paid," Polazzo notes proudly.

Morehand and Palazzo say they are committed for the long-term to keeping jazz alive in Brooklyn, and providing musicians with an ideal place where they can play, be appreciated and be paid a respectable wage.

"We’re hoping that when people come here, they will see and hear acts that they may have never heard of before, and then continue to support them when they have a gig somewhere else," says Morehand.

Despite their growing following, there are challenges. Recognizing that they are asking high-caliber musicians to come to Brooklyn on Saturday nights, when they would often have high-paying gigs, Morehand and Polazzo say that they always have paid more than many clubs do. Due to the limitations on the size of their audiences, however, the two largely have had to pay musicians out of their own pockets. After the costs of wine, food and supplies have been added, there is no profit.

Morehand and Polazzo hope that becoming a non-profit institution, which will enable them to seek grants, will also allow them to book more experimental and contemporary jazz styles, as well as the straight ahead, acoustic jazz style of the ’40s and ’50s that they currently favor. They would also like to offer children’s jazz workshops and possibly a magazine focusing on local jazz talent.

Word of mouth and their Web site have built a dedicated core of Parlor Jazz regulars and surprising recognition far from Brooklyn. Guests from Las Vegas, Atlanta and Tampa have signed Morehand and Polazzo’s guest book, as well as a tourist who learned of the event on the Internet while at home in Germany. Musicians who have performed at their intimate jazz venue have been spreading the word to other musicians, as well.

"I like knowing that Parlor Jazz is being bandied about in jazz clubs," says Morehand, noting that there is now a waiting list of musicians wanting to play in his home.

Perhaps Morehand and Polazzo should be careful about what they wish for.

"I hope it doesn’t get too well known," a regular Parlor Jazz guest told GO Brooklyn, stating the obvious Catch-22. "It would lose something special if it became commercial and everybody knew about it."

 

Parlor Jazz can be experienced the first and third Saturdays of every month at 119 Vanderbilt Ave. at Myrtle Avenue, in Clinton Hill. A suggested donation of $15 includes two sets of top-notch jazz, a drink and hors d’oeuvres. Sets begin at 9:30 pm and 10:45 pm.

The Hank Johnson Trio performs Oct. 4, and vocalist-violist Alva Anderson and her trio perform Oct 18. For more information, call (718) 855-1981 or visit the Parlor Jazz Web site at www.parlorjazz.com.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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