Mark Morganelli and Ellen Prior weren’t planning to open Westchester County’s only jazz club. But when the couple looked to downsize their home after their two grown sons had moved out, the opportunity seemed to present itself.
After looking at a number of smaller houses in Westchester and finding none that suited them, Morganelli decided to take a look at a two-story building at 1 Dixon Lane, just steps from Tarrytown’s Main Street.
“I saw this building and I was like, ‘Wow,’” recalled Morganelli, a musician himself who has spent more than 30 years presenting jazz music in various forms.
The top floor of the building was a 1,900-square-foot apartment, while the bottom was a “raw space” with concrete floors that was formerly used as an antique store for more than a decade.
“I hadn’t even thought about doing a (jazz) club, but because of the downstairs and seeing this place, I said …‘Maybe we can build this place and do it.’”
Prior, whose background was largely in nonprofits, said the building “just really spoke to us.”
“There wasn’t much back and forth,” she recalled. “It was like, ‘What the hell? Let’s try it.’”
After two years and $500,000 spent renovating the ground floor space, Jazz Forum Club opened its doors on June 9 of last year. The club is presented by a nonprofit Morganelli founded more than three decades ago, Jazz Forum Arts, and has since hosted more than 15,000 patrons. The couple said between 30 to 50 percent of those who come to each show are first-time visitors.
“We have a tremendously devoted audience,” Prior said. “The community wants what we’re doing and cherishes what we’re doing and keeps coming back.”
Though this venture might be new for the couple, who now live in the upstairs apartment, it’s not the first iteration of Morganelli’s Jazz Forum Club. The first opened in 1979 at Cooper Square in the East Village.
“Basically, I haven’t looked back since,” he said.
Later, that club moved to a 5,000-square-foot loft in a commercial building at Broadway and Bleecker Street before its eventual closing.
In the years following, Morganelli continued to perform his instrument of choice, the trumpet, at a number of jazz clubs, as well as work as a producer and manager. Through Jazz Forum Arts, he has hosted numerous free outdoor concerts, including 34 this summer in Tarrytown, Sleepy Hollow, Ossining and Dobbs Ferry.
After the couple moved to Dobbs Ferry in 1991 in search of “greener pastures,” Morganelli quickly fell in love with the Tarrytown Music Hall. Just six months after relocating to Westchester, he produced his first concert at the hall on Main Street.
“I have a lot of very, very long relationships with artists,” he said. “So I have a lot of experience with the business and with trying to make an art form viable as a business.”
Since its opening, the Jazz Forum Club has hosted concerts on Fridays and Saturdays each week and has helped grow Jazz Forum Arts from a $300,000 organization to a million-dollar one. Concerts have included sets from Roy Hargrove, Ann Hampton Callaway, Paquito D’Rivera, Randy Brecker, John Pizzarelli and Freddy Cole.
“I try to choose groups based on who I like, who I want to present aesthetically, but also that I think
can draw people.”
On Sundays, the club features Brazilian music, something Morganelli fell in love with in 1980 when playing with a Samba band. The first Sunday of every month sees the club host public “open jam sessions.”
“People are like, ‘Why don’t you open during the week?’ And we’re like, ‘You don’t understand. We work all day, every week to make the weekends happen,’” Morganelli said with a laugh.
The 85-seat club features both a food menu and a full bar, along with a separate lounge and poolroom. Paintings for sale from a revolving series of local artists hang from the wall. The performance area is home to both a Fender Rhodes piano that Morganelli bought in 1977 for his very first band, and a 1974 Steinway grand piano, an instrument that was used in his first club in Manhattan.
“We built (the performance area) so that’s it’s not up on stage, and it could expand to (host) a big band if we wanted,” he said. “It’s nice because people feel like they’re on the same level with the artist. It’s this nice, warm feeling. People say it’s like they’re playing in their living room.”
Additions and adjustments have been made in the months since the jazz club opened its doors. Acoustic tiles were added to the ceiling above the performance area, while a new rug was placed underneath the instruments and a black stage drape hangs behind them.
Morganelli said he hopes to soon replace his longtime piano with a new Steinway, a 7-foot concert grand piano.
“We’re stepping it up a notch,” he said.