Cory Weeds

interviewed by Josephine Ochej

A little over a year ago, I talked with Cory Weeds about his then-brand new role as co-owner of Vancouver's premiere jazz spot, The Cellar. A year, a few hurdles, and a lot of great jazz later, The Cellar has celebrated its first anniversary, and is set for one of its most ambitious days of programming yet with a 13-hour Jazz-A-Thon benefit Sunday, November 25, 2001 (to help raise funds to clear one of the aforementioned hurdles).

Below is a 'Then and Now' set of interviews on where everybody's favourite jazz venue was at and where it's going.

T H E N - September 2000


Josephine Ochej: Whatever possessed you to buy a club?

Cory Weeds: It's always something that I wanted to do because in my time, the time that I've been listening to music in this city, I've never found a place that was really conducive to listening to music. That's not to say anything bad about previous places that have existed, but I think there have been some things lacking in those places as well and I thought that maybe I could add something a little bit different. I'm a musician, and so I know a lot of the players on a personal level, I know how musicians like to be treated and I think having the musicians' support in a venue is extremely important in order to make it successful, and other clubs that have existed in the past haven't had the support of the musicians for various different reasons.

JO: How did this come about, specifically?

CW: I had played at The Cellar once, and I had promoted a show here with a tenor player from New York named Eric Alexander and at that point I realized that this was the perfect venue. However, it wasn't for sale, nor was I actively pursuing a jazz club at this point. I had said that I wanted this venue and I had spoken quite openly about wanting this venue to friends and family and, lo and behold, I was flipping through the Straight one day and there was an ad that the jazz club was up for sale. Again, I wasn't actively pursing a venue but it just happened to be for sale, still with no idea that it was actually gonna happen. That's when I approached my good friend Donald Guthro about being a consultant and quickly realized that Don and I complemented each other in terms of our skills, in terms of what we had and didn't have, and [so we] decided to partner up and pursue the venue.

JO: Why did you think it was the 'perfect venue'?

CW: It's a very good size, it's quite intimate, it's downstairs, which makes it sort of the whole downstairs, jazzy club. And it was just a good size, and there was so much potential to improve the way it was set up, such as moving the stage and those kinds of things. The location is good, and it was already established, not necessarily as a good one, but it was already established as a music venue.

JO: Did you have any idea what you were getting into? Is it at all what you imagined?

CW: Yes, and more. I think I had some idea of what I was involved with, in terms of how busy it would be. It was certainly more than I bargained for, in terms of just general everyday things, stress and people and musicians and ordering and all the kinds of stuff that comes along with owning a restaurant - it is a restaurant so there's so many things to deal with other than just music. When I was promoting, all I had to do was worry about music, I didn't have to worry about whether we had enough chicken or lettuce. You know, we've run out of cheesecake. I think the pleasant surprises have been, of course, hearing wonderful music. Regardless of whether you're starting a new restaurant or taking over an old one, one of the concerns is 'Are you gonna get the people there?', and for whatever reason, that hasn't been one of our biggest concerns. The people, for the most part have been there. Lots of musicians have shown up and I've gotten to see that people are really supporting what me and Don are trying to do here. And I think another one of the pleasant surprises is there really is a buzz happening about what we're trying to do here and that's exciting because we work extremely hard to try to get that buzz.

JO: What does being a musician bring to being a club owner?

CW: Certainly I know how to book the place. I grew up listening to the legends of Vancouver jazz, and I feel that in the last five — six years it's like pulling teeth to find out... you can't find top musicians in the city playing cause there's a total lack of venues, so what I bring as a musician, I'm here to give a venue where you get quality everything, especially music. Also, being a musician and promoting my own things, I've made good relations and contacts with a lot of local media, and people who understand and respect what I'm trying to do have also been quick to jump on board and help out the cause. And being a musician helps in terms of how the other musicians deal with it. Musicians are certainly more willing to work with me on making things work, in general, whereas they're probably not so much with other people, because [other places] the music is not at the heart of what's going on. I opened this place for one reason, I had no intention of ever wanting to open a restaurant, and that's where Don comes in cause he can take care of that and teach me about that side of things. I wanted a place where I could hear, and could present to the people, not only the best jazz in Vancouver, but in Canada and North America as well. I think there's a huge amount of trust [there] and I think the musicians that know me, know that if this place benefits, the musicians are the first to benefit. People are gonna come here for the music, and I believe that if we do well, the musicians are also gonna do well.

JO: What's the long-term plan for the venue, for you, as owner and musician and everything else?

CW: [Laughing] When you have a jazz club sometimes it's hard to have a long-term goal, but the long-term goal is to educate people about jazz and live music and the rich tradition that jazz has in this city. Just starting to own this thing, it's hard to look five years down the road, but hopefully we get to a point where The Cellar is just no longer big enough and we have to move, and get a bigger venue or maybe open another venue. But the long-term goal, more realistically, is to keep the level of the music and the food and the people at The Cellar at high quality at all times.

JO: Tell me about Don, how you got involved with him.

CW: I played at the Mojo Room where Don was the operations manager and we developed a friendship through there and often joked about starting our own place, but again, it was never something that was very serious because I thought it was way out of my reach. I thought I was too young. We just developed a really strong friendship and our friendship was sort of strengthened when Don purchased the Point Grey Grill which he now runs, and we talked about business possibilities and, sure enough The Cellar [came up for sale]. I actually had plans when I was little younger to pursue purchasing a venue and the reason it didn't work out there was because I didn't have the right partner, I didn't have anybody who knew about the other side of the business.

JO: You went to business school?

CW: I started as a musician and I happened to be one of the lucky ones that somewhere along the line had some sort of business sense or savvy. I've always been interested in business and promotion and that side of things. I've done some promotion, I've promoted my own band, and it made me say to myself, 'If I'm going to do promotion, I could save myself the trouble of having to find a venue all the time and just have my own'. And so with that in mind, I went to BCIT and took the Venture Program and began to write an extensive business plan to open a restaurant. Once my business plan was complete I realized at that point, that a) I wasn't finished with being a full-time musician, in fact my full time musicianship was just starting; and b) I also lacked a partner and or mentor that could help me with the restaurant side of things.

JO: What does having a venue mean for your life as musician?

CW: It's changed a lot. I've always been a guy who's tried to do everything, and I probably will continue to try to do everything, but one of the hardest parts about this whole venture has been that music had been forced to take a bit of a back seat. However, I still am playing as much as I can. I get to sit in quite a bit; I get invited to play and [laughing] sometimes I just force them to let me come up. I'm close to the music. I've always had a passion for music and I've never quite placed exactly where that passion is the greatest, and [owning The Cellar] is just another experiment to find if this is where my passion for music lies, while remaining extremely close to it.

N O W - November 2001

Josephine Ochej: Has owning The Cellar been anything like you thought it might be, in reality and in your dream for it?

Cory Weeds: Yes and no. I knew it would be difficult, and I knew it would be a lot of work, but I don't think I realized exactly how much work it would be. The romantic side of it, the whole reason why I wanted to be in the business, to be standing in the back of my club, watching Campbell Ryga, P.J. Perry or Brad Turner, and getting that jolt, that high, from sitting back and saying, 'Hey, this is my club, these guys are playing my club'. That's what I was hoping it would be like, that's what it's been like, and I hope it continues to be like that.

JO: What's been the greatest part of the experience?

CW: I think probably the greatest part about it is, I really feel that I'm giving back something to the jazz community, I'm presenting a place that musicians genuinely like to play in and [in which] the people genuinely like to listen. I've contributed a fairly big thing to the jazz community.

JO: What's been the hardest part?

CW: I think the hardest part is constantly wondering whether people are going to show up. I was talking to somebody about this the other day. Now that we're into our second year, so we're booking a lot of the same big acts, and you just assume people are going to show up, based on how it was last time, but realistically it could stop at any point for various different reasons. I think the hardest part has just been trying to take things a day at a time and not worry too much about the big picture, and to try to go day-by-day and week-by-week.

JO: Have you ever thought about giving up?

CW: Yes. Of course. There have been many points, obviously one of them was when the city came down on us for our licensing, but it really is a daily struggle. [see Forum for more information about The Cellar's licensing situation].You wonder if it's worth it. You wonder if it's gonna get any better. You wonder if you're ever gonna make any money. As we become more successful and we improve, it makes it even more stressful; I have a year of knowledge under my belt, and in some ways that makes it more difficult. But lots of wonderful things have happened, like with the release of The Cellar CD and have made me realize my efforts are worthy, and that I am doing something worthwhile and that I have to keep going. I say this in the most humble possible way, but I get scared that if I don't do it, what is gonna happen to this community? In this city? Cause there certainly isn't anybody out there in the city that has been willing to take the risk.

JO: What's the greatest myth about The Cellar?

CW: I think the greatest myth that people have about The Cellar is that when we're full, people think we're making money. I think it's taken people a long time to realize that you have to pay to get great music, and people aren't playing The Cellar for free. We're not a concert venue, where the money people are paying for tickets is it. We're not a concert venue, we're a restaurant with music, and 99 per cent of the money at the door goes to the band, and the food and bar sales go to keeping the club going.

JO: You started the business with a partner, but the ownership of the club has changed.

CW: Basically my [now ex-] partner hit some tough times with his [other] business, and I thought for the best interest of the club and to move forward the way I want to move forward, it would be in the best interest of everybody if we abolished our partnership, which we did very amicably. I think the club is better off for it.

JO: How so?

CW: It lets me be in control of the vision of the club, whereas before, I didn't really feel - even though I was the general operations manager of the club - it didn't feel like I had full authority to do things.

JO: Do you still think it's the 'perfect venue'?

CW: I do. People still ask the same question, 'Wouldn't it be nice if it was 30 seats bigger?', and my answer to that is still the same, 'Yeah, sure on a Friday and Saturday that'd be great. But on a Tuesday or Wednesday, if we had 30 people in a 100-seat room it'd look pretty lonely in there. Whereas now, if we get 30 people in the club, it looks pretty full.' I like the downstairs thing, I have people comment on it, [they say] 'It looks very New York-ish'. I think [being downstairs] hurts us in the summertime. I think all in all, it's the perfect venue. There's not too many other places where The Cellar could do what it's doing. There's not too many communities that could sustain a club like The Cellar.

JO: Has your long-term plan for The Cellar changed?

CW: I don't think my long-term plan has changed. I have a timeline that I've put on my plan. Basically, we're well into our second year, we're almost at 16 months, so, if it's still like this in another 16 months, then I think we're gonna have to look at some changes. And that's not to say we're doing poorly now, but in another 16 months we'll have been in business over two years, and we should hopefully start seeing… not a profit, but at least [we should be] breaking even. My long-term goals haven't really been that big. My goals have been to provide the best music possible and to maybe release a few CDs here and there of some of the great bands who have [played The Cellar], and to run a profitable business; I mean that's the goal for any business.

JO: Are you using your business school lessons?

CW: I am. But it's like going to school to become a musician. How you learn to become a musician is by getting out there and doing it, although the business school stuff was fabulous, and it's come back to serve me very well, I learned the major part of what I learned by getting out there and doing it, and learning it the hard way. But that's also my personality, I've learned everything the hard way. I've learned by getting out there and failing, and that seems to be the way I learn. [A benefit of business school is] the people that you meet, you meet people in the business world, and network.

JO: If you had the last year to do over again, what would you do differently knowing now what you maybe didn't know then?

CW: I think that I would've realized more that things take time, I would've realized that patience is a virtue, and [laughing] patience, for those that know me, is not a trait that people would associate with me. If I had more patience and realized that things take time, and success takes time to build. I probably wouldn't have gotten involved in a partnership. I don't think there's too much that I would do differently, because the way I did it is… if I didn't do it the way I did it, I don't think The Cellar would be what it is. And you have to go through those experiences. And there's not too many people out there who would start a restaurant without having any experience.

JO: What are your thoughts on the current state of Vancouver's jazz community?

CW: I feel that the Vancouver jazz community is strong and always has been strong. I think that The Cellar has definitely done a lot to solidify it. I feel that it's sort of revamped some interest again, not only in people wishing to hear jazz, but in the musicians wishing to play jazz. I think that musicians, obviously they love to play, but there hasn't been a legitimate venue in this city for a while that allows them to really play their music, and it's good to see some of the more veteran musicians on the scene be excited about playing again.

JO: Do you feel a sense of responsibility to that community as a musician and as a club
owner, and are those very different things?

CW: One thing I've tried to do is to not make them different things, but no matter which way you slice it, one is being an artist, one is being a businessman. I feel that I have a huge responsibility. Me being a musician doesn't have anything to do with The Cellar, but I think that I have a huge responsibility as a venue owner in this city, to the jazz community, and that responsibility sort of lies in being open-minded to different types of jazz, to being… to sort of uphold the standards of the club and make sure I maintain the fact that it is a jazz club for musicians to play their own music.

JO: What are your long-term plans as a musician?

CW: [Laugh] I guess when you asked me what was the hardest thing I should've probably said this. That's been one of the biggest struggles with this club, myself as a musician, I think, has suffered a little bit. That's natural of course, and I also knew that that would be part of the tradeoff. And that's been a bit of a struggle, but I'm still involved with the music and I still play quite a bit, and my band Crash has a new CD coming out and we hope to be doing some touring with that. I just want to continue to play and continue to have fun. I'm not in the mindset that I'm gonna become the greatest sax player ever, I just want to have fun. And I get to do that [at The Cellar] and it creates a lot of opportunity for me, but I do miss being in the centre of that musician circle.

JO: You've recently put out two discs, the compilation "Live at The Cellar" (featuring Brad Turner Trio, Ross Taggart Quintet, Chris Gestrin Trio, Mike Allen Trio, Oliver Gannon Quartet, among others), and Ross Taggart's "Thankfully"; what's the story behind those?

CW: "Live at The Cellar" is a Maximum Jazz release and "Thankfully" is something I put out on my own, but is being distributed and put out by Maximum Jazz. There's something about hearing all the great music that I get to hear on a regular basis - it makes no sense that this stuff isn't available and I just thought, 'Hey, we should put some of this stuff out and make it available to the people'. It just seemed like a logical progression, [though] I don't really have a desire to have my own record label, and that's why [the arrangement with] Maximum Jazz works out so well. It's my project, but Maximum Jazz puts it out and distributes it. It's like Live at the Vanguard or Live at Smalls; [The Cellar] just such a great atmosphere to hear music in and it's a great promotional vehicle for the club.

JO: Was there any wish to record for posterity for the future, a time when you or club may not be there?

CW: Absolutely. I'm huge on documentation, you'll see me every night there with a camera. You'll see me most nights recording, though 95 per cent of it will never be released. My mom and I are working on a scrapbook… I want to be able to look back in 20 years and say, 'Remember all the great music that went on?'

JO: What plans do you have for future discs?

CW: We'd definitely like to continue the "Live at The Cellar" compilation series, and that's being talked about quite a bit with Maximum Jazz. The goal [is] I want to record people that otherwise don't have recordings as leaders. We're looking at doing an album with the great pianist Bruno Hubert, and we're also looking at doing one with Oliver Gannon, who, amazingly enough, doesn't have a record out under his own name, which is a travesty.

JO: Are you planning any other changes for The Cellar at this point?

CW: We're doing some minor improvements to the restrooms, nothing major cosmetically. We do plan to be more present in the community, we have an advertising campaign coming out, not a huge one, but bigger than [we've done] before. A gig I'm really excited about is bebop alto sax legend Charles McPherson, coming January 25-26, 2002.

JO: Tell me about the big benefit happening Sunday, November 25, 2001.

CW: This Sunday (November 25, 2001) is a Jazz-a-thon. It's 13 hours of music that starts at 11:00am, featuring the bands of Sharon Minemoto, Campbell Ryga, Bruno Hubert, Kate Hammett-Vaughan, Bruce Nielsen, Karen Plato, and many more. We're not telling people who plays when, you gotta take your best shot at coming down and supporting The Cellar. Admission is $20, and it's going to pay for licensing upgrades and fire system improvements, as required by the City in order for The Cellar to stay open.

JO: What would your advice be to someone else doing this sometime down the line?

CW: Be patient. Establish, maintain and cultivate relationships with musicians, that's been my biggest asset. Without the musicians, you just won't go anywhere. And whether it's through my radio show [on Co-Op Radio] or my concert promoting, I've worked hard at cultivating those relationship and I have built trust within the musician community and that bodes well for a lot of things.

JO: A year ago you said: "I've always had a passion for music and I've never quite placed exactly where that passion is the greatest, and [owning The Cellar] is just another experiment to find out if this is where my passion for music lies, while remaining extremely close to it." Have you come closer to figuring out where that passion lies?

CW: Trying to categorize where my passion lies and how it all fits might have been a lofty thing to try to do. When I'm right in the middle of solo, sitting in with somebody, I think my passion lies in playing music. And when I'm thinking about running a successful jazz club, and promoting jazz, I think my passion is in that. I'm kind of realizing that maybe my passion doesn't have to be in one place.

JO: Any final words?

CW: The musicians, media, staff and fan base of The Cellar have been really, really good to me, and the club, and people have remained patient through the growing pains; we'll still continue to go through growing pains, and even though we've been open 15 months, it's not a long time. I'm thankful to all those who have helped make The Cellar a success.

Writer/Photographer Josephine Ochej is a regular contributor to The Jazz Review, the Westender and Coda Magazine.

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Also by Josephine Ochej on vancouverJazz.com:

Chris Tarry Interview
Jazz Festival Photo Diary