It has been decades since area residents could enjoy “dinner and a show’ in uptown Clarksburg on more than an occasional basis. Darkened doorways and empty streets became the norm after regular business hours.
That has started to change as businesses like Washington Square and the PWA Uptown Event Center have embraced the idea of “pop-up nightclubs” as a way to bring people out at night to enjoy live entertainment and quality dining in a comfortable atmosphere.
Through judicious use of pipe-and-drapery, tablecloth, votive candles, subdued lighting, and other decoration, Clarksburg restaurants, lounges, and even artist studios have transformed themselves into live music venues to participate in events like the twice-annual Jazz Strolls presented by Clarksburg Uptown, Inc., where multiple bands play in multiple venues throughout an evening.
“The ‘pop-up nightclub’ idea comes from the way the nightclub just sort of appears suddenly a few hours before the shows and dining begin,” said Elinda Carson of the PWA Uptown Event Center. “Of course, it is because of lots of hard work, but the way it happens is fun and exciting.”
The evenings of music and dining have resulted in increased business for those venues who “get with the program”, as one business owner described his experience.
“The first time we had live jazz in our pizzeria, I wasn’t totally convinced it could work,” said Tim Gentilozzi, owner of Washington Square, where numerous bands have appeared over the last two years. “We followed the recommendations and advice from the West Virginia Jazz Society and others who had been doing the music and dining nights for a while, and it’s worked well.”
Gentilozzi reports an increase in his to-go, delivery and in-house business since starting the music series.
“I think what happens is that people come for the music and discover our food is really good and they come back even when there is no band,” the veteran restaurateur said.
The idea of adapting existing businesses or other non-nightclub spaces into live music and dining venues did not start in Clarksburg, of course, but it was refined over time by an informal partnership between WVJS and the Bridgeport Conference Center’s Director, Scott Duarte.
“We catered one of the first club style shows produced by the West Virginia Jazz Society down in Weston,” said Duarte. “It was in a big church social hall and they wanted us to serve tapas, which in itself was sort of new. When we arrived and saw how the space had been decorated and how enthusiastic the audience was, we could see the potential for us and others to build a new market.”
Fast forward seven years, and the WVJS and BCC can look back on half a dozen Winter Jazz Weekend events, and a host of other live music productions of all kinds – from a simulated trip to New York City to a fundraiser for a medical charity. They have also gained a knowledge base to go with that experience.
“Oh, yes. We’ve learned a lot,” said Eric Spelsberg, WVJS President. “Mostly by listening to the customers, the sponsors and the performing artists who knew everything we did not.”
Spelsberg provided The Clarksburg Post with samples of the feedback received after the Uptown Clarksburg Summer Jazz Stroll in June and the Got Jazz! and Americana Music Weekend shows at the PWA Event Center in April and July respectively.
“You’ve hit another home run,” wrote Clarksburg’s Dr. George Shehl after an appearance by the DC All Stars in the PWA facility. “Our foursome loved the food and music until the last beat went down”.
Mike Fidler, formerly of Clarksburg, who comes from Charleston for the music, wrote, “We were treated to top-notch music in an intimate setting, big-city style”
William Niday of Parkersburg came away with a great initial impression: “Loved the entire evening. Food was outstanding and the music was even better. Service was very good. First time my wife and I have been to one of your events but we will definitely return.”
Mike Lucas, publisher of the Pomeroy (Ohio) Blues and Jazz Newsletter, makes the drive to Clarksburg whenever he gets the chance. Lucas said of his recent evening in Got Jazz! in the PWA Event Center: “…it was another GREAT evening of GREAT jazz in north-central West Virginia.”
Other uptown Clarksburg venues who also work with the WVJS to offer dining and music evenings are the Fifth Floor Lounge and Kelly’s Irish Pub, each a regular stop on Clarksburg Uptown’s Jazz Stroll lineups. With the advent of significant support from the Barbara B. Highland Fund for the Arts, and the 2018 opening of the Robinson Grand Performing Arts Center in Clarksburg, Spelsberg believes a threshold to new opportunity has been crossed.
“The region surrounding Harrison County is poised to experience a boom in many areas,” said Spelsberg, “Nightlife-based destination tourism is an economic engine. They don’t call the entertainment industry an ‘industry’ for nothing.”
The next scheduled “pop-up nightclub” event in Washington Square is the Saturday, August 27, debut performance of The Cool Cats, the West Virginia Jazz Society’s “house band”. The band features four West Virginia-based artists: Seth Maynard on guitar and vocals, Rich Norwood on saxophone, Randraiz Wharton on organ, piano, and keyboards, and Kyle Andrews, on drums. Maynard says fans will hear a mix of highly improvised standards, some soul jazz and funk, and some new songs no one has heard before. “When you hear our music, you will know it’s the Cool Cats.”
Reserved seats for the performance which begins at 7pm are $15 and can be ordered by email to: CATS@WVJazzSociety.com or by phone to 304-517-9813.
Photo provided courtesy of WV Jazz Society