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Music Opinion: Playing To Our Strengths 

THIS PAST WEEKEND I RECEIVED AN E-MAIL that I can’t say was entirely unexpected, but which left me both reflective and wistful. After two-and-a-half years of business, Kokopelli’s Jazz Club on Broughton Street is closing its doors for good.

Over the next two weekends, the club will offer its final bookings: The Sean Bolden Group May 9-10, and the return of Savannah’s own up-and-coming trumpet prodigy Alex Nguyen May 16-17.

Many of those in the local music community have been predicting this development for quite some time now, but despite the feeling of impending doom which occasionally emanated from its heavily lacquered wooden doorway, the bar/music venue/restaurant and Southwestern-themed art gallery (an ambitious, convoluted combo if ever there was one) continually surprised the pundits by soldiering on in the face of what at times seemed almost insurmountable odds.

The club will remembered as one of the only dedicated jazz venues to exist in Savannah during the past few decades — which, in and of itself is an accomplishment worthy of recognition, if not praise, from those who’d like to think of our town (with its rich jazz and blues heritage) as capable of supporting such outlets.

However, live jazz is a rough market.

In this era, it’s hard to keep a venture of that sort solvent even in a major metropolitan area, let alone a smallish town such as ours — where it seems lately many in City government and law enforcement are hellbent on scapegoating legitimate live entertainment venues. (Or nickel-and-diming them to death with punitive ordinances.)

By its very nature, making Kokopelli’s financially successful was an uphill battle from the start, but that was also hampered by a number of obvious flaws in its presentation and marketing. Frustrating as this was to those of us who live to see local businesses of this sort thrive, as often as not, the owners’ seemingly sincere desire to present a relatively pricey, esoteric —and for that matter, non-commercial— form of music tempered such managerial missteps.

Having recently returned from N.C., where I caught an arena show by Bruce Springsteen & The E-Street Band and an intimate, sold-out set by Lou Reed in a 1,000-capacity club (neither of which could ever be held in Savannah, as our Civic Center’s too small and out-of-date and we have no dedicated, mid-sized venue designed for standing, drinking crowds), I was already musing on the dispiriting limitations of our city’s live entertainment scene when I learned of Kokopelli’s demise.

Simply put, in the 22 years that I’ve been a resident here, the Savannah music scene has never, ever been stronger or more diverse than it is right now.

That takes into consideration the breadth and quality of locally-based talent as well as the caliber and frequency with which we now play host to touring acts in a variety of genres, from the smallest club, restaurant and bar levels up to and including headlining attractions in the main room at the Savannah Civic Center.

But here’s the important part, so pay attention: We’ve also very close to collapse.

Exorbitant hikes in property values have made it more difficult than ever for those who know how to run music venues to do so here. At least in downtown’s so-called “Entertainment Zone”, which lately is becoming more restrictive in terms of noise and atmosphere due to the selfish demands of folks who don’t “love the nightlife” but buy high-priced condos within earshot of established bars and venues, only to (absurdly) complain.

Furthermore, blatantly political attempts to appeal to a small, puritanical base —which neither frequents such establishments nor sees much value in their existence— has resulted in proposed legislation that would put Savannah behind the cultural curve of other Southeastern cities (which recognize live music as a vital aspect of quality of life that’s also integral to drawing tourists) and has the real potential to mortally wound the very scene that has taken decades to flourish.

Instead of invoking the tired “helping the children” ploy to stigmatize and impugn live entertainment responsibly presented in tandem with adult beverages (the norm in most all profitable music venues in the U.S.), we should be removing such impediments, rigorously enforcing existing laws (rather than crafting new ones) and embracing the fiscal, promotional and yes, emotional benefits that will come from making live music for all a key component in the vision of Savannah’s future as a must-see destination.

As it is, City Hall’s enthusiastic support for such wonderful events as the Savannah Music Festival is mitigated by hypocritical “anti-fun” stances based on empty rhetoric.

This behavior does nothing but ensure that those capable of opening dedicated, serious concert venues will continue to do so across the state line in Hilton Head (where folks under 21 are welcome in live music rooms which serve alcohol to those of age), and we’ll edge closer to a less vibrant, less diverse and less hip Savannah.

Just what everybody’s been begging for.

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This just in: a few hours after this column was turned in, I received word that the following afternoon, the City Manager's Office was holding an under-publicized open meeting to present the proposed woring of a new ordinance specifically designed to help establish a legal definition for full-service restaurants in Savannah which sometimes choose to "transition into" a business model that - in some folks' minds - more closely resembles a nightclub or bar. I attended that meeting, and -to his credit- after a vigorous and mostly respectful (but at times mildly combative) discussion, City Manager Michael Brown indicated his support for changes to the proposed ordinance. These changes would remove some of language and positions which I and others viewed as extremely damaging to the local music community. Look to Connect for continued coverage of future developments.

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Jim Reed

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Connect Today 12.10.2016

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