This month marked my 10th year writing for Orlando Weekly, and it's dizzying to look back and see how much our world has changed in that short span of time. While following the frightening spectacle of this year's presidential race, I frequently long to flip the calendar back to the end of the previous decade – a time before the Obama optimism entirely wore off, when you could still see Sam Rivers and his Rivbea Orchestra play at the Plaza or attend a show at GOAT's Cherry Street theater in Winter Park.
Today, Rivers is deceased; the site of his former weekly residency is now owned by the Orlando Philharmonic and better known as the site of Christina Grimmie's murder. GOAT's Cherry Street stage, which once represented a renaissance of theaters along Fairbanks Avenue, is also long gone. But just around the corner from GOAT's former location, the brand-new Blue Bamboo Center for the Arts has risen, echoing its antecedent's ambition to support independent artists, and continuing the legacy of Sam Rivers and other jazz giants by partying like it's 2009.
Blue Bamboo's 5,000-square-foot warehouse (tucked behind the new Lombardi's Seafood location) may not look like much from the outside, but the cement and drywall interior has been transformed with original artwork, red carpet and cocktail tables, creating a credible music club with unexpectedly excellent acoustics. In this friendly environment, saxophonist Dan Jordan's What? Thing trio (with Doug Mathews on bass and Michael Welch on drums) performed a "Sam Rivers Tribute" last Wednesday, effortlessly invoking the beloved bandleader's inimitable spirit and filling the room with reverberant improvisations.
It's aurally obvious the Blue Bamboo venue was designed by and for musicians by founders Mark Piszczek, Chris Cortez and Melody Cortez. Mark and Chris have been friends for 40 years, as they told me in an interview during intermission, ever since they played together in Big Bambu, a local jazz band named after a Cheech & Chong album. In the 1980s, they were regulars at a downtown after-hours jazz club called Daisy's Basement, and despite drifting away over the years, Cortez remembered it as "the most fun time we ever had in music." After a divorce and a job change reunited them in Orlando, the trio sought out a venue to serve as a combination performance space and recording studio, where Cortez could record live albums for his Blue Bamboo Music label.
"We were looking for a studio space that could also be big enough so we could shoot the band in front of a live audience," Chris Cortez recalls. "We really had a hard time finding that, and then we came upon this gigantic old warehouse," which was once a piano refurbishment factory. The result is a 120-seat performance space built inside an "airplane hangar" with the aid of donated and loaned equipment, including a $30,000 Steingraeber grand piano (available for purchase on consignment if you've outgrown your Casio keyboard) and racks of vintage sound gear.
The aesthetics are a bit spartan at the moment, but the necessities – a bar serving beer and wine; adequate but unobtrusive lighting; seating properly designed to focus attention on the performers – were all already in place during my soft-opening visit.
Getting the doors open was an odyssey that began in May 2015 and included eight months of legal limbo as they worked to comply with parking regulations (valet parking is available, and guests can use the grass lot across the street). The ordeal was expensive, but they say it will be worthwhile if the venue can help "demystify" jazz and classical genres for younger audiences, as Piszczek (a composer who recently premiered a piece with the Brevard Symphony) anticipates. To that end, Blue Bamboo hosts informative Q&As during intermission, encouraging intellectual interaction between artist and audience. On the evening I attended, Piszczek helped Jordan expound on his philosophy of compositional equality in improv, as well as swapping stories of watching I Love Lucy on Rivers' couch.
Cortez's mother, Ginny, was active in Orlando's theater scene in the days of the Civic Theater, so Blue Bamboo hopes to host not just avant-garde jazz and classical music, but all forms of performing arts, potentially including a kids' theater camp. "We tend toward the more esoteric and interesting musical choices," Piszczek says proudly. "That's the muse we want to serve, but anybody who wants to play here can," for a reasonable rental fee. They also intend to keep admission low, presenting groups for $10 or $15 that cost $50 or more at fancier venues.
It may not be Doc Brown's DeLorean, but my evening at the Blue Bamboo transported me back to a cooler, kinder era. I'm looking forward to taking a return visit. Check out their schedule at bluebambooartcenter.com and plan a trip for yourself.
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