Ann Arbor has had a couple of great jazz clubs over the past 30-40 years. Ron Brooks’ Bird of Paradise on Main Street gave a venue for many local jazz artists to perform, giving birth to the Bird of Paradise Orchestra – basically Paul Keller’s big band – which has lived on as the Paul Keller Orchestra. A feisty young waitress there – Susan Chastain -showed Ron she could sing, and eventually was performing regularly. She mustered enough gumption to start up her own club over on Ashley -the Firefly Club – and took what she knew from Ron to make an even better place. Susan started up in 2000, and Ron would go under in 2004 under the weight of tax problems. Susan ran a lively place anchored by such features as the late Paul Klinger’s Easy Street Jazz Band’s Friday happy hour (where we were regulars) and a main Saturday show featuring both local stalwarts and traveling acts, but with music 7 days a week. Chris Smith’s/James Dapogny’s P.O.R.K was a Sunday staple, featuring 20s-40s small group favorites. Her walls were rapidly plastered with all the acts coming through. She ran a small but tasty kitchen for any hungry patrons and featured adventurous beers on tap. She was booted out of her cool Ashley digs in 2007 and found space in the old Ark down the street. While offering more space to performers, it never captured the cool sophistication of Ashley. My wife and I became so involved with the club we took a small financial stake, forever cementing in our friends’ minds the notion of “our jazz club”. The Firefly finally closed in August 2009, again from tax problems (did Susan learn this from Ron?). This left Ann Arbor without a jazz club for the first time in 25 years. Performances at the Zaz Del Grotto, a Masonic Social Club, and the Kerrytown Concert House, sustained some local jazz acts, but not in the manner those two thriving jazz clubs had done. Steps in Don Hicks, who in 2019 enlisted restauranteur Louis Goral to open Blue LLama on South Main, right next door to the Ark. Ellis Marsalis was supposed to kick off the opening, but was not able to travel for four weeks and was replaced by organist Joey DeFrancesco and his quartet. Hicks is an accomplished trumpeter, with Michigan origins in the Interlochen Jazz Band, and he occasionally performs at his own club.
So it was in the setting of all this history I decided to see what was up at Blue LLama coming up. Kathy and I had never been there, although our neighbor Justin – a trumpeter -had performed there on occasion. What should be forthcoming but a dinner/show package for Valentine’s day. Featured was an up-and-coming ( age 27) chanteause – Veronica Swift – plus a prix fixe menu package. Pretty romantic, so why not? Our YouTube auditions of Ms Swift were a little discouraging, as they sounded pretty “noodly”. But we went anyway. Arriving, the BL was a pretty impressive space as we took our place against the wall with a great view of the stage.
The waitress described the prix fixe menu to us, as well as the optional wine pairings (which we snapped up). Here’s what we had to look forward to eat.
The food was so good we wondered to each other if maybe we’d be satisfied if Ms Swift never showed up and all we’d had was our snacks.
As it turned out, Ms Swift did show up, accompanied by her 5 piece band: drums, piano, bass, soprano sax, and baritone sax, the latter wielded by a skinny blonde woman not much bigger than her instrument. Later in the set, Ms Swift brought in a guitarist friend.
She began with heart-wrenching vocal jazz and descended into rock-and-roll. At no point were her noodly tendencies evident, much to Kathy’s relief.
My heart was wrenched by her rendition of Mel Torme’s “A Stranger in Town”, about returning to one’s old home town. Who’s been doing that lately? Her version didn’t make YouTube, so how about Mel Torme’s? (1)
She did a lively rendition of “How lovely to be a woman”, from Bye Bye Birdie! (2). How gender affirming!
She moved to full rock to close with Blood Sweat and Tears’ “You made me so very happy”, perfect for Valentine’s day. She said she’d performed it with them recently. Song always needed a girl singer. (3)
Sorry none of these signature tunes were available by her on her extensive YouTube list. She’ll fill them out, I’m sure.
Here’s a classic by her, perfect for closing out an evening, on which she does a very nice job: (4)
So check out Veronica Swift if she comes your way, and if you’re in AA, check out the Blue LLama. And let me know. I’d love to come along.
1. Torme M. A stranger in town. YouTube. Posted July 31, 2018. Recorded October 5, 1944. Released 1945. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=37m4UE6vMNQ
2. Margaret A. How lovely to be a woman. YouTube. Posted February 2, 2008. Released 1963. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O1ilu-ARtiY
3. Blood Sweat & Tears. You’ve Made Me So Very Happy. YouTube. Posted May 20, 2007. Performed July 11, 1993. Recorded October 16, 1968. Released March 1969.
4. Swift V. Something cool. YouTube. Posted August 17, 2020. Released 1954.. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NrJbk0yUy-o