Important S.C. jazz cafe worries about losing home in redone Finlay Park

Le Cafe Jazz signSkipp Pearson’s Le Cafe Jazz stands out not only as the renowned saxophonist’s home base but also for its focus on the music. But look at the preliminary renovation plans for Columbia’s Finlay Park. You won’t find the building it now calls home.


By Debbie Clark
March 22, 2016

Something’s missing from Finlay Park’s proposed multimillion-dollar renovation.

The fountain is there, as is a destination playground and a three-story multiuse building.

But Shirley Martin, executive director of the Skipp Pearson Jazz Foundation, had a question for Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin: “Where is Le Cafe Jazz?”

Le Cafe Jazz interior
The tables in Le Cafe Jazz are oriented to facilitate listening to the music, not dining or conversation. Courtesy of Shirley Martin.

It’s easy to miss the small building tucked between the trees along Laurel Street at the top of Finlay Park. Two sheets of letter paper in plastic protectors taped to the fence along with a replica of the French flag with “Le Cafe Jazz” hand-lettered in the middle are the only hints the top floor of the park’s concession stand is the home base of saxophonist Pearson, who created Le Cafe Jazz in 2011 and is known as South Carolina’s ambassador of jazz music.

But instead of Le Cafe Jazz, the multiuse building that replaces the concession stand in the park’s renovation plans has a rooftop terrace looking out over the park.

Le Cafe Jazz is “one of the bedrocks of the jazz scene” in Columbia, trumpeter Mark Rapp said. “There’s only a handful of places that are supporting live jazz, and Le Cafe Jazz is all about it,” he said.

Skipp Pearson playing sax
Skipp Pearson, who has bone cancer, does not perform every night Le Cafe Jazz is open, but he plays as often as he can. He said closing the cafe would be devastating. Courtesy of Shirley Martin.

The cafe is a listening venue, not a restaurant, Martin said, where all the focus is on the jazz and the musicians and “the star is the music.” Another trumpeter, Charleston Jazz Orchestra conductor Charlton Singleton, describes Le Cafe Jazz as a “walk-in time capsule of jazz.”

Pearson, 79, is ill and not able to talk at length, but he said by email that closing the cafe for good would be devastating.

“You can never truly understand the impact of something, someone or something you lost until that loss occurs,” he wrote.

For the past six months, Le Cafe Jazz has opened sporadically while undergoing renovations since the heavy rains and floods that hit the area during Hurricane Matthew, a hiatus that Pearson wrote has “sent ripples along the streets of the Jazz world here.”

Martin said it was during a meeting last August at the cafe with the mayor and city staff when she raised the question.

“I rose my hand and I said, ‘Mayor Benjamin, where is Le Cafe Jazz?’ And he said: ‘Oh no, no, no Ms. Martin don’t worry. These are just preliminary plans, and Le Cafe Jazz is definitely in the mix.’”

But so far, while he’s effusive in his praise for Pearson, nether the mayor nor the city have said how the cafe, which Benjamin calls “the physical manifestation of his years of work,” will be taken care of.

Singleton emphasized how important it is for young musicians who know Pearson to carry on his legacy and try to make sure jazz stays in the conversation in Columbia.

“They’re the ones that are trying to keep things going and help Skipp out as much as possible” both as musicians and advocates, he said.

Benjamin said he has told Martin he wants the cafe to be a part of the park for years to come. But while he classified the August planning meeting as a success, he said the renovation plans are still a work in progress.

“We’re a long way away from consensus on exactly what the future of Finlay Park will look like,” the mayor said.

Benjamin said he has always supported having the cafe in Finlay Park and called Pearson a “prince of a man” and an incredible jazz music ambassador, not only in Columbia but also worldwide.

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To Rapp, Le Cafe Jazz is a “very important cornerstone of the jazz scene” set apart from other venues because it’s a pure listening room where people come specifically for the music.

“Other venues are variations on that where you might have half the people there to check out the music; the other half just enjoy the fact that there’s a live band,” he said. “They’re hanging out with their friends, but they’re not really getting into the nuance of jazz.”

Robert Gardiner, a Lander University music professor and saxophonist who has performed several times at the cafe with Pearson, said the audience isn’t alone in benefiting.

“It is much easier for the artist to connect with the audience making for a very enjoyable evening of jazz music for both parties,” he said.

As for Singleton: “I think that any sort of venue that is specifically devoted to jazz is desperately needed in the state of South Carolina, period.”

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