It’s Time for Jazz: American Songbook Comes Alive at the O.Henry Hotel

By Ogi Overman

Go Triad, February 5, 2015

Timing is everything in Dennis Quaintance’s world.

Neil Clegg and Dave Fox Artists-in-Residence at O.Henry Hotel in Greensboro, NC

When he moved to Greensboro in 1979 to help old friend Bill Sherill open Franklin’s Off Friendly, the timing was right. Nine years later, when he teamed up with developer Mike Weaver and opened Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen, the timing was right. And each subsequent project — the O. Henry Hotel and its Green Valley Grill, the Proximity Hotel and its Print Works Bistro, and a second Lucky 32 in Cary — was done only when the timing was right.

And lately, he has embarked on another project-within-a-project that he had envisioned at least 20 years ago but didn’t pull the trigger on because “the timing wasn’t right.”

As of January 15, the timing was right. Starting that night, “Thursday Night Cocktails and Jazz with Neill Clegg and Dave Fox” came to life, transforming the O. Henry’s lobby into a jazz venue.

Two of the Triad’s most revered musicians, Clegg who plays saxophone, clarinet and flute, and Fox, who plays piano, are music professors at Greensboro College and frequent collaborators. They will be the mainstays of the jazz night, but they will also bring in a featured vocalist each week.

“These are the cream-of-the-crop jazz vocalists in the area,” Clegg said. “We have a roster of a half-dozen or so who will rotate, but we will also bring in some others from time to time. Trust me, each night will be special.”

Indeed, the roster is a who’s who of top-shelf vocalists: Joey Barnes, who kicked off the series; Nishah DiMeo; Jessica Mashburn; Martha Bassett, who will perform tonight; Chris Murrell; Sarah Strable and Clint Horton.

But the music, although the main attraction, is only the beginning of the transformation. The room itself is the co-star, helping create the ambience that Quaintance had envisioned even before he built the hotel. When designing the O. Henry’s lobby, he purposely patterned it after the fabled Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel on West 44th Street in New York, home of the Algonquin Round Table, the literary and theatrical giants of the 1920s, and later a 32-year-long flourishing jazz scene.

The Oak Room closed in 2012.

“I used to read about it and have been in the lobby of the Algonquin at least 10 times, and that’s always been the environment we wanted to create with the lobby of the O. Henry,” he said. “I know they haven’t done jazz there for years, but that’s always been the ambience we were going for.

“My designer, the late Don Reeves, and I talked about it endlessly, about how you want people to feel, what kind of energy that room has. We talked specifically about this being an environment that would be adaptable for an afternoon tearoom but still be appropriate for a jazz piano vibe in a sophisticated sort of way. We knew exactly what we wanted but waited to do this jazz thing because it just never felt right.”

In other words, timing.

So, what is it about now that made the timing right? In short, it was his music sommelier and performance artist in residence, Jessica Mashburn. In addition to her own thriving career as a singer-pianist, she programs the music for all his restaurants and hotels and, with life and musical partner, Evan Olson, performs as AM rOdeO at Print Works Bistro every Wednesday night.

She and Quaintance had been brainstorming for years about launching jazz in the lobby, but the idea only took flight when Mashburn and Olson were asked to take part in a compilation CD called the “Healing Blues Project.”

And who did the asking? Neill Clegg and Dave Fox.

The “Healing Blues” endeavor was a fundraiser for the Interactive Resource Center, initiated by their colleague at Greensboro College, art professor Ted Efremoff, wherein local songwriters were teamed up with homeless people, and they penned and recorded tunes about what got them to this point in their lives. All the proceeds from CD sales and four live concerts went to the IRC.

“We were so honored to be asked to be included in this project,” Mashburn said.

“Obviously, I knew Neill and Dave by reputation but had never gotten to know them personally until getting to work with them on this. Suddenly, I realized that they would be perfect for Dennis’s idea. They’re classy, dependable and well-respected and can play pretty much the whole American Songbook.”

So, in early October, Mashburn arranged a meeting between Quaintance and Clegg. To say the two clicked would be an understatement.

Clegg, the saxophonist, remembers it thusly: “He said a hotel lobby is a civic green space inside, where people can gather and be themselves, even though they may be strangers; there’s no place like it. I’d never heard it expressed that way.

“He said he wanted impeccable service and fussy drinks and specialty dishes and a room filled with aromas and enhanced by the sound and the look,” Clegg said. “And he was obviously very knowledgeable about the kind of music he wanted. His vision was rather extraordinary.”

Quaintance smiled at his recollection of the meeting.

“I knew he was the man who could make this happen immediately,” Quaintance said.

“I felt like I was the guy who had the keys to the playground he had been walking by and lusting to get in, to get on that merry-go-round. And I said, ‘You want to come in here?’ and he said, ‘You mean it?’ I knew that the stars had aligned.”

Timing.

The jazz project would need some marketing expertise, so Clegg’s wife, Victoria, was brought aboard to lead that effort.

“I think we’re about to make some beautiful cultural history in Greensboro,” said Victoria Clegg, a felt artist, decorator and horticulturist.

“On any given Thursday evening, you will step into O. Henry’s grand social lobby and find a diverse mix of the Triad’s cultural and artistic set.

“A delightful evening out where crafted cocktails are savored, ideas are shared, insights arrived at and the designs that result will continue to help shape the cultural fabric of this city. This will certainly satisfy my fascination of music and theater, and I can still be home in time to get my beauty sleep.”

Naturally, the musical fare will vary from week to week, but Neill Clegg said it will “mirror the elegance of the room.”

He added, “We have a huge repertoire to choose from. You’ll hear swing, traditional and cool jazz, bebop, everything from Louis Armstrong to Charlie Parker to Miles Davis, all the way through the first wave of Brazilian jazz.”

Mashburn, who performed there last week and will perform again on Feb. 26, said, “It’s a musical history that has been bound to happen in the O. Henry lobby for over a decade. Dreams take time to materialize. I’m just grateful that the melody of this great weekly event has finally been composed and is ready to be heard and enjoyed by our community.”

Quaintance said the festivities begin each week at 5:30 pm and run to 8:30 pm. There is no cover charge.

“I want people a hundred years from now to know that this is where jazz was played and enjoyed in Greensboro,” said the personable restaurateur-hotelier, grinning. “Our whole dream (with wife, Nancy, and business partner Weaver) has been to do things that people experience with delight, things that make their lives more full and rich. If we can make people enjoy living here more than they already do, and we get to make a living doing that, how cool is that?”

As cool as a Gershwin tune set to a Cole Porter lyric.