February 2008 Issue
All That Jazz
A world-renowned jazz club, a beloved watering hole and an upscale restaurant.Â Nighttown in Cleveland Heights manages to be all things to all people.
Photography by Billy Delfs
Yes, there are spots other than Cleveland Heights’ Nighttown where visitors can listen to jazz music in Ohio.
But name one whose atmosphere is so inviting that none other than Wynton Marsalis has been inspired to stroll in and play an impromptu performance until the wee hours in front of a slack-jawed crowd. Three times.
And name one that has earned such a wealth of accolades that it has been hailed by such disparate publications as venerable jazz magazine Down Beat – citing Nighttown as one of the “100 best jazz clubs in the world” – and celebrity tabloid Star, which breathlessly noted that when actress Halle Berry visits her hometown, “the Oscar winner makes sure to stop by the popular Nighttown restaurant.”
In the unlikely event that you do uncover a spot as celebrated, you still won’t find one with a cast of characters as unique as those that filled Nighttown one chilly November evening for a performance by the Count Basie Orchestra – who, despite their legendary status and more than a half-century of swinging, revere Nighttown so much that they called the club and asked to play on its modest stage.
The assembled are regulars like John Klima, who’s perched on a stool with a drink in one hand and an unlit cigar in the other, and who sets both aside to enthusiastically wave his fingers like batons in perfect time to classic swing hit, “Corner Pocket” – and virtually every other tune.
Or Shaker Heights artist Chris Davis, who sits quietly at a table, bent over a sketch pad, nodding his head to the beat while drawing portraits of his smiling father, Tom, seated across from him.
Ask him why he comes here to do something so private, with the distraction of a crowd of jazz enthusiasts and an 18-piece band just a few feet away, and his answer is simple:
“Because I love this place. It’s a treasure.”
What accounts for its appeal? You could make the mistake of simply describing it in a technical manner. Nighttown, named after the Dublin red-light district in James Joyce’s novel, Ulysses, is an unassuming building perched at the top of Cedar Hill, started by original owner John Barr (a Joyce fan and jazz lover) in 1965. It consists of four distinctive dining areas, including one with a staging area for jazz acts, and another whose decor features iconic images taken by former Cleveland Press and Plain Dealer photographers (Nighttown houses the visual archives of the Press Club of Cleveland); three bars, one of which is home to Barr’s beloved bust of James Joyce; and a heated outdoor patio, open 11 months of the year – a layout that allows it the unique personalities of a cool night club, authentic Irish pub and upscale restaurant all in one.
Throw in the fact that it’s one of the only places in the city where you can get a full meal until midnight – sumptuous signature items like the one singled out by the Star as Halle Berry’s favorite, the Dublin Lawyer: lobster sauteed in cayenne butter with mushrooms, scallions, Irish whiskey and cream – and it’s no wonder countless Clevelanders make Nighttown their special-occasion destination, ranging from first dates to wedding anniversaries to birthdays for celebrants aged one to 100.
“Actually, 101 now,” says Jim Wads-worth, who books music for Nighttown. He notes that when the family of area resident Viktor Schreckengost sought a place to pay homage to the renowned 101-year-old artist last year, Nighttown – one of his most frequent hangouts – was a natural choice.
But for regulars like Schreckengost, the appeal of the place extends beyond the lure of the music or the love of the food. It lies in the unconventional yet harmonious mix of the establishment’s customers.
Black and white, young and old, plumbers and politicians – on any given night, the makeup of the people that pass through Nighttown’s doors could mirror the city itself.
“It has to be the most inclusive club in Cleveland,” says Brendan Ring, Nighttown’s owner since buying it from Barr in 2001. “It’s that type of place where everyone feels comfortable.”
That welcoming air is precisely what drew Ring to Nighttown back in 1992, an Irish immigrant who’d left his tiny hometown of Cahirciveen eight years earlier seeking work in America. After time spent in New York City, where he tended bar by day and frequented jazz clubs at night, Ring’s arrival in Cleveland was serendipitous: A jazz spot whose name was inspired by a famous Irish figure couldn’t have been a more perfect fit.
“John Barr was the one who educated me about jazz,” says Ring, 44, in his still-thick Irish brogue.
He notes that it was the former owner who also taught him an appreciation for fine art. Today, Ring has added his own acquisitions to Barr’s massive collection, ranging from oil paintings to vintage posters, all of which are on vibrant display on Nighttown’s walls. (Barr is now retired and living in Savannah, Georgia.)
But, of course, the only thing quite as colorful as the artwork is the crowd. On the November night of the Count Basie Orchestra’s performance, it included everyone from the CEO of the Cleveland schools to a former food writer for The New Yorker â€” both sharing the same space as Chris Davis, earnestly sketching a portrait of his father, serenely nodding his head to a swing beat.
“This is everybody’s place,” says Ring. “It’s not Irish, it’s not black; it’s not rich, it’s not poor. Everyone knows they’re welcome.
“Which is exactly why it works.”