“When the sax is blowing, Upstairs Jazz stirs the martinis”
by Juan Rodriguez, Freelance January 13, 2011
Originally published on MontrealGazette.com
Owner Joel Giberovitch (left) and chef Juan Barros get the credit for making Upstairs Jazz Bar & Grill a throwback to the ’40s, when music, food and drink meant a perfect night on the town.
Photograph by: Marie-France Coallier, The Gazette, Freelance
As a small club specializing in a music that many people don’t care to understand, Upstairs Jazz Bar & Grill has done quite nicely, thank you, since the site was opened 15 years ago. The semi-basement spot on MacKay St. with the distinctive upsidedown logo -and stone walls, wood panelling, linen-covered tables and long bar recently embedded with albums -is a throwback to the great clubs of the ’40s, when music, food and drink meant a perfect night on the town.
Little wonder that Upstairs was headquarters for Len Dobbin, the longtime local “friend of jazz” and our town’s leading jazz radio host, who was smitten by the music growing up during the ’40s. And it was somehow fitting that Len was sitting in his familiar chair at the foot of the bar when he suffered the stroke that killed him in 2009.
“Len’s legacy will always be with us,” says owner Joel Giberovitch, who was admittedly a jazz neophyte when he started the club. “Imagine me, introducing jazz fans to Len Dobbin, who was the encyclopedia of jazz. They’d ask him questions, ‘When did this happen, who did that?’ and when Len answered he wasn’t reading from a book but from his own experiences. It was important to Len to support these musicians, and lots of musicians came to Upstairs specifically because of him. I’d call musicians and simply say, ‘I’m a friend of Len,’ and that opened instant respect and credibility.” Toward the back of the club are testimonials and newspaper clippings on his passing, like a sacred little jazz shrine.
Among those to play Upstairs are such international jazz stars as Sheila Jordan, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Mark Turner, Larry Grenadier, Ingrid Jensen, David Binney, David Liebman, Houston Person, Mark Murphy, Greg Osby, John Hicks, Donnie McCaslin, Ben Mondor, and Sonny Greenwich, as well as the local creme de la creme, such as Christine Jensen, Ranee Lee, Joel Miller, Chet and Jim Doxas, Lorraine Desmarais, Steve Amireault, Francois Bourassa, Jean Derome, Jeff Johnstone, and many more.
Giberovitch was studying political science at Concordia when his father Sid, who founded the nearby Kojak’s and El Coyote eateries, invited him to get involved in a place that had gone bankrupt. Thus Upstairs began in 1995 as a simple piano bar, with a lot of backgammon on the side. The son eventually developed “a different vision” for the place than his dad and travelled to New York to visit such legendary night spots as The Village Vanguard, the Blue Note, Bradleys, and Smalls.
“They all made a big impression on me, and I came back inspired to give Montreal a New York-style jazz club.”
The music hooked him because “it touches upon so many different emotions. If you’re sad, you can listen to Billie Holiday, if you’re happy there’s Louis Armstrong, for introspective moods there’s Miles Davis.”
Jazz can be a scary word for some who think it takes a special knowledge to appreciate it, but Giberovitch amends that by saying, “I like music that touches my heart. So when I book, say, Christine Jensen, it’s because I like her music. And once she goes on that stage it’s her game, and I’ll make sure she has the right environment to perform a great concert. Music is all about creativity. You can’t put limits on musicians.”
Another key to success is chef Juan Barros’s superior bistro food, which also guarantees a faithful lunchtime clientele. Ask him why he came to Canada from Chile in 1975 at age 20 and he replies tersely: “The dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet. I had hopes of going back, but the disappointment with Latin American politics set in. My idealistic feeling towards Chile” -the first Marxist-Leninist government elected through the democratic process, led by Salvador Allende -”dissipated very quickly. People went back to the same stupid things that helped the fall of the social-democratic government that we put in.”
Barros says that jazz is “not something that pops up like a spring mushroom -it has a very strong history. You might say you need a certain kind of cultural awareness to enjoy it. To help make the music accessible, you need a menu and ambience that can please everybody.
“The key to making sure the food is fresh is order very little and very often. It takes more effort but it’s the best way.” That means no microwave defrosting. “There’s nothing better than to cook something with natural texture. Maybe I do things the old-fashioned way, but that’s the way I am. It’s constant preparation. You get to know how much to make because everything you throw away is money.
“I don’t want to use the word slick, but I think the club does have a certain refined quality. You feel like you’re in a place with a history. Many lives and many minds have passed through here.”
Giberovitch adds: “I like to think I’m a long-term person, so I invest in the future. We’re always looking to improve. Above all, there has to be quality. So we’re happy to invest in a good piano and a great sound system. It’s all about details. Behind the bar, when the music’s on we don’t shake our martinis, we stir them, and we don’t make cappuccinos while there’s a bass solo going on.
“People come to Upstairs because they can rely on the fact that they’ll enjoy the music. Jazz is all encompassing, and there’s something for everyone. We feel we can make this music grow.
“Because our place is small, we have to run a tight ship. But it’s more a passion to accomplishing my dreams of making this a special place, just like the aim of musicians is developing their art. We kind of have an understanding that we have each other’s best interests at heart.”