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Beginning this Thursday, Montreal’s Upstairs Jazz Bar and Grill marks its 20th anniversary with 11 nights of high-level gigs that will showcase visiting American greats such as John Abercrombie, Jim Black, Houston Person and Edmar Casteneda as well as Montrealers Oliver Jones, Ranee Lee and Jean-Michel Pilc.

It’s a credit to the savvy and tenacity of Upstairs owner and music director Joel Giberovitch, who jumped into his business in 1995 when he was just 23 and fresh out of university, at the suggestion of his restaurateur father.

Below, Giberovitch reflects on his club’s history, which is well worth celebrating this month — and after that, for that matter.

What prompted you to get in to the jazz club business back in 1995?

I was at Concordia University in poli sci and I was working at my father’s restaurant El Coyote, a Mexican restaurant on Bishop Street.

Then this place, Upstairs on Mackay, had gone bankrupt. Its owner (Chris Gore), approached my father. They knew each other from being in business on the same block, and asked if he was interested in getting it started again.

My father came to me and said, “Listen, here’s an opportunity.” I had some money saved… and he said, “
Take that money, we can put it into here, get a license and stock and we’ll see where this can go.” I jumped at the opportunity.

I was 23. I think it was my saving grace, if I had actually known what I was doing I don’t know if I would have done it.

The first 10 years were eye-opening in the sense that I had no training, no schooling in business. I had waited, bartended, worked in the kitchen, I learned everything hands-on, mostly through mistakes. Most of the money I made was through tips. Until I was 30 I was working as a waiter.

We bought Chris out after one year. I was partners with my father, then I bought my father out. We had very different visions.

How so?

When I had taken it over it was more of a piano bar. Then I went to New York, about two and half years after I first walked into here. I just got inspired. I wanted to turn Upstairs into more of a serious music jazz club. My vision was very clear as to what I wanted to do.

I got so motivated. Here was electricity running through my veins — the Village Vanguard, Bradleys, Smalls, I went to so many. And Sweet Basil. I went to as many as I could. I was like a pinball bouncing from club to club.

I wanted to have a listening room. That to me was the most important thing. And to have a concert hall in a jazz club setting. That was really the strong vision. All of my moves after that were really about that.

How did Upstairs raise its game over time?

(Montreal bassist) Brian Hurley was one of the first musicians who showed me the potential, bringing in musicians from out of town. We started to import music from Toronto. Don Thompson, Mike Murley, Sonny Greenwich’s band, Brian Dickinson, Roy Patterson. I mixed Montreal and Toronto.We did renovations, we moved the bathrooms back and had the stage at the back.

We started to charge a ticket price. We started off at $2, and there was some pushback for sure.

The nice thing is that Upstairs already had a clientele. We were very close to Concordia (University). There was a slow transition. The backgammon and speed chess players, that clientele slowly said this wasn’t for us.  We replaced them with people who wanted to pay a ticket price and listen to the music.

The concept was great jazz club, respect for the music, respect for the musicians.

On the food side, the vision and the passion for the food really came from (chef) Juan Barros. He came over about three years into it.

That’s when the concept really solidified. My passion and his vision for creating a great restaurant are both strong on their own. I always wanted the food to stand on its own and I always wanted the music to stand on its own.

Another milestone was our 10 year anniversary. That’s when we got our Yamaha, a C3. That’s when I would say things changed. A good piano was key… It gave us a lot of credibility. I think there was a lot of publicity around the 10-year event. When you’re a small business and you don’t have deep pockets you really take baby steps.

That was also the first series we put together. A series is a very different thing. You really put a lot of thought into it, making it diverse, appealing to different genres within jazz.

Another milestone. When Andre Menard, a few years after 10 year anniversary.. You really should be a venue during the Montreal jazz festival. That was another way for us to gain a lot of exposure. It kind of put us on the map. It’s part of the story.

From then, we’ve just been working hard at doing what we do, make sure we’re always tweaking and staying relevant.

Who are some of the artists that have played Upstairs during the jazz festival?

Barry Harris, the Heath Brothers, Sheila Jordan, Helen Merrill, Tom Harrell, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Jimmy Cobb, Peter Bernstein, Russell Malone, Fred Hersch, Kenny Werner, Bill Charlap, Christian Scott.

And you have what I call the Small’s musicians. Gilad Hekselman, Rick Rosato, Aaron Goldberg, Nir Felder, Mark Guiliana…

How much of a jazz fan are you?

At the beginning, I would listen to more vocal-oriented music, the Frank Sinatra, the Louis Armstrong, the stuff that’s a little bit more accessible.

This music has become my music of preference. It’s definitely the music that I listen to the most, the music that I enjoy the most. There’s the type of jazz for whatever feeling you’re feeling. That’s the great thing about jazz.

It’s become part of who I am in terms of promoting this music. Maybe people are closed to it in terms of something that they heard. I say to them, I’m going to play you some music you’re going to love. I guarantee it.

That’s part of the responsibility of a club, to educate and promote this music. I think that’s what we try to do at Upstairs. I’m so proud of what we do here.

It’s a fine line, balancing the arts and business. I think after 20 years, we found our rhythm. We love what we do.

The musicians are the easiest people do deal with. They want to be on stage, they want to share their music people.

On a business level, one of the highlights is that I bought this building a year and a half ago. It allowed me to assure the future of Upstairs. This is where I am, this is where I want to be. That’s a pretty cool thing. I’m really proud of that accomplishment.

What have some of your highlights been in terms of shows at the club?

I think the Tom Harrell shows really touched me. He made me very feel very appreciative of the fact that we’re able to do what we do.

Sheila (Jordan) was really magical — 85 years old and such a testament to aging gracefully and with strength.

When you present live music, you get some nights that are magical. Music is a trigger of memories. I think we’re able to give that to people, people who were engaged here, people who came here on their first date. Kind of a good beginning.

[Giberovitch did not mention this concert, but I think it’s a pretty good one. Go to 3:27 to get right into the music, which features New York drummer Ari Hoenig spurring on Montrealers Andre Leroux and Francois Bourassa  — PH]

What about the albums recorded at Upstairs? 

Kenny Werner’s solo album. Normand Guilbeault recorded here, Matt Herskovitch too. The album that we recorded here with Ranee Lee won a Juno. That’s something that adds to the soul of a place.

What about the lowlights of your two decades at Upstairs?

Len (Dobbin) passing away here, July 8, 2009. It’s a lowlight, Len Dobbin was such an important friend to me. He walked in, he was feeling great, he was walking around talking to everybody, in a really good mood, he was here as much for the sound checks as for the shows. He was the definition of someone who dedicated his life to the music.

He happened to be here, he ordered a coffee, and he sat down, and he kind of waved me over, and said I don’t feel well, He said everything is upside down. We called an ambulance and it came, he was brought out on a stretcher, I think I was kind of rubbing his head with a cloth. We called his family and we went to the hospital and later that night he passed way.

It’s strange, Len could have been anywhere. The place where he passed, surrounded by people who loved him. It’s almost like he chose it. It’s a low, but in another way it’s sort of a beautiful story.

I think of Len daily. I think he passed away on his own terms.

Business-wise, there have been some lows. But I have no regrets. Through lows, I learned some of the most valuable lessons. I always rebounded and I don’t know how to give up. I guess I’m very persistent.

What hopes do you have for Upstairs as it enters its third decade?

To enjoy it as much as I’ve enjoyed it for the last 20 years. It’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle, and I love it. I feel very fortunate that I do love it. I don’t count the hours when I’m here.

I have a young family now. I have a great family. I have two amazing kids. I have a great family balance between my work and my family life. I feel lucky that I have that balance.

My kids are taking music lessons. I’m not a musician but I think music is such as beautiful language. I want my kids to be exposed to it.

If my life can continue in the same direction of the last 20 years, I’m a happy man.

Upstairs Jazz Bar and Grill 20th Anniversary series:

Thursday Nov. 12 – PILC \ HOENING \ HOLLINS TRIO
6.30 and 8:45 p.m. – $25

Friday Nov. 13 – EDMAR CASTANEDA
7 and 9:45 p.m. – $32.50

Saturday Nov. 14 – RANEE LEE – Tribute to Billie Holiday
7 and 9:45 p.m. – $32.50

6:30 and 9.45 p.m. – $40

Monday Nov. 16
Réalisé par Guylaine Dionne – 6 p.m.

Tuesday Nov. 17 -JIM BLACK TRIO
6:30 and 8:45 p.m. $27.50

Wednesday Nov. 18 – OLIVER JONES TRIO
6:30 and 8:45 p.m. $65

6:30 and 8:45 p.m. $38.50

7 and 9:45 p.m. $38.50

Saturday Nov. 21 – ORAN ETKIN QUARTET
What’s New? Reimagining Bennie Goodman
7 and 9:45 p.m. $28.50

6:30 and 8:45 p.m. $25

More info here.

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