How Art Thou Jazz Lounge and Tapas Bar is a cozy, unassuming place tucked next to the Terrace Theater on James Island. The venue has hosted live jazz for years — hell, jazz is in the name — but it wasn't until recently that this little tapas bar and lounge started playing host to national acts.
This is the handiwork of upstate New York transplant Rob Rosenblum, who, after moving to Summerville, sought out local bars interested in becoming jazz clubs. He found just that at How Art Thou, where he is now in charge of the venue's marketing and publicity.
"My goal is to stir the pot a little bit and to bring more outside talent into Charleston," says Rosenblum. And in the short time he's been here, he's succeeded, creating a monthly jazz program at How Art Thou featuring internationally acclaimed musicians.
This weekend, in the program's third installment, guitar virtuoso Jack Wilkins graces the café's intimate stage for a three-show run, Thurs.-Sat. at 7 p.m.
Rosenblum has been in a similar situation before, revitalizing a stagnant jazz scene in Albany, N.Y. by bringing in outsiders. "The local players got to play with [national talent] and as a result they really grew. And as a result jazz really grew. So they had a lot more opportunities to play, but they also got to see another view of how jazz can and should be performed," he says.
Rosenblum wants to bring that same artistic growth to the Charleston area. Now retired, after years of various jobs within the music industry, the work he's doing at How Art Thou is strictly on a volunteer basis. He's not getting paid a penny. And he likes it that way, putting in the work for the love of the music and doing it alongside a passionate partner, How Art Thou owner David Berger. "He really loves making a mark on the jazz climate of Charleston," says Rosenblum. "He's very determined and I'm very determined."
"Jazz is a great art form but it's dying," says Rosenblum. "So it needs people who have some sort of dedication to bring it back. And one of the ways you gotta bring it back is to strive for excellence. Strive for major league level music. And you can't do that with just the local talent."
Rosenblum speaks from experience. The 68-year-old has been a part of multiple jazz scenes throughout his life and he's seen how the infusion of national talent inspires competition and growth. "Local jazz is really important. Really important. But it's gonna lose its vibrancy unless it has those outside injections from these major players," he says.
Hence, the monthly showcases. There will still be the weekly local acts at How Art Thou where patrons can come and relax, perhaps converse amongst each other, not necessarily devoting their complete attention to the players on stage. But for these special monthly performances, the space is transformed into a listening room. Or to put it more bluntly: If you're not here for the music, get out.
An attentive crowd is crucial. "One of the things I always say to the audience is, 'you are the most important members of the band,'" says Rosenblum. "And they really are. If they're not giving the band their attention and responding to the band, the band cannot play at its best."
They've also implemented a cover charge — standard issue at any other venue. "There's no way we can have that caliber of musician play without some sort of cover charge," says Rosenblum.
This is only the beginning of what could be a crucial building block within the local jazz culture. But first thing's first, they have to get noticed. "We're the only club that I know of that on a regular basis is gonna be having national jazz acts," says Rosenblum. "But I just don't think a lot of the potential jazz people really know we exist yet."
The top talent they're showcasing should be evidence enough that this is a place worth knowing. And the performers stopping through certainly see the potential. "All the musicians I've spoken to have been very supportive," says Rosenblum. "They've been giving us very good prices to keep it affordable because they understand we're trying to build something here."
And Rosenblum and Berger have equaled that generosity, not only providing an appreciative audience and a paycheck, but also opening their homes and serving as hosts to the out-of-town musicians.
It's that kind of dedication that is necessary when trying to build a reputation of the top jazz club in town. Says Rosenblum, "What we wanna do is create a club that musicians really love playing in. Because if they love playing in it, the music that they create will be that much more vibrant."
And perhaps it will provide a nice shot in the arm for the local jazz scene.