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Strike up the Band: Jazz Returns to O.Henry Hotel

By: Georgianna Penn special to RockinghamNow & Greensboro News & Record

September 18, 2022

Diana Tuffin at O.Henry Jazz

Jazz chanteuse Diana Tuffin performs at the O.Henry Hotel’s with the O.Henry Jazz Trio in the hotel’s Social Lobby. Courtesy of Georgianna Penn

Mancini’s classic melody “Days of Wine and Roses” played and a stream of sunbeams washed over the O.Henry Jazz Trio as a select crowd gathered at O.Henry Hotel’s Social Lobby Sept. 8 for the long awaited return of the beloved tradition called “O.Henry Thursday Night Cocktails and Jazz.”

“After missing 130 weeks of the wonderful O.Henry Trio and amazing vocalists, such as Diana Tuffin and Clinton Horton on Thursdays, we are over the moon that that involuntary break is over,” said Dennis Quaintance, CEO and co-creator of Quaintance Weaver Restaurants and Hotels with wife Nancy King Quaintance, whose parents Jim and Joan King have long maintained a farm in the Dan Valley community in western Rockingham County.

“There is definitely a thrill in the air!” said Sergio Ward, host of WQFS Radio’s Jet Set Jazz Radio show. “A lot of jazz fans, myself included, have suffered major withdrawals (during the pandemic) not seeing live music.

And the O.Henry … to me is the hottest venue.’’

While the pandemic meant a protracted break, the Quaintances said they now look forward to their patrons enjoying top regional jazz musicians – including plenty from Rockingham County – interpreting standards by the likes of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and more with the return of weekly jazz evenings at the hotel.

The definition of a dynamic duo, the Quaintances began working in hospitality as teenagers. They met in their 20s and fell in love not only with one another, but with the idea of a life as the faces of hospitality for the Triad. Their journey began, along with partner Mike Weaver of Greensboro and designer, the late Don Rives.

And they built the new O.Henry Hotel on Green Valley Road and the Proximity Hotel, one of the nation’s most green-minded facilities to date, also on Green Valley.

A key aim throughout developing the properties was to create a sacred space for jazz musicians and jazz lovers from across the region to gather.

Among the artists featured at the O.Henry are members of Rockingham County’s Penn Family, which features vocalist Dixie Penn, her saxophonist husband George Penn and their vocalist daughters Liz Penn, Georgianna Penn, Elaine Penn and celebrated singer-songwriter Vaughan Penn.

“A gift to the community, O.Henry Cocktails & Jazz presents a wide variety of singers and singing styles all wrapped around the music of the Great American Songbook,” said Neill Clegg Jr., saxophonist for the O. Henry Trio, who also plays flute and clarinet.

“The O.Henry Jazz Series is truly unique,’’ he said. “It is a place of enormous elegance and it is lavishly appointed.’’

“It was great to have Diana Tuffin, one of North Carolina’s finest jazz vocalists who truly embodies the spirit of O.Henry Jazz, for the first show back on Sept. 8,” said O.Henry Trio’s renowned bassist Matt Kendrick.

The current O.Henry Hotel, built in 1998, was modeled after New York City’s famed Algonquin Hotel. Quaintance and designer friend, the late Don Rives, conceived of O.Henry’s Social Lobby, a place where magic happens. They designed the space with soft edges – walls made from North Carolina pine and with music in mind, with the hopes of bringing NYC’s lobby jazz scene of the 1950s to the Triad.

Thanks to Greensboro musician Jessica Mashburn, O.Henry Hotel’s acoustically warm and beloved O.Henry Jazz Series was born.

“Jessica Mashburn deserves a lot of the credit for starting this series,” said Dr. Dave Fox, O.Henry Trio’s pianist. “It was her dream from the days she worked in the Green Valley Grill over 10 years ago.’’

With the blessings of Dennis Quaintance, Mashburn, Clegg and his wife, Victoria Clegg, longtime curator of jazz series, the hotel enlisted Fox and bassist Kendrick, and the O.Henry Jazz series took off.

“In addition to being one of our favorite vocalists and visionary creative forces in Greensboro, Jessica Mashburn is our honorary Jazz Angel,” Fox said.

“Jazz is all about spontaneity, which means that even though we certainly are not the first and won’t be the last to focus on The Great American Songbook, … every time we perform these standards we do our utmost to make it sound fresh,’’ Fox said. “This is what jazz is all about … being in the moment and making the most of that moment even if it’s a song that has been played a million times before.’’

Tapping local talent instead of musicians from elsewhere is the cornerstone of the program.

“The foundation is that we’re people who live here . . . and so, it ought to be sort of neighbors being gracious to neighbors,” Quaintance said. “It’s astonishing to me the (local) musical talent that exists, not just in the jazz genre, but in general.”

Fox said he is looking forward to introducing this year’s audience to some exciting new singers, including Wesley McCleary Small and Mattie Alicia. And he’s excited to showcase returning favorites, such as Tuffin, Clinton Horton, Mashburn, Lydia Sallet-Dudley and Rockingham County native, singer-songwriter Vaughan Penn, as well as many other artists, he said.

“Music elicits feelings from people that no other experience can do.” Neill Clegg said. “Dennis is a visionary who imagines what could be and makes it happen.”

The original O.Henry Hotel, named for famed Greensboro author William Sydney Porter who used O. Henry as his pen name, helped the community bounce back from the 1918 influenza pandemic, also with plenty of jazz, Clegg noted.

Built in 1919 on the southwest corner of Bellemeade and North Elm Streets the original O. Henry was a place for joyous gatherings and socializing with a backdrop of jazz during the Roaring 1920s. And Quaintance is keeping the musical ambience alive, Clegg said.

“What Dennis is doing is closing the loop, bringing back what was good in the community in the past and moving it forward so it may accompany us as we move forward.”

“I believe it is important to understand that jazz is music of the spirit,’’ Victoria Clegg said. “And post-COVID, our spirits and souls need this music more than ever. It is essential to the lives of the people in the communities from which it emanates, and now more than ever the need exists to develop, sustain and support venues in our communities where this art form can be nurtured and allowed to prosper.”

“Our community was indeed blessed when Dennis Quaintance allowed us to make the O.Henry Hotel our sandbox,’’ Victoria Clegg said. “Back in the beginning, I remember asking him what his objective was and him replying that he wanted O.Henry Jazz to be a gift to the community. May the return of this gift continue to enlighten, educate, enrich and heal our community. There truly is no place like the O. Henry, and especially O. Henry Jazz.”

Dennis & Nancy Quaintance
Dennis and Nancy Quaintance, with friends at the O.Henry Hotel in Greensboro, created a cocktail and jazz vibe such as was all the rage in some New York hotels in the 1950s. Courtesy of JERRY WOLFORD and SCOTT MUTHERSBAUGH, Perfecta Visuals
Sergio Ward & Frank Sutherland
Sergio Ward, WQFS Radio host of Jet Set Jazz, left, with O.Henry jazz patron Frank Sutherland. Courtesy of Georgianna Penn
Neill Clegg Jr plays the Saxophone in a sunny social lobby
Sunbeams pour over Neill Clegg Jr. as he plays his saxophone at the O.Henry. Clegg is a member of the O.Henry Jazz Trio. Courtesy of Georgianna Penn