My Visit to the Jazz Corner
The Jazz Corner. For this Beaufortonian, it’s been a hidden treasure. For most islanders on Hilton Head, it’s a venue they wish was still a secret. But it’s no secret anymore. It’s a world-wide phenomenon and one of the top jazz clubs in the country.
Martin McFie and Lydia Inglett recently invited me to the cozy club, located in the Village at Wexford, and I was filled with awe from the moment I stepped in the door of this revered establishment, greeted by the charming Amy O’Leary. The Jazz Corner is a modern day return to the Jazz and Swing Eras, and for my generation, a place to enjoy live music and fully appreciate this charismatic part of American culture.
I’m no musician, but I understand good music when I hear and feel it. Accomplished performers have the ability to make your feet tap, your mind fantasize and your whole body move to the melody. You can close your eyes and fall back in time or spring forward to your future dreams. Good music creates an experience that yields intrinsic resolve, whether the vibe initiates feelings of joy or pain, happiness or sadness and whether the jazz is swing, hard bop, bebop, Dixieland, smooth, progressive or acid. Jazz isn’t only heard, it is also felt. It comes from the heart.
And the Jazz Corner, managed by Kelli Lesch, produces these experiences every night of the week! That’s right, we have a place in our own back yard that invites local, regional and internationally acclaimed musicians to play seven nights a week, a place that welcomes its patrons to have uninhibited fun and create memories for a lifetime. Lesch and her piano-playing husband, Martin, are driving forces that have helped shape the authentic nightclub atmosphere.
The Jazz Corner was founded by Bob Masteller in 1999. Masteller and his wife Lois moved their family and their collective jazz history to Hilton Head in 1974 when Bob accepted the position as Vice President of Sea Pines Development with Charles Fraser. As the island grew, Masteller saw the potential for a great jazz club with live music and fine dining. And so, one of the top jazz clubs in the country was born.
I met Bob and Lois Masteller at the Jazz Corner earlier this month, and their hospitality was consummate, their verve contagious and their commitment to an art form unwavering.
Masteller, on horns and the vibraphone, performed with his son, David on stand-up base, Billy Hoffman on drums and the great Bill Peterson from Chicago on piano. The songstress Gina Rene´ from Savannah, donning baubles, bangles and beads, belted melodies as she talked her way in and out of songs. They elegantly played beautifully titled standards, East of the Sun, Polka Dots and Moonbeams and Satin Doll in a full rich sound. The flugelbone, the muted trumpet, the vibraphone and the piano were deft and inventive, while the base behind played quiet solos, and the drums carried the beat.
Masteller learned the vibraphone, also known as the vibraharp or simply the vibes, from his father, who was one of the first vibraphone players in America.
“My Jazz life was gifted to me by my father, Harold F. Masteller. He was born in 1900 and fronted a hot music band at the apex of the Jazz Age. In the Swing era, he led a Big Band, playing hot fiddle violin. Classically trained, he attacked his music with passion…” explained Masteller.
In the 1980’s, Bob Masteller headed up various groups with different styles, including New Orleans, straight ahead jazz and mood music. He has appeared at virtually every mainstream location for swing and jazz in the Lowcountry, including all major hotels, Hannah’s East, The Golden Rose, Self Family Arts Center, USC Performing Arts Center and the Original Old Post Office on Pope Avenue. Included in the highlights of Bob’s career, he has performed for Presidents Clinton, Ford and Bush and Senator Bobby Kennedy. Also in his background was a 26-week stint at Sweet Georgia Brown in Savannah during the key moments that went into the makeup of “The Garden of Good and Evil.”
And now, with skills learned from playing in his father’s Big Band and all of his experiences, Bob Masteller creatively runs his life and his business with an open mind, parallel to the principles of Jazz itself. And he and his wife have a deeper mission. They want to see this music style and culture survive and thrive through future generations.
Bob and Lois Masteller formed the Junior Jazz Foundation in 2004. The Foundation raises funds to buy instruments for kids in schools, pay for their music lessons and bring professional musicians to teach them at Jazz Camps. The Foundation inspires the youth and gives them an opportunity to practice what is very difficult to learn individually . . . the art of improvisation. Through improv, students learn balance and teamwork as well as respect for their fellow musicians and their instruments.
The Jazz Foundation continuously seeks sponsorships. People or businesses can and do step up to sponsor an evening of jazz, and proceeds benefit the Foundation. Other benefactors cover the cost of weekend performances by national musicians, and corporate sponsors can pick up the music costs of one of the great Four Seasons of Jazz series of concerts each year.
These sponsorships enable the Jazz Corner to produce top-quality performances for their guests while helping future prodigies immerse themselves in this American legacy.
Martin McFie recently penned The Jazz Corner Story. Proceeds from the sale of the book benefit the Junior Jazz Foundation. The book explains the history of The Jazz Corner and Bob Masteller and largely chronicles the timeline of Jazz. The narrative includes facts and enlightenments about Ragtime, Scott Joplin and New Orleans Jazz. It spotlights Jazz greats like Louis Armstrong, John Lee Hooker, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, the Dorsey Brothers and the list goes on. And the book recounts all the top clubs from the Cotton Club to Nick’s to Three Deuces.
McFie also describes all the musicians that now call The Jazz Corner home: Bandleaders, Reggie Deas, Bob Masteller, Martin Lesch, Bobby Ryder, Earl Williams, Lavon Stevens with Louise Spencer, John Brackett and Howard Paul; Sidemen, John O’Gorman, Chris Russell, Kenny Alexander, Jimmy Charles, Clarence Williams; and the Master Musicians who visited and played the Jazz Corner when their international schedules allowed, George Shearing, Freddy Cole, Ben Tucker, Bob Alberti, ‘Songbird’ Lynn Roberts, Bob James, Mose Allison, Bucky Pizzarelli and John Pizzarelli, Jr., Chuck Loeb, Allan Vaché, Warren Vaché, Harry Allen, David “Fingers” McKenna, Art Van Damme, Bill Aldred, Buddy de Franco, John Bunch, Russell Malone, Buddy Greco, Scott Hamilton, Robert Redd, Dan Barrett, Chuck Redd, Joe Ascione and Rebecca Kilgore.
When Bob Masteller was dreaming of owning a jazz club, he wrote a list of all the great stars he would invite to play. The dream consisted of all the Master Musician’s names above, and every single performer has played at his Jazz Corner.
And Masteller also recognizes future talent.
“When I was young my father told me, ‘Son, if you want to get experience, play with the old guys.’ Well, some time has gone by now, and I tell people, ‘To stay sharp, I play with the young guys’,” explains Masteller.
For the book, McFie asked Masteller to name the next generation of Jazz greats. International Master Musicians of tomorrow and Jazz Corner favorites include: Noel Friedline, Grace Kelly, Jason Marsalis, Annie Sellick and Christian Tamburr. McFie enthusiastically describes his frequent encounters at the Jazz Club, “Jazz has been covered over by modern derivations, but when you hear the real deal, played really well, the raw energy is still there.”
The Jazz Corner Story is sold at the Jazz Club and pronounced during intermission as the authoritative account of the Jazz Corner’s story and its influences, philosophy and future dreams.
I was with Martin McFie and Lydia Inglett dining at the Bar when Masteller mentioned to the audience that the author of the book and philanthropist to his cause was in attendance. Patrons rushed to get his and all the musicians’ autographs and thanked them for creating this special memory. I was awed by the enthusiasm.
McFie says, “People are excited and rush to get their piece of the place autographed to take home. For a moment, you could be back in the Roaring Twenties when Bob’s father was leading his band.”
And McFie is one of the Jazz Corner’s biggest fans. He raves about the Jazz Corner in an email thanking me for my company and encouraging me to spread these words:
“They don’t over embellish the tune; there is some improvisation that is the essence of jazz, but they show respect for the beauty of those great melodies. It’s sophisticated music. The place is low lit, comforting warmth spread by the candle glows around the room. The service is attentive and impeccably polite and friendly. The food is award winning. Websites like Trip Advisor regularly note it as the best food on Hilton Head. This year, it has again been voted one of the best jazz clubs in the world by the iconic Downbeat jazz magazine.”
The Jazz Corner Story not only serves as a souvenir, but also includes recipes of some of the fabulous dishes at the Jazz Corner.
McFie writes, “The flavors of the South are rich in history to delight and intrigue diners at the Jazz Corner. The Southern twist to the menu is inventive and American. The modern tastes of Southern Cuisine represent exciting discoveries made by people who grew up with rich Southern food as everyday food.”
Yes indeed Martin, the food is incredible! On my first visit, I tasted the Lowcountry Jumbo White Shrimp and Wild Mushroom Carolina Gold Risotto with country ham, mustard greens, butternut squash and sweet onion cream. Oh my . . . it was culinary ecstasy and deep-rooted with Southern flavors, Lowcountry ingredients and Carolina flare.
Lydia Inglett and I then shared the Candied Ginger Carrot cake and the Raspberry & Chocolate Ganache Soufflé Cake. Yes, we were rewarding ourselves. And yes, I know now why foodies describe desserts as heavenly. And these, made homemade daily, are simply luscious in your mouth.
Perhaps the icing on the cake with the purchase of the book is the gift of The Jazz Corner’s music. That’s right. The book contains two cd’s featuring live jazz from the Jazz Corner. Songs include I’ve Got the World on a String, A Foggy Day, Rainy Night in Georgia, Dance with my Father, Swing that Music, Bourbon Street Parade, At Last, Over the Rainbow and so many more.
I listen to the cd’s in my car and think of yesteryear. Some believe it was a simpler time. I do not. Jazz was derived from enslaved people in Praise houses and on the fields of plantations. Jazz comforted people during The Great Depression and World War II. These were not simple times. The decades between the 1880’s and the 1940’s were influential in the birth of many types of Jazz, an art form that is All-American. The current events that shaped our history are, in fact, the true conductors of this music. That is why we feel Jazz, because we understand its roots. It lifts us up during hard times and allows us to rejoice in good times. It is colorless and represents teamwork, civility and grace. Jazz, for many, is salvation; and for me, it represents hope for tomorrow.
If you would like to make a pledge to the Junior Jazz Foundation or become a sponsor, please contact Bob or Lois Masteller at (843) 681-9100 or visit www.thejuniorjazzfoundation.org to donate.
For a calendar of events and more information about The Jazz Corner, please visit www.thejazzcorner.com or call (843) 842-8620 to make your reservation today!