Jazz on Main St.
The Blue LLama opens.
From the April, 2019 issue
After a hiatus of nearly ten years, Ann Arbor again has a venue dedicated to jazz. The Blue LLama Jazz Club holds its official grand opening--featuring famed jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis and his quintet--on April 5. UPDATE: Marsalis cancelled for health reasons. Opening weekend features famed jazz organist Joey DeFranceso.
Behind the new club is a diverse trio composed of a tech entrepreneur, a cross-genre musical innovator, and a renowned executive chef.
The Blue LLama's name comes from Ann Arbor-based software company LLamasoft, which owner Don Hicks founded in 1998 and ran until last year (he remains board chair). A jazz fan, Hicks approached Dave Sharp about filling the gap left when the Firefly Club closed in 2009. Sharp, a teacher, composer, and the leader of the Dave Sharp World Quartet, has been at the forefront of Ann Arbor's jazz scene for years.
Completing the triumvirate is executive chef Louis Goral, who appeared on the Food Network show Chopped last year and until recently worked under Iron Chef Jose Garces in Manhattan. Their collaboration, says Goral, comes together to promote "a love of food and a love of music."
Sharp says the Blue LLama will bring in some of the biggest names in jazz and jazz fusion, like Marsalis, Ravi Coltrane, Kurt Elling, and Arturo Sandoval (who performed at the club's prelaunch at Zingerman's Greyline in October). They'll also be showcasing artists from West Africa, India, Brazil, and elsewhere. And, "We are going to be reaching out to the community and featuring student jazz programs on all levels," Sharp says, including middle school, high school, and U-M groups.
The Blue LLama's design takes inspiration from famous jazz clubs, including the Green Mill in Chicago and Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola in New York (Hicks hired the same designers who created Dizzy's). They've put special thought into the acoustics of the space. "A lot of restaurants in town have live music," says Sharp, "but it's usually placed in the corner."
the menu of small, shareable nouveau American plates as "jazz-influenced but not cheesy ... We've been doing a lot of research into what jazz musicians actually ate," he says. The foie gras peanut butter & jelly sandwich (really Marcona almond butter, plus house strawberry jam and foie gras torchon) was inspired by Billie Holiday's favorite fried PB&J. Other plates include Hokkaido scallops and bacon-wrapped artichokes, plus a charcuterie selection.
Hicks and Sharp developed the concept for Blue LLama while coaching their sons' soccer team. Both lamented the loss of Ann Arbor's once-thriving jazz scene. "My friend, back in the Eighties, saw Dizzy Gillespie at the Bird of Paradise ... one of the greatest living jazz legends was just about a block away from here," says Sharp wistfully.
It's never been a lucrative niche: the Firefly Club was closed by the state after falling behind in its taxes. But Sharp, Goral, and Hicks think their multipronged approach will bring success. "Our goal right out of the gate is to really wow people with the food, the beverage, the music, and the service," says Goral. The club will have a cover charge for big names; for other acts, patrons will have the option to tip the musicians on their food bills.
"The thing I'm looking forward to the most is being able to present music in a way where people can really listen to it and really enjoy it," Sharp says--"where the musicians have a good experience, and people in the audience have a good experience."
Blue LLama, 314 S Main. Opens Apr. 5. Wed.-Sat. 5 p.m.-11 p.m., Sun. brunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Closed Mon. & Tue. bluellamaclub.com
[Originally published in April, 2019.]
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