By Randy Johnson
Tonight at the Green Park Inn, a sellout crowd will step back in time to remember Blowing Rock’s famous 1970s and ‘80s nightspot, the Jazz Parlour. The Charlie Ellis Trio headlined many a night at the club and this evening, led by the High Country piano man himself, Ellis and his trio will perform their last gig as a group.
If you’re missing out, the good news is that Ellis has performed a weekend solo gig in the Green Park lobby for five years and he’ll be back at his piano tomorrow night and on Friday and Saturday evenings for the foreseeable future.
But, if you do have reservations tonight, you’re in for a treat. Dinner and music this evening in the hotel’s Chestnut Grille will be a ramble down memory lane, to a special time and place still treasured by many High Country residents.
The Jazz Parlour
The Jazz Parlour closed 35 years ago, so if you weren’t already an adult way back in the day you won’t remember the club’s two cozy locations in the historic Martin House on Main Street.
Ellis moved to Blowing Rock in 1969 and his music venue debuted in 1972 with seventy-some seats. By late decade, the Parlour’s popularity made it a tight squeeze. “That was a good problem to have,” Ellis says. He doubled his occupancy to 125 when a bigger space became available across the hall.
If you weren’t there, imagine a cozy club setting where a murmuring crowd, enjoyed the Charlie Ellis Trio’s soft piano jazz accompanied by drums and bass. The space was dimly lit with candles dripping down wine bottles. “We sold a lot of Chianti,” Ellis remembers, “and those old bottles got a candle stuck in them. They were our table centerpieces.”
The club also sold beer in a time when most High Country communities were dry and Blowing Rock was refreshingly wet—at least to the kind of patrons the Jazz Parlour attracted. Sadly, music spots and pubs weren’t at all what some stalwart supporters of the past wanted to see in town. To make bars and pubs less likely to succeed, businesses serving beer and wine had to sell 51% food. To achieve that from 1972 to ‘79, “we were offering a bread and cheese board and you’d a thought we invented it,” Charlie chuckles. “It was literally, a board, with a demi loaf of bread and a slab of cheese for a buck fifty. For this area and that time, it was unique.”
Ellis was ecstatic when now legendary local restaurateur Jack Pepper stepped in to run the food side of things in 1979. “I was so pleased to get out of the food business.” After a year, recalls Ellis, Pepper “decided Boone would be his focus, and it still is to this day.”
That forced Ellis “to upgrade. Besides that fantastic cheese board, we added a 10 ounce rib eye, baked potato, and tossed salad. That increased our food sales and we definitely made the 51%.” Another “nice touch,” says Ellis, “we used actual linen table cloths that gave an upscale feel of the place.”
It was a unique venue, “ahead of its time in terms of concept, but when I tell people how difficult it was to keep my license they don’t believe it.” All the folks who saw Ellis playing would be surprised to know he “was there at 8 am the next morning, cleaning bathrooms, sweeping floors, and doing all the things I couldn’t pay other people to do.”
Touching the Audience
Without doubt, the Parlour’s main draw was the music of the Charlie Ellis Trio, which Ellis calls “the great American songbook.” The current trio—Ellis on piano, Mike Barlowe on drums, and Rick Stapleton on bass—will ramble through that same repertoire of classics tonight at the Green Park Inn. Guests will hear tunes from Irving Berlin, Ramsey Lewis, Hoagy Carmichael, Billy Joel, Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin, Duke Ellington, George Benson, and Leon Russell.
The Jazz Parlour never had an elevated stage, Ellis recalls. It was “music in the round,” he laughs. “We’d play surrounded by the audience. I literally had tables up against my piano and I could reach out and shake a hand. I liked that, because we were touching our audience.” Indeed—literally and figuratively.
Nightly except Sunday, the Parlour opened at 6 pm with house music for early arrivals eating and drinking. Some Parlour patrons went out to eat elsewhere and arrived just before the music started at 9. During the week, the group shut down by midnight, and at 1 am on weekends. “There was a $2 cover charge,” Ellis remembers, “and every cent of it went to the musicians.”
Jazz Parlour musicians included a long list of locals and famous names who’d drop in unexpectedly. “There was always someone else sitting in. You often didn’t know who it would be,” says Ellis.
In 1979, the Charlie Ellis Trio opened for Ramsey Lewis when the legendary jazzman played at P.B. Scott’s. Not an hour after the concert, Lewis was sitting in with Ellis at the Jazz Parlour. Another time Ellis opened for Herbie Mann.
“It always gratified me,” asserts Ellis, “that other musicians felt so comfortable sitting in with me, knowing that I genuinely appreciated having them there. That was part of the Jazz Parlour appeal.”
That’s still part of the Ellis ethos, and this evening at the Green Park will be no different. Sit ins tonight will include Tommy Leak, who will present a Harry Chapin monologue he used to perform at the Jazz Parlour. Other vocalists will include Taffy Allen and Tracy Brown, the latter executive director of tourism at Blowing Rock Tourism Development Authority. Even when Ellis plays solo at the Green Park, it isn’t unusual for a fan to sing a tune or two.
All in all, the Jazz Parlour attracted quite “an eclectic group of people,” says Charlie. “Eighteen was the drinking age and since everyone came to Blowing Rock to buy beer and wine, we had students. But we also had a regular clientele of well-to-do older folks, even steady regulars from Charlotte and Hickory. Bobby Cremins, head basketball coach at ASU and later Georgia Tech really loved the Jazz Parlour.”
By the time the Jazz Parlour closed, Ellis was finding great satisfaction knowing that most weekends his club was booked in advance. In 2017, Ellis finds the same satisfaction knowing there’s a sell-out crowd at the Green Park Inn tonight to watch the trio’s last gig together. It’s a special event, made more special by the fact that most of his children, grandchildren, and wife Mary will be there, thanks in part to son Bryan’s efforts to make the evening memorable.
Tonight’s gig “is humbling and very satisfying, and exciting,” Ellis admits. “It shows me how many people have enjoyed what we’ve done over the years. A lot of musicians never get to play to a full house.”
Tonight the Charlie Ellis Trio will play to that full house, and “if you can’t get fired up about that,” Charlie concludes, “you probably ought to reconsider what you’re doing.”
Ellis closed the Parlour in 1982 “tired of burning the candle at both ends” as he went on to a full career in education, as a high school and community college educator and head master of the Patterson School. He chose that career at his mother’s suggestion in part because of time available outside the school schedule to pursue music. And continue to pursue music he has.
Now retired, his Friday and Saturday evening lobby performances at the Green Park Inn are “very important to me, for keeping my chops, staying a musician.”
More than that, Ellis has seen the Green Park’s recent return to vibrancy. “One of the most enjoyable parts of appearing at the Green Park is to watch the rebirth of the hotel,” he says. “At one point I was playing for more staff than clientele. It took them a while to get it back, but general manager Lorry Mulhern and owners Steve and Gene Irace have done a fantastic job. I am grateful to be a small part of something that’s bigger than I am.”
Besides playing his music, it’s the contact with Ellis’s audience that inspires him. As he has since Jazz Parlour days, when the tables were literally touching his piano, Ellis realizes “it’s the interaction with people that I love. Without that audience, no musician would be there.”
Whether it’s tonight, his last gig with the trio, or tomorrow evening playing solo in the Green Park’s glistening lobby, Charlie Ellis continues to touch High Country audiences.
Editor’s note for photographers: Tonight’s concert by the Charlie Ellis Trio will be recorded for a later CD. The trio invites attendees to use their smart phones or cameras to take potential pictures for the CD cover. E-mail them to [email protected]
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