NIGHT LIFE : Booked, at a Store Near You : Jazz should only be played in smoky clubs, right? Upscale coffee and book joints are betting that ‘90s hipsters wouldn’t mind a change of venue.
Eliane Elias, a tall, slender Brazilian woman with dark, mysterious eyes and a radiant smile, slips behind the keyboard of a Steinway grand piano, slowly stretches her fingers and begins to play.
Music pours out, a lush fusion of cultures, rich with the harmonies of bossa nova and Jobim, surging forward with the night rhythms of jazz.
The mood of the music is dark and atmospheric, a perfect soundtrack for the late-night setting of a smoky jazz club.
But Elias is nowhere near a jazz club. Her backdrop consists of long rows of shelves overflowing with books. Her audience sits attentively on chairs and couches, occasionally nodding approvingly at subtle turns of phrase. Elias is, in fact, performing in what has become that yuppie hangout of the mid-'90s, an upscale, up-sized bookstore.
On Friday evening, at Borders in Westwood, Elias hits the midpoint in a unusual cross-country tour in which she performs at eight Borders stores, from Atlanta and Miami to San Francisco and Los Angeles.
A surprising development? Yes and no. For in the same way that malls have replaced downtown shopping areas, giant bookstores like Borders or Barnes & Noble and retail coffee outlets like Starbucks, to name the most visible spots, seem to be replacing libraries and nightclubs as meeting places or spots to just hang out.
At a time when alcohol is not as favored as it once was, coffee and coffee-based drinks are growing in popularity. Starbucks alone already has more than 600 stores in the United States. And even a brief visit to one of the bookstores reveals the remarkable cross section of people--students, Generation X-ers, boomers and senior citizens--browsing the book stacks or comfortably reading in easy chairs.
The logical extension was to add some entertainment. Delivery systems for entertainment, after all, have always been in search of new ways to reach audiences. Seventy-five years ago, every town in America had a theater somewhere on Main Street for vaudeville and music hall entertainment. But like the big-band dance halls that followed, most are long gone, replaced by ever-changing waves of media--film, radio, television and computers.
One of the few venues to persistently survive the changes was the jazz club. No matter how hot the latest movie, or how popular the top-rated sitcom of the moment, there has always been a place for jazz fans to hear the full gamut of the music, from Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker to Wynton Marsalis and Joshua Redman.
Urban areas with concentrated mid-town centers--San Francisco and Manhattan in New York are prime examples--continue to sustain reasonably active club scenes, side by side with coffeehouses and bookstores. Although the venerated jazz boi^tes of 52nd Street are now part of the legendary past, New York continues to be the heart and soul of jazz in the United States, if only because it is the residence of choice for so many world-class musicians. On the opposite coast, San Francisco is developing a newer kind of jazz scene via a burgeoning number of rooms drawing Generation X-ers to a wide variety of acid, fusion and other forms of crossover jazz.
With those few exceptions, however, jazz rooms and nightclubs across the country are not what they used to be. And the de facto club circuits, which once allowed major jazz artists to hopscotch across the country via stopovers in Baltimore, St. Louis, Kansas City, Denver and Seattle, have diminished to destinations in a few major cities.
“Markets such as Atlanta, Miami and Baltimore just don’t have performance venues that nationally support jazz,” says Tom Evered, marketing vice president at Blue Note Records. “The live jazz infrastructure beyond the Northeast and the West Coast is abysmal. So we have to look for alternative situations for live performances.”
And if jazz has always been a music that appeals to thoughtful, musically informed listeners, what better places to seek such an audience than in bookstores and coffeehouses?
When Evered and Blue Note realized that Elias’ current album, “Solo and Duets,” was receiving favorable responses in areas that did not have appropriate performance venues, they looked for other locations to present her music.
“Since she is an artist who performs both classical music and jazz,” Evered explains, “we decided that in-store appearances at the Borders chain would give us two benefits: an opportunity to present her in a cross-country tour and the opportunity to place her in the kind of venue that would give her fans the sort of intimate experience that the album is all about.”
Elias agrees, noting that the bookstore environment provides her with a performing atmosphere far different from that of her more familiar experience in jazz clubs.
“In terms of solo piano,” the 35-year-old performer says, “I would prefer not to work in clubs. I don’t feel the environment is the best--with the cash registers and the noise--for that kind of playing. Playing solo means you have to have the right environment, which I expect to have on this tour.”
Elias will concentrate on material from “Solos and Duets,” dipping freely into classical music and jazz and responding spontaneously to what happens at each Borders performance. She has been a New York resident for more than a decade, working in the late ‘80s with the cutting-edge contemporary jazz band Steps Ahead and performing regularly with her own trio. A consistently intriguing artist who has inexplicably not yet broken through to the larger music audience, Elias is as comfortable with Brazilian and classical music as she is with jazz and has released albums in both genres.
The tour, however, is primarily a testing of the performance waters, one that has potential advantages for all involved. Evered says the costs are split fairly evenly. Blue Note and Borders share responsibility for promotion and advertising, and the record company is covering travel expenses.
Elias takes a fairly loose approach to the performances, which are free and open to the public and last from 40 minutes to an hour.
“I don’t like to plan what I’m doing,” she says. “I just like to see what happens once I get in contact with the audience.”
For Elias, the principal benefit lies in the enhanced promotional opportunities offered by the tour. Other venues--music stores such as Tower, Virgin and Hear Music--report that in-store appearances can produce an immediate 200% to 300% short-term increase and a smaller but noticeable long-term increase in an artist’s sales.
From the point of view of both Borders and the record companies, such increases are an obvious plus, and there is a growing tendency for artists’ management to schedule in-store appearances to coincide with club performance dates wherever possible. Borders, eager to enhance its image as a source for music as well as books, has music departments in 98 of its 110 outlets. The presentation of Elias and other artists magnifies the chain’s visibility as a retail environment in which music plays an important role.
“A tour such as this serves a dual purpose for us,” explains Robert Smith, Borders’ jazz and Latin music specialist. “On the one hand, to expand public awareness of Borders to find music. And on the other hand, to expand the market for artists such as Eliane.
“We do live music performances of one sort or another in all our stores. In some places we’ll hold the event in the espresso area, in others there’s more room to hold them in the music and recordings section. And we have a few stores that were actually designed with performance areas in mind.”
Elias’ tour was preceded by similar tours last year by Bruce Hornsby and Janis Ian. Audiences, which are expected to be similar for Elias, ranged up to 300 people. They tend to be upscale, knowledgeable and responsive.
“The events pretty much take over the store when they happen,” Smith says. “We provide some seating, but there’s always an overflow, with people hanging out, leaning on the bookshelves, completely caught up with the performances. The feedback from our audiences has been completely upbeat.”
The larger issue of whether networks of bookstores and coffeehouses can move beyond serving as promotional tools and actually become viable, financially productive tour locations for jazz and pop artists is still open to question.
“We’re not at that point yet, although we certainly would like to get there,” Smith says. “At the very least, we hope to be an alternative performance arena for artists such as Eliane and Hornsby. And, you know, it’s interesting that artists themselves are beginning to feel the same way. We found out recently that some artists had complained to Jazziz about the fact that the magazine hadn’t listed their appearances in Borders stores. Apparently musicians have begun to identify Borders’ appearances as a hip place to be seen.”
Beyond Borders and the record stores, one of the most promising possibilities for the development of performance venues outside the nightclub circuit lies in the rapidly expanding empire of Starbucks Coffee.
With new outlets reportedly being added at the rate of one every working day, the java giant is beginning to blanket the country. Although many Starbucks are relatively small, street-corner operations, there are far larger facilities as well. A new outlet in Chicago, for example, has 3,500 square feet of space and could serve nicely as a performance venue.
In April, Starbucks and Blue Note joined in the simultaneous issue of a jazz CD and a Blue Note coffee blend. The combination was so successful that a second CD is planned for this year.
Tim Jones, Starbucks’ music specialist, believes there is a natural linkage between coffee and music. Although the chain could use the same kind of ambient music heard in stores such as Express and the Gap, Starbucks has elected to create its own library of carefully programmed music, which it makes available to all its outlets.
“We hope to have 100 or so hours of programs--jazz, classical, some world music--available soon,” Jones says. “That allows the stores to program the music according to their needs--maybe some light classical early in the morning, jazz at night, that sort of thing.”
But the real hope is that Starbucks--already in place as a de facto national network with potentially receptive listeners and a history of involvement with music--will consider live performances.
“I’d love to see it go beyond playing music in the background at our stores,” Jones says. “When I managed a Starbucks near the university here in Seattle, we had regular live music performances, and they were very successful.
“We’ve expanded so quickly that we’re really just on a learning curve about what we can do with our stores. But I’d like to think that at some point, sooner rather than later, we might be able to get together with a record company like Blue Note to put together some kind of cross-country performance network.”
That will come as good news to all the ‘60s longhairs who grew up listening to folk and rock in the counterculture coffeehouses of Bleecker Street in New York and the Haight in San Francisco. In their boomer maturity they have become the energizing force behind the reinvention of coffeehouses and bookstores.
And it will come as even better news to performers such as Elias, who will clearly benefit from the expansion of performance opportunities. Not only in terms of places to play but also in terms of the ability to reach the kinds of receptive, knowledgeable audiences that now turn up too rarely in traditional nightclubs.
“I like the idea of working in an environment in which I can play and talk with the people and do it all spontaneously,” Elias says. “Because that’s what this music is all about--being in the moment, with nothing premeditated, and every performance a different experience."*
Eliane Elias appears at Borders Books, 1360 Westwood Blvd., Friday, 7:30 p.m., (310) 475-4444. Other upcoming in-store music performances: Willie and Lobo, next Sunday, 1 p.m., and B Sharp, Feb. 4, at Hear Music, 1429 Third St. Promenade, Santa Monica, (310) 319-9527.