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Bourbon Street Comes To Front Street

Jon Norton
Jazz UpFront owner James Gaston, left, with Jeff Woodard of the McLean County Museum of History.

Owner James Gaston was sitting at a four-chair circular table in his club on Front Street across from the McLean County Law and Justice Center in downtown Bloomington. It’s been nearly three years since Jazz UpFront opened, and despite the immense pressures of running a live jazz club anywhere in America, jazz is still a staple in his club every Friday and Saturday night.

“We’re not getting rich by any means, but we have a following that has helped pay the bills,” said Gaston, who was still working out details of his second annual Fat Tuesday on Front Street celebration in a few days.

He feels reason for optimism.

“We’re going to hang in there, and in three, four, five years, we’re going to be ‘the spot,’” Gaston said. “I get emails daily from jazz cats and singers on tour; national acts saying they ‘want to stop in while we’re in between Chicago to St. Louis', or 'we’re on our way to Indianapolis and we’d love to do a gig at your place.’”

"In three, four, five years, we are going to be THE spot."

Top “names” have dropped in, including New York City based bassist Christian McBride and pianist Bob Baldwin.

“It’s amazing, some of these guys will work for a reasonable amount of money,” said Gaston. “They just want to stop through and do a side-gig. A lot of these guys touring will stop in a place like Jazz UpFront just because they want to be ‘with the people.’ They like the club atmosphere and being up close to the people.”

Jazz UpFront has a classy, intimate feel not unlike venues in larger cities. Gaston said artists have noticed.

“National artists come in here and they always say, ‘Man this is a nice club. Reminds me of a club I went to in Chicago, New York, or New Orleans.’ We’ve tried to create the right atmosphere for jazz. I hope a lot of people who haven’t been here will come down and check it out.”

He said when that happens, he’ll be able to bring in national names on a more consistent basis. Until then, he’ll continue to lean heavily on central Illinois fan favorites including Inktrail, Preston Jackson, The BraziLionaires, Dexter O’Neil and Funkyard and the Heartland Jazz Orchestra.  Occasional blues and R&B combos round out the mix.

In GLT’s recent story in Bloomington-Normal record stores, owner John Anderson said he is intentional about stocking records he feels people NEED to hear, not necessarily what they WANT to hear. Gaston has similar feelings about jazz in the Twin Cities.

“I’m in my 60s,” said Gaston. “We love different styles of music and we don’t want to have to travel to get it. Yes, this is something Bloomington-Normal needs, I really believe that.”

What is he still getting out of owning the only jazz club in central Illinois?

“I interact with most of my customers, and when people get up from a table to walk out, I always shake their hand and say, ‘Thanks for coming, hope I see your face again.’ And they always say, ‘You know what, I love it. This is a great place and we’ll be back.’ And that’s what I’m getting out of it. I like hearing people say, ‘Thank you for opening a jazz club in Bloomington.’ Every night I have music, somebody says that to me,” Gaston said.

Gaston says tickets are still available for Feb. 13 Fat Tuesday on Front Street festivities, which begin at 4:30 p.m. at Jazz UpFront. The Second Line Parade led by members of the Prairieland Dixie Band will march down Front Street beginning at 5:30 p.m. Stops include fellow Front Street restaurants Diggers, Anju Above and Rosie’s before returning to Jazz UpFront for a traditional New Orleans dinner, and music from the Prairieland Dixie Band.

Listen to the entire interview between James Gaston and GLT's Jon Norton

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Jon Norton is the program director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.