In March, Ann Arborites were treated to a show by Norwegian jazz act Mathias Eick and his quintet during the soft opening for the new Blue LLama Jazz Club. While the quintet's soaring sets at times called to mind experimental rock bands like Sigur Rós or Explosions in the Sky, in many ways the new club looks to the past, feeling like more of a midcentury jazz lounge with guests seated at tables, and swooping art deco curves reminiscent of joints like Detroit's storied Baker's Keyboard Lounge. The retro-future feel is perhaps best represented by the ceiling, which is lit by sleek, circular chandeliers and small pinpoints of light that resemble a starry sky.
The old-school vibe is even in the club's name, which artistic director Dave Sharp says comes from the great jazz label Blue Note as well as LLamasoft, club founder Don Hicks' Ann Arbor-based tech supply chain company.
"You know, blue is sort of the jazz color," says Sharp, originally of Detroit, who is also a jazz bassist (Dave Sharp World Quartet, Klezmephonic) as well as the founder and festival director of the annual A2 Jazz Fest.
The new spot takes the place of the former Rush nightclub, which closed in early 2018. For the redesign, the new management partnered with Ann Arbor architect firm Hobbs+Black, as well as Stages Consultants out of New Jersey, which specializes in performance spaces. Sharp says Blue LLama's design was based on Stages' work on Dizzy's Club in New York City, which inspired the venue's curves, but also the attention to acoustics. First and foremost, Sharp says the space was designed so the live music would sound good from any seat in the house; the wooden panels mounted along the walls are the same as those used in recording studios to either reflect or absorb sound. In fact, Sharp says the plan is for Blue LLama to eventually function as a record label featuring live recordings of the bands that play, to be released as limited edition vinyl records as well as YouTube videos and livestreams. There's that future-retro vibe again.
"Our aim is to create a really great listening room," Sharp says. "You can sit close or a little far away from the group and still hear the music. We're just looking to keep the scene going with the label and with creating videos — you know, everything exists on YouTube now. So the audio component is important, but now the video is even more important, too."
Blue LLama differentiates itself from other Ann Arbor venues that have jazz like the Last Word or Old Town, which only do live music one day a week. Sharp says the plan is for Blue LLama to have live music five days a week, Wednesday through Saturday, and a Sunday brunch.
"There's a lot of jazz going on here, although there's no stage or soundsystem," Sharp says. "Kerrytown Concert House, it's a great listening room, but there's no food. And then at Old Town or Raven's Club, there's great food and drink, but there's no stage and it can be noisy. So we're trying to do both — you can have a really great listening experience, and a really great food experience."
The menu is handled by Louis Goral, who comes to Blue LLama by way of Brooklyn, New York, after stints in Denver, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. The menu is "jazz-inspired American shared plates" and features a number of jazz references, like the poached monkfish as a nod to Thelonious Monk and a "Crispy Foie Gras PB&J" with marcona almonds and Michigan strawberry jam in reference to Billie Holiday, who loved peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The venue also has cocktails, beer, and an extensive wine list.
Sharp says the venue will host local, national, and international performances from jazz and world music artists and bands. The grand opening this weekend features organist Joey DeFrancesco; other upcoming live performances include the Ravi Coltrane Quartet, led by the son of John Coltrane, on April 11 and 12, Duncan McMillan Organ Trio on April 17, and Indian sarod player Apratim Majumdar on April 19, among many others. In addition to live music, Sharp says the venue has a large projector screen and they plan to show jazz documentaries and concert films.
The Blue LLama Jazz Club celebrates its grand opening with the Joey DeFrancesco Quartet with on Friday, April 5 and Saturday, April 6; the Blue Llama Jazz Club is located at 314 S. Main St., Ann Arbor; 734-372-3200; bluellamaclub.com. Sets at 7 and 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $50+.
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