Nearly two years after the Nashville Jazz Workshop announced it would move from its longtime home in the old Neuhoff Complex to 1012 Buchanan St. — a timeline extended, as in so many other cases, by the pandemic — the formal opening celebration of the organization’s new headquarters is set for Saturday and Sunday. NJW co-founders, bassist Roger Spencer and pianist Lori Mechem — a husband-and-wife team of performers and educators — acknowledge that this new facility represents something they never envisioned when they arrived in Music City in 1988.
“Things were, to be kind, sort of bleak back then,” says Spencer. He and Mechem are speaking with the Scene together by phone during a brief break from final preparations. “Other than a couple of restaurant gigs here and there, you didn’t see or hear a lot of live jazz being performed.”
The couple co-founded the Nashville Jazz Institute in 1998, which changed its name to Nashville Jazz Workshop and received federal nonprofit status in 2000. Their efforts over two decades have led to the organization becoming nationally recognized and admired for live jazz performance as well as education, instruction and advocacy.
Saturday’s events will begin with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 10 a.m., followed by a performance from Midtown Jazz Quartet. The local quartet’s members — two full-time musicians, a doctor and a lawyer — met in NJW classes, and have since become a working unit with regular gigs.
“It’s kind of emblematic of what we’re hoping for with our classes,” Mechem says. “We want to encourage and attract both professionals and those who love the music, but aren’t involved in it on a full-time basis.”
Tours will be offered throughout the day until 2 p.m. on Saturday, and again on Sunday from 2 to 4 p.m. You can preregister for a tour via the NJW website. The celebration extends to a free community concert at 7 p.m. on Wednesday featuring the music of Stevie Wonder; however, pre-reservations have proven popular, and all the seats are taken.
Another important aspect of the move is NJW’s immersion in cultural and neighborhood events. The new home on Buchanan Street is right in the middle of an area with a growing number of culturally significant businesses sometimes called the Buchanan Arts District — a vital part of historically Black North Nashville.
“It feels good now to have this new building and to be part of the great things happening in North Nashville,” Spencer says. “We definitely want to be good neighbors. One of the things that we’re really pleased about with the new location is [that] before you had to know exactly where we were. We were isolated, off the main road. Now we’re having people come in off the street and ask about the facility, wanting to know what’s happening here. We’ve got the people who do security and parking for Slim & Husky’s and other businesses on the street working with us. We’re attending the community meetings and really getting to know our neighbors.”
Spencer adds that the NJW hopes to soon establish some regular interaction with Monday Night Jazz, the weekly musical gathering that’s become a North Nashville staple. Meanwhile, the NJW’s in-person classes will resume in August. Live music in the new iteration of the Jazz Cave, the NJW’s in-house venue, is also coming back.
“We’re now calling the series In Concert at the Jazz Cave,” Spencer explains. “We can seat 82, but we’re going to start with 50 so we can be sure of having the social distancing protocols in place.” The series kicks off Aug. 14 with jazz vocal mainstay Paula Chavis. The show format is modified a bit for the new series, as well: The presentations will now be one long set rather than two smaller ones with an intermission, to more closely match the experience of commercial jazz venues.
The move is significant enough, but Spencer and Mechem and their team have further changes in mind. Among them: They’re hoping to ramp up their concert schedule and increase the number of educational sessions they program.
“We’ve got lots of jam sessions, and that’s great, but we want to have more things where if you’re playing a tune and something might not be working, you can stop and then we talk about how to make that work from a musical standpoint,” Spencer says. “But most importantly, we want the public to come in and feel welcome, hear great jazz and enjoy the experience.”