Written by Juan Rodriguez – the Gazette
With its classic wood paneling, stone walls, long bar, and elegant linen covered tables Upstairs Jazz Bar & Grill is an intimate throwback to the golden age where musicians and fans alike considered jazz clubs a home away from home – a social meeting place, a headquarters, and above all a place of inspired musicality. As such, Upstairs is Montreal’s leading jazz club, presenting music 52 weeks a year in an atmosphere that encourages attentive listening, facilitated by a first–class sound system filling the cozy semi-basement.
Whether you like your jazz accompanied by a variety of libations and snacks or full course meals, Upstairs offers an optimum musical experience. Call it the art of making it an evening – as dressed-up or casual as you like.
Upstairs has hosted leading international exponents in jazz, encompassing a wide variety of styles, including Sheila Jordan, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Mark Turner, Larry Grenadier, Ingrid Jensen, David Binney, David Liebman, Houston Person, Mark Murphy, Jim Black, Greg Osby, Nate Smith, Bill Stewart, Tim Hagans, John Hicks, Donnie McCaslin, Ben Mondor, Antonio Sanchez and such local leaders as Christine Jensen, Renée Lee, Joel Miller, Chet Doxas, Lorraine Desmarais, Steve Amireault, François Bourassa, Jean Derome, Jeff Johnstone, Julie Lamontagne, and many more.
While Upstairs has become a key “intime” venue at the annual Montreal International Jazz Festival, the club also symbolizes jazz as a year-round affair in Montreal. The club is headquarters for the city’s finest musicians, no matter what style they play in. It has been the site of live recordings and it hosts numerous CD launchings, and its Monday night jam sessions, led by drummer Jim Doxas, amount to works-in-progress on the local scene.
Musicians appreciate the classy amenities at Upstairs. On showcase nights (Fridays and Saturdays), from the moment the lighting dims and club owner Joel Giberovitch’s voice intones a polite advisory that this is a jazz concert and silence would be appreciated, the musicians own the stage, and attention levels throughout the club quickly hit their peak. The club’s crystal clear sound system accentuates this vibe.
With its décor complemented by a panel of vintage album covers, a strip of autographed photos of musicians along a ceiling, and an impressively large framed photo of Sonny Rollins towards the back terrace, Upstairs spells jazz. Giberovitch describes running Upstairs over the years as “an education in jazz. My appreciation of the city’s great musicians has grown enormously over the years.”
Located in the heart of the city’s business and college hub, Upstairs also attracts a faithful luncheon clientele.
UPSTAIRS: THE MUSICAL PHILOSOPHY
Joel Giberovitch was studying political science at Concordia, when his father Sid, the original owner of Kojaks and the El Coyote restaurant, asked him if he wanted to get involved in a place that had gone bankrupt. So he started Upstairs in April 1995 as a simple piano bar, with pub-like food and an atmosphere that engendered backgammon and the like. A year later he realized his vision for the locale was different than his dad’s, so he set out for New York City and visited as many jazz clubs as he could. “Such clubs as The Village Vanguard, the Blue Note, Bradleys, and Smalls all left a big impression on me, and I came back inspired to give Montreal a New York-style jazz club.”
“I had a vision of jazz, food, ambience and service. To be honest, I wasn’t into jazz when I was growing up. I don’t have a technical background in it. But by listening to our original pianists, like Norman Zubis and Ernie Nelson, and getting exposed to the musicians and the music, I was like, ‘Wow, I love this music,’ 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.”
He remembers booking the legendary and reclusive guitarist Sonny Greenwich and “being so thrilled that I jumped up and smacked my head on one of the low ceilings at the back here, bleeding all over!” He’s proud to add: “Every time Sonny has played in Montreal in the past 15 years it’s been at Upstairs.”
Chef Juan Barros entered the picture about three years later with a menu that makes the dining-and-jazz experience complete. “Upstairs became a combination of both of our visions,” says Joel. “I’ve learned through my own experiences but also through the expertise of other people. I’ve surrounded myself with people who know more than I do in certain areas. As long as you have a strong vision and are willing to grow, I think you attract good people.”
The downtown location of Upstairs naturally connects with players, students, teachers, and music entrepreneurs, not to mention the lunchtime regulars: “We’re very lucky in that we have several universities with great music schools: Mcgill, Concordia, Université de Montreal, UQAM, Vanier College, Marianopolos, so there’s a very high level of musicians teaching here. We have a very strong sense of community in the jazz scene. Then there’s the jazz festival, which not only brings in a ton of international acts, but also supports Montreal musicians, most of whom have played at Upstairs. We also have the Off Festival, and strong record labels in Justin Time and Effendi, and we have good media and jazz journalists, people dedicated to keeping jazz in the spotlight.
“I’ve always said that I don’t have a jazz background, but I like music that touches my heart. So once I book a 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 a musician, that’s our whole premise. I think that’s why people come to Upstairs, because they can listen to the standards as well as a very high level of original compositions.”
CHEF JUAN BARROS & UPSTAIRS FOOD
“Let’s talk about food,” we proposed to Juan Barros, chef at Upstairs. “Let’s talk about life, let’s talk about music,” he replied with a smile.
When Barros proposed to Joel Giberovitch that he serve a full meal at the grand media opening of Upstairs, in 1996, he casually mentioned that later down the line they might work together. The partnership has bloomed into a symbiotic relationship where each partner knows each other’s needs, desires and passions.
“Joel has a very strong vision of what he wants. He likes things to be done well. I think I have the same attitude towards life. It’s got to be done well or I won’t do it. We enjoy the freedom to respect each other the way we are. Besides my family, I don’t trust anyone as much as I trust Joel. He’s my best friend in Montreal.”
Barros came to Canada in 1975 at age 20, leaving Chile after it was overtaken by the dictator Gen. Pinochet. He worked in several restaurants in Vancouver, where much of his family lives, including the Four Seasons Hotel. In Montreal, he worked in a number of bistros on Mont-Royal Avenue and the Le Plateau area before arriving at Upstairs.
“Music is the spine of the club. Food, wine, service and the look of the place are the complements. It helps that Upstairs is an old location with a lot of character. Jazz might be considered an intellectual music, not for everybody. You might say you need a certain kind of cultural awareness to enjoy it. It’s not something that pops up like a spring mushroom – it has a very strong history. To help make the music accessible you need a menu and ambience that can please everybody.
“That, like the music itself, means variety. At Upstairs you’re welcome if you have fries for $4 or a filet mignon for $20. If you have a glass of beer or a $50 bottle of wine, you will be treated in the same way. The whole idea is that everything turns around the music.”
Just as jazz is a flowing reservoir of flavours, so too are the spicings and taste combinations created by Barros.
“I love the history of food. We should all give big thanks to Marco Polo, because he’s the one who brought all those spices to Europe. Coriander, cilantro, ginger. Before the Spaniards came to America, potatoes were unheard of in Europe. It was the Incas who grew them. If you know the history of food and flavours you can put your own imprint on a dish and know it’s going to work out.”
It’s this approach that compels customers to come back for more. Barros explains his methods:
“You have to be kind to fish, whether cooking it on the grill or in the oven. To avoid overcooking you need to stay vigilant, resulting in fish that slides apart in a soft way instead of crumbling apart. I like to play around with different sauces. Nobody I know makes mahi-mahi with a fresh salsa (finely diced cilantro, onion, tomato with lemon and lime juice). Very few people use cream sauces with fish. Tuna with a cassis sauce is very different but very popular. We sell pretty much across the menu. That’s the beauty and satisfaction of it.”
Is there a secret to the famous French fries served at Upstairs?
“French fries are homemade from Yukon Gold potatoes. After you cut them you need to wash them really well and remove as much starch as you can (which prevents dirty fryers), then blanch them in a clean vegetable oil fryer, and do it every day. Similarly, our burgers are not pre-prepared or frozen but made daily.
“Foodwise you have to be as fresh as you can. The key to making sure the food is right is order very little and very often. It takes more effort but it’s the best way. I don’t subscribe to the theory of defrosting food in the microwave. There’s nothing better than to cook something with that 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 with time, because everything you throw away is money. Being a small club, we’re careful that way. We keep things very clean.
“It’s a wonderful experience. I never check the time I should go home, the job is done when the job is done, it’s very simple, whatever it takes.
“We constantly reinvest in the place –there’s a $30,000 piano sitting there. The chairs are not cheap. I don’t want to use the word slick, but I think the club does have a certain refined quality. We have an extremely good sound system. You feel like you’re in a place with a history. Many lives and many minds have passed through here. I’ve stood on stage when the place is full, and it’s a good-looking view. It gives you that extra energy you need.”
UPSTAIRS & THE LEN DOBBIN LEGACY
Upstairs was also headquarters for Len Dobbin, the dean of Montreal jazz broadcasters and, as his calling card announced, “friend of jazz since 1948.” No one did more than this beloved figure in promoting the club and the musicians who played there. He was a regular every weekend, and often stopped in for lunch. It was somehow fitting that it was at Upstairs, in his favourite bar chair nearest the stage, that the indefatigable Dobbin suffered the fatal stroke that felled him, at age 74 in 2009. Reminders of Len’s presence are on the club’s walls: “Len’s legacy will always be with us,” says Giberovitch.
Dobbin was a small rumpled man with a W.C Fields nose, a raffish Cesar Romero mustache, and a slight stoop, like an old guy out of an R. Crumb cartoon. He proudly wore his weathered baseball cap emblazoned with the distinctive upside-down Upstairs logo.
Dobbin had gone through a plethora of famous local jazz clubs from Montreal’s heyday as a city that never slept – the Café St. Michel, Casa Loma, the Esquire, and many more – before adopting Upstairs as his meeting spot in his last years. He was there virtually every weekend, attended sound checks, and often stopped by for lunch to drop off the playlists that he programmed for Dorothée Berryman’s highly rated weekend jazz show on Radio-Canada, or to hang with Joel Giberovitch, offering his input and opinions.
Joel recalls: “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 Len.”
Towards the back of the club are testimonials and newspaper clippings on his passing, like a little sacred jazz shrine.
“Every year for the jazz festival Len would come in for conversations on whom to book. With everybody else on an iPhone or Blackberry, Len had his trusty old paper phone book, and he went through A to Z with me. I’d call musicians and simply say, ‘I’m a friend of Len,’ and that opened instant respect and credibility.”
“He was a very strong personality, he knew what he liked and what he didn’t like. He was very secure with who he was. His mission was not monetary but simply to promote the music. It was instinctive to him. Also, there were no layers to him: Len was Len, no bull about him, as honest a person as I’ve ever met.”
Chef Juan Barros waxes nostalgic about Len’s devotion to the music and its makers: “In his stories he remembered every single detail. It was all about people, he was very attached to moments in his life. Besides his huge collection of music, that was his biggest treasure in life, the moments. In those moments, he found the real meaning of life for him.”
UPSTAIRS & THE MUSICIANS
Christine Jensen, alto saxophonist and composer, has appeared at Upstairs in numerous formats: in evolving groups with or without her partner Joel Miller, with her sister Ingrid (one of the top trumpeters on the U.S. scene), and in other combinations. Her latest album, Treelines, with the Christine Jensen Orchestra featuring Ingrid Jensen (on Justin Time Records), is a critically hailed work that features many of the musicians who play at Upstairs:
“It’s been a homey environment for me. Joel has always made it comfortable for me to feel free to evolve my music and do whatever I like at Upstairs. It’s a rare thing to be treated with that kind of respect.”
Jim Doxas, drummer, leads the Monday night jam sessions at Upstairs. He’s also a regular in groups led by pianist Oliver Jones and his brother, tenor saxophonist Chet Doxas.
Sheila Jordan, internationally known singer with an intimate style all her own, has been performing since 194? and appears regularly at Upstairs. Her latest recording [title] was waxed there. Jordan was a deep longtime friend of Len Dobbin. Whenever she would end her set with, The Crossing, about alcoholism, “It was like a private concert for Len and her,” says Joel Giberovitch.
UPSTAIRS & THE FUTURE
“I want Upstairs to be special and different,” says Joel. “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 that’s tuned and a great sound system. It’s all about details. We like to make sure our chairs are comfortable, because people are going to be sitting for two, three hours. Behind the bar, when the music’s on we don’t shake our martinis, we stir them, we don’t make cappuccinos while there’s a bass solo going on.”
Joel credits Richard Zakarian, one of his best friends, with designing the lighting and sound systems, as well as the recent refurbishing of the bar – now embedded with vinyl records by jazz greats.
“I book music that I enjoy and speaks to my heart. I like music with melodies, that I can tap my feet and bob my head to. A lot of 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 aim to reach that happy medium. By exposing people to that medium, we’re opening up the market. We feel we can make this music grow. Way back when, in the heyday of jazz (the 30s and 40s) there was less competing varieties of music, but that doesn’t mean that jazz can’t expand.
“The people who work at Upstairs really love the music. We book jazz 364 nights a year, and sometimes maybe we take that for granted, because I can say that 99.9 percent of the time my relations with musicians are great. Because our place is small, we have to run a tight ship, but my motivation is not totally financial – 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 this understanding that we have each other’s best interests at heart. Ultimately what comes from that stage is what people are going to walk away with and have a strong influence on their evening.”