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Hi-Hats Off to The Jazz Corner on Its 25th

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On their first step into the unknown of club owning, it was the inestimable pianist, British-born George Shearing who helped the Mastellers make a statement.
Twenty-five years ago, on March 30, 1999, Bob and Lois Masteller opened their club, The Jazz Corner, on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. They had both enjoyed productive careers, he in human resources, she in property management. Now it was time to indulge their passion for jazz. Bob grew up with music in the house—his dad was a jazz violinist—and became a keeper of the flame by playing horns and vibraphone. Lois was his biggest fan. They both wanted to recreate that sense of camaraderie, joy, and satisfaction that musicians feel among themselves and they wanted to share it with audiences. But first they would have to build it from the ground up. The Jazz Corner seemed to name itself, tucked into the junction of two arms in an up-scale mall that features fountains, outdoor dining and high-end shopping. The pair focused their attention on the interior: Sound, lighting and sight lines were perfected before a performer played a single chord. The room had a small kitchen only suitable for serving light fare but the bar was big enough to handle the full complement of beverages.

On their first step into the unknown of club owning, it was the inestimable pianist, British-born George Shearing who helped the Mastellers make a statement. It was an auspicious opening. The club was sold out. Shearing had reached prominence in the US with his 1949 recording "September in the Rain." Although born blind in England in 1919, he had emigrated to the US in 1947. In 1996 he was awarded an Order of the British Empire, and was knighted in 2007 for his immeasurable contributions to music.

Now in 2024, TJC is still radiating jazz vibes, even though Bob Masteller's death in 2015 was a terrible loss to Lois, their two sons, and The Jazz Corner family. Many of their employees have logged years working for the club, a testament to the management style of its owners. Kelli Lesch, now general manager, 25 years; server Renee, 20 years, bartender Michael 24; chef Wade ten years, all paragons of hospitality. The kitchen, not any larger now than the day they opened, serves full-course dinners every night by the combination of planning ahead and staggering the arrival times of its 120 guests at two sittings. Many of the musicians who play regularly or occasionally at the club have become part of the ever-growing family. Noel Freidline, bandleader/pianist/vocalist/arranger, has welcomed in the new year at TJC for 20 years and was the obvious choice to present the music of Sir George for the 25th anniversary. With his engaging personality, Freidline bantered warmly with the audience, performed exquisitely at the piano, all the while conducting from his bench. Not to mention preparing arrangements for all the special program's tunes. That is a lot to juggle and he is masterful at it.

Friedline chose TJC favorites to accompany him: Howard Paul on guitar, Jon Metzger on vibraphone, Zack Page bass, and Justin Varnes drums, the same instrumentation of Shearing's groundbreaking quintet. He then added a tenor saxophone, and that vision was fulfilled by Juan Rollan who, along with Varnes, are dedicated instructors at the annual summer band camp for Junior Jazz.

The Friedline Quintet showcased as many Shearing favorites as they could in an 80-minute set—quite a feat of selection when you consider Shearing's 104 albums as a leader—beginning with, appropriately, "Start All Over Again." Then his signature tune, "Lullaby of Birdland," originally played hourly for the NYC club's radio broadcast. Friedline held the arrangements tight and fairly short, keeping solos stream-lined and cohesive. Tunes like Les Paul and Mary Ford's "How High the Moon," Neil Simon's "Promises, Promises," Neil Hefti's "Girl Talk," to name a few, showcased the best in ensemble playing.

In the last 25 years, the Mastellers have promoted and encouraged leagues of talented local musicians; pianists Martin Lesch and Lavon Stevens, guitarist Jackson Evans, percussionist Chris Russell vocalist Louise Spencer and singer/saxophonist Bobby Ryder are just some regulars. Add in the national and international jazz stars who've touched down in Hilton Head; vocalist Rene Marie, ten-time Grammy winner Arturo Sandoval, and vibraphonists Terry Gibbs, Christian Tamburr and Chuck Redd and you've got a jazz scene as strong as any other in the nation.

Before the last tune, both Lois and son, bassist David Masteller spoke some heartfelt words of thanks to the staff, musicians and audience for supporting their efforts. They recalled that day in 1999 as the fulfillment of the family's dreams. Beyond the resourcefulness to stay open against the odds, the Mastellers have educated locals and visitors on the joys of jazz, recreating the island as a jazz destination. They've fostered hundreds of young musicians through the Junior Jazz Foundation, and annually stage a major jazz festival, "Jazz For All Ages," with renowned artists, as well as amazing performances by Junior Jazz students. It is we who should be thanking them.

Friedline and company wrapped up the program with "I Hear Music," topping another great dinner well-served, with a timeless classic.

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