Here’s a nice kernel of wisdom for you: “Don’t do it like you’re in it to make money. Just do it with a whole lot of love—like you’re in it to serve.” That’s what Lena Spencer, the founder of Caffè Lena, used to say, according to Sarah Craig, the current Executive Director of Caffè Lena. Founded in 1960 by Lena and her husband, Bill (who left the venture after just a couple of years), the Saratoga venue has grown to become an East Coast mecca for the folk music scene. Over the years, some truly legendary acts have played or gotten their start there, including Bob Dylan, Don McLean and Ani DiFranco. The list goes on and on. Caffè Lena has the distinction of being the longest continuously operated folk music venue in the country, and after a one-year, $2 million renovation (which concluded in 2017), the performance hall is bringing more acts to Saratoga than ever before. And it’s not all folk music either—far from it. “Lena Spencer was actually a big jazz fan when she founded the club,” says Craig. “Not only jazz, but show tunes and so forth, and she kind of learned folk on the job, because it was so hot at the time.”
In honor of Lena’s love of one of America’s most original and enduring music genres, Caffè Lena has been presenting its own special concert series called “JAZZ at Caffè Lena,” and last night (October 9) marked its one-year anniversary. What makes JAZZ at Caffè Lena so unique? It’s a combination of bringing A-list jazz performers, who normally play in larger concert halls, to Caffè Lena’s intimate performance space. On the second Tuesday of every month, jazz pianist and resident composer, Chuck Lamb, hosts the JAZZ series with Grammy-winning musical producer Joel Moss, who helps book performers and organize the concerts.
It all started a little more than a year ago when Moss heard Lamb play a jazz tribute to Bob Dylan at Caffè Lena and thought a regular jazz concert series (one of Lamb’s old dreams) would be a great idea to showcase at the venue. So far, Lamb and Moss have worked with players who tour internationally, as well as some of the most respected jazz musicians from right here in the Capital Region. For the one-year anniversary, Lamb teamed up with bassists Ira Coleman and renowned vibraphonist Joe Locke to offer the Spa City a truly unforgettable night of music. Together, the three musicians sounded absolutely seamless as they ran, boogied and slow-stepped through a set that included everything from jazz standards by American saxophonist and composer John Coltrane and Gypsy, jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt to more contemporary tunes including a couple of Lamb’s own compositions. “I knew it was going to be good, but this has exceeded my expectations,” says Lamb of the JAZZ series. “It’s expanding a lot; we’re in the groove of it. But we even started out getting heavy names like Vic Juris and others.” And Lamb knows a thing or two about successful jazz: Since 2002, he’s been a member of the Brubeck Brothers Quartet (as in Chris and Dan Brubeck, sons of legendary jazz pianist, Dave Brubeck), and his last album, 2016’s North By Northeast, received rave reviews and international airplay.
The JAZZ at Caffè Lena series has been so popular that concerts have been selling out. The venue has also been recording and filming the performances, with the recorded shows being archived, with plans of potentially selling them in the future (they may also be live streamed from Caffè Lena’s website). They might even be turned into a kind of podcast for jazz enthusiasts. Says Craig: The specifics are still being worked out but “right now, we’re trying to figure out the ideal platform to be sharing all this wonderful material, and how do we market this to a potential audience.”
Ironically, Lena Spencer originally intended to run the café for only a few years before selling it for a profit. “The plan was to close it after a couple of years and move to Europe and just be rich forever after as artists,” says Craig, who’s been working at the venue since 1995. “Thirty-nine years later, here was Lena, running her folk club.” Here’s hoping that JAZZ at Caffé Lena has similar success, and that we’ll be enjoying this unique jazz music series for years to come.