Downsizing is practically a rite of passage for many couples, and with their two adult sons out on their own, Mark Morganelli and Ellen Prior were ready to follow the trend. But instead of streamlining their lives, they embarked on a new adventure: opening the Jazz Forum Club in Tarrytown, which made its debut Memorial Day weekend.
Though the couple may have occasionally daydreamed about having a club in Italy or various other locales, making it a reality was not at the top of their to-do list, despite Morganelli’s lifelong involvement in presenting and playing music.
The veteran trumpeter/composer/impresario opened the original Jazz Forum Club in an East Village loft in 1979. By the time he moved to Dobbs Ferry, more than 25 years ago, he had run two Downtown jazz venues and played in dozens of others, with legends like Dizzy Gillespie and Art Blakey. He had also founded the nonprofit Jazz Forum Arts, to produce events such as a series of free outdoor concerts, which is still going strong in the county this summer, with 34 free shows scheduled, beginning June 21.
While he was house-hunting, Morganelli checked out a commercial building containing an antiques store, mostly on a whim. Despite the jumble of furniture and objets d’art inside, “As soon as I saw the space, it spoke to me. Ellen had the same response: This is Jazz Forum III — 34 years after the last one closed.” The two work together on Jazz Forum Arts projects, but this is the first jazz club involvement for Prior, whose background is in nonprofits, publishing, and finance. “I’m more adventurous and risk-taking,” Morganelli notes, adding that Prior’s considered, steadying approach is “all to the good.”
During a mid-April walk through the new Jazz Forum, Morganelli’s voice swelled with enthusiasm, visualizing activities in different areas, citing the provenance of various elements and reeling off sports statistics. For a newly renovated space, there’s a lot of history in plain sight, starting with Mets seats from Shea Stadium in the entryway. An area for hanging out between sets or accommodating overflow crowds is kitted out with a church pew donated by ArtsWestchester, a poster of jazz greats Stan Getz and Chet Baker provided by a fan of the Jazz Forum Arts summer concert series, and autographed covers of albums Morganelli produced. There’s even a 1915 vintage pool table from a local Knights of Columbus hall, acquired through Dobbs Ferry artist Tim Duch. A Steinway baby grand, the focal point of the performance area, played the same role in Morganelli’s original jazz loft. As for the 1977 Fender Rhodes piano next to it, Morganelli reveals he bought it for his first band upon graduating from college.
Even the brand-new elements have a story. Jeff Johnson of Poughkeepsie crafted the chairs, tables, and the black-walnut bar — a gleaming, organically shaped slice of tree trunk. Works by local artists brighten the walls; new items will rotate in periodically, creating décor as varied as the music. There are great sightlines from each of the club’s 100 seats, and the natural sound of the instruments can fill the intimately sized space without a PA system’s boost. “I know a lot about acoustics from presenting music for the past 38 years, from my own little clubs to Carnegie Hall,” Morganelli notes, pointing out that bamboo flooring and other noise-dampening materials make for a good-sounding venue that is also a good neighbor.
Among the acts Morganelli aims to present at Friday- and Saturday-night sets are marquee names such as Joe Lovano, Wynton Marsalis, and Paul Winter. Brazilian music on Sunday afternoons will be supplied by the likes of vocalist Maucha Adnet and Tri Da Paz, who regularly pack Manhattan clubs. There’s no stage or raised bandstand, allowing flexibility in presenting everything from a solo act to an orchestra, though trios to quintets will be typical.
A full bar offers local beers on tap, and in a nod to his heritage, Morganelli is opting to serve only Italian wines. The menu is built around what Prior has dubbed “quiet foods” — small plates of nuts, olives, meats, cheeses, desserts, and the like — ensuring that the rattle and clatter of dishes won’t disrupt listeners or players. The items are locally sourced whenever possible, including artisanal breads, cookies, and chocolate truffles from small, nearby bakers and candy-makers.
As Westchester’s only dedicated jazz club, the Jazz Forum offers a rare opportunity to hear the cream of the current jazz and Brazilian crops in an intimate setting, with a shorter jaunt home than hopping on Metro-North. Morganelli believes the free outdoor concerts he’s presented in the county over the past two decades will be instrumental in delivering a loyal and motivated audience.