Rhythm4U performs Saturday night at the Middle C Jazz Club in Charlotte, N.C. (Don Muret / Staff)

After closing for COVID-19, venue returns as protests begin

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The past six months have been an eventful time for veteran booking agent Larry Farber, co-founder of the Middle C Jazz Club, his newest live entertainment venture.

The 200-capacity club opened in November 2019 and was starting to hit its stride in early March before the COVID-19 crisis shut everything down globally. Then, two nights after Middle C reopened its doors on Thursday, protesters filled the streets of uptown Charlotte in response to the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis.

Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles issued a state of emergency for the city Saturday, giving her the power to call in the National Guard if necessary as well as imposing a curfew. Neither step was taken, but over the weekend several uptown businesses were damaged after some individuals among the crowds of protesters threw rocks and broke windows, and police arrested 25 people. Middle C, built on the ground floor of a larger office building and situated across the street from the NASCAR Hall of Fame, sits on the edge of uptown and was not affected, Farber said. 

Shortly before the Saturday show, a group of 100 chanting protesters passed by the club in peaceful fashion during daylight hours. Rhythm4U, a local jazz and R&B act, took the stage about 7:30 and finished its third and final set at 10. 

“We were prepared, knowing there would be protests,” Farmer said. “We put some more safety precautions in place with building security. If things got out of hand we would have shut our doors and made sure everybody was OK. We moved the show earlier to 7:30. I would have been more concerned if the show started at 9 or 10. Normally, (bad things) happen after dark.”

Protesters move past the Middle C Jazz Club on Saturday. (Don Muret / Staff)

Farber, who started booking acts in 1973 with Hit Attractions and later East Coast Entertainment, co-owns the club with his son Adam. As a restaurant, Middle C was part of a second phase of reopenings in North Carolina, tied to a multiphase program implemented by Gov. Roy Cooper.  

“We have a license that’s under a restaurant/private club,” Farber said. “I checked the statute and, thankfully, we were able to open. The other big point that allowed us to open is we are a seated venue. We could have opened (Memorial Day) weekend, but didn’t want to until we watched things around Charlotte and were 100 percent ready to go.”

On Saturday night, 48 people were in attendance at Middle C, including a few tables set up on the outdoor patio. Tickets cost $30 to sit indoors and $20 for the patio. Phase 2 allows the state’s restaurants to open at 50 percent capacity, but Farber has kept the club’s capacity well below that number as it eases back into operation.

“The first few weeks, it’s not about the money,” he said. “It’s about safety for the artists, customers and employees. We’re using this time as a soft opening to make sure we’re not overlooking anything. We hope to increase capacity as we’re permitted and feel we can best serve everybody.”

During the pandemic, the Farbers invested about $25,000 to install protective measures against the coronavirus such as plexiglass, hand sanitizers and a machine used at some hospitals that cleans and disinfects the club. 

All patrons’ temperatures are checked at the door. Small cones have been placed around vocalists’ microphones to prevent transmission of germs. Tables and chairs were removed to provide safe distancing. In the bathrooms, some urinals, stalls and sinks were blocked off to maintain separation. All staff wore face coverings. 

“We have to do that to make people safe,” Farber said.

A sign attests to the disinfection of the club. (Don Muret / Staff)

Some attendees were observed wearing masks at the door and many were not wearing them after the music started. The city does not have a rule requiring people to wear masks in public.

For those who remain hesitant to see and hear live jazz during the pandemic, Middle C officials are developing a live streaming service that goes beyond what many artists are doing online. The club is exploring a more sophisticated system using multiple cameras integrated with the venue’s sound system. At a minimum, it’s a $20,000 investment, which Farber hopes to have installed over the next month. The club will most likely hire two experts to run the production. The goal is to charge a fee to watch Middle C acts streamed live, he said.

“We’ll be able to give people an option to watch at home,” Farber said. “It’s a whole new world and there’s going to be a segment of folks that just aren’t going to feel comfortable coming here until there’s a vaccine. I’m lucky to have both my parents alive in their 90s, isolated in senior living. It hits home to me about going overboard to protect everybody and their family members.”

Overall, Farber is thrilled to reopen Middle C and establish a foothold in a market where live jazz has struggled over the past several years. At this point, the club has acts booked through mid-November, highlighted by guitarist Stanley Jordan’s five performances and four nights each of saxophonist Marion Meadows and the Jeff Lorber Trio. 

“When that first note rang out on Thursday night, it was like having a bite of your favorite food that you haven’t tasted in 10 years,” Farber said. “It sounded better than ever before. I haven’t heard a real musician playing live in a long time, and it was wonderful.”