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
Josephine Ochej: Whatever possessed you to buy a club?
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
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
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
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
JO: What are your thoughts on the current state of Vancouver's jazz
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
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
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,
JO: Tell me about the big benefit happening Sunday, November 25,
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
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
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.