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All Smiles on Hilton Head Island

Gloria Krolak By

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Fly, drive, bike or walk, if you can, to The Jazz Corner on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. But make reservations first or you may be going home early. This intimate jazz and blues club is booked solid every night weeks in advance, and I do mean every night. So it's been for 15 years, an incredible feat by owners Bob and Lois Masteller. The club, with its well-planned sound system and sightlines for all 100 seats, was named by DownBeat one of the top 150 Great Jazz Rooms in the World in 2011, '12 , '13 and again in 2014, when the magazine increased the number of awards to 160. For good reason. The musicians who play here are often regional artists with global talent, or global talent visiting the region.

On the first of our two visits, it was Benny Goodman Tribute Night. There to bring the King of Swing's music to life was the Allan Vache Quintet. Clarinetist extraordinaire Vaché, who was born in Rahway and now calls Florida home, brought his rhythm section, fellow Floridians Jeff Phillips on piano, bassist Charlie Silva and drummer Eddie Metz. The fifth member of the quintet was the surprise.

We arrived for our 7:00 PM reservation to order dinner and drinks before the band began at 8:00. We'd followed our waiter's recommendation for the South African Pinotage ($9 by the glass and $36 by the bottle) and were savoring it when a tall, dark-suited gentleman quietly entered the room. He was carrying an odd-size black case. He mounted the stage, removed several sets of mallets from the vibraphone already there, and replaced them with ones from his bag. "That's Chuck Redd!" I whispered to Michael, my other half and photographer. All this and heaven, too! (That's also the title of a must-have Redd CD.)

The band began to roll in. Masteller made introductions in his deep radio voice. Jorge returned with a yummy hummus made with kalamata olives served with warm tortilla triangles. To describe all of Chef Mark's creations during our two visits would add an appendix to this chronicle. The club's website menu describes them well, from the crispy Asian spring rolls to pistachio-encrusted tilapia to the chocolate gelato. If undecided, flip a coin. You can't go wrong.

The combo played two extra-long sets of Goodman highlights, opening with a fast-paced "I Want To Be Happy," a memorable "Memories of You," and Redd's perfection on the ballad "More Than You Know," which Goodman recorded in 1936. Vaché performed many of the tunes he recorded on his 2007 album With Benny in Mind, including up-tempo "Seven Come Eleven," and "Slipped Disc." As witty emcee, he reminded listeners that "Do Nothing Til You Hear From Me" slyly ends with ..." and you never will." Phillips, Silva and Metz, the spine of this strong body, each cut loose, sharing stage-side merriment with the two leads. And when musicians smile among themselves on stage it's because they've reached a level that feels magical. Host Bob Masteller, the sixth man for two tunes, played a mean flugelbone, a kind of bass trumpet. He often joins the band and plays for all the world as if he tours with them. Bob can also drive some hard vibraphone swing. Catch him on Tuesday nights.

Bob and Lois Masteller didn't expect to create anything more than a friendly place to help preserve the great tradition of jazz. The restaurant, rated number one on the island by Trip Advisor, as Bob likes to tell it, just happened. But nothing this good ever just happens. The dining side is the result of much hard work by a dedicated staff with sure leadership. You can read about them on the JC website under Who's Who. Bob grew up in Rochester, NY with a loving blend of family, friends and music. His dad was a jazz violinist who also played the vibraphone in the late '20s. The club's atmosphere is a re-creation of his youth and that is how both he and Lois welcome musicians, staff and guests alike.

Patrons can sit at tables in the center of the room or on barstools. The third choice, banquettes lining two walls of the room, elevated a step for unobstructed views, makes it easy to chat with neighbors. Mark McAlister, owner of Big Red Liquors in Indianapolis, was sitting next to me. He remarked, "All the pieces of the puzzle come together at The Jazz Corner, the food, the wine, the service and not least the music." Both frequent visitors, his wife Alora enjoys hearing live jazz and supporting its players.

In Bill Crow's autobiography, From Birdland to Broadway—Scenes from a Jazz Life, the veteran bassist explains how the legendary Manhattan club came to be known as "the jazz corner of the world." It may be time to look south and share the title. The Mastellers have done much to spread jazz around and off the island, bringing concerts to other venues. Eight years ago they started the Junior Jazz Foundation, helping schools keep their music programs, supplying instruments and running a summer jazz camp. One student, 17-year-old sax phenom Tafari Salaam, will head to California as a student of Ravi Coltrane. (He's got a Go Fund Me account to help underwrite a tenor sax of his own and college expenses.) They've published a book, The Jazz Corner Story, in the glossy black of a piano, which includes two live CDs. All the profits, at $35 per book, go to the JJF, courtesy of British author Martin McFie. Their record label, Sweet Jazz, releases live and studio sessions recorded at the club, drawing more musicians to the resort.

A Monday tornado watch sounded like two counts against The Jazz Corner. But again the room was packed—seems like nothing keeps jazz lovers away. The Martin Lesch Band took front and center. Lesch is a pianist who can play anything, but connects with hot jazz of the '20s. He writes music and sings, too. Trumpeter Danny Dennison, also a member of the six-piece horn band, the Headliners, house bassist Clarence Williams, and Binghamton NY native Chris Russell on drums made up the foursome.

They set the house ablaze with their first tune, "Hindustan" when Russell played his sticks down the stage edge to a table where two young boys sat with their parents. They had front-row seats for some real drum kicks as Russell kept the tune going over the glasses, utensils, tabletop and anything else he could reach, a night neither child will forget. Williams' fretless electric guitar is not an instrument you'd expect to hear in any Dixieland band, but he and it served well to bring the music to modern ears. "Take the A Train" was spiced with strains of "Sweet Georgia Brown" and "Girl from Ipanema." Later Lesch on piano would bend the Beatles' "Yesterdays" into a duet with Dennison's trumpet on "Georgia on My Mind."

Another highlight was Dennison's rich vocal on "Unchained Melody," one of the world's great love songs from a little known prison movie. Bob joined with some muted cornet then beckoned Salaam to join in on sax after explaining the Junior Jazz Foundation to his audience. Salaam took his place seamlessly. His busy and brisk solos dropped some fearless youth into the mix. The night closed with the gospel hymn "A Closer Walk with Thee," traditionally played at New Orleans jazz funerals. Michael's evening closed on a sweet note with apple cinnamon bread pudding.

Expect to spend $100 to $200 on dinner per couple, including a $10 music charge each. Dress for a night out. There is ample parking in the small upscale Wexford mall, where The Jazz Corner is located. Reservations are strongly recommended.

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