Industry Lane certainly doesn't look like a place to find jazz. That corner of southeast Durham, near the intersection of Fayetteville Road and MLK Parkway, is anything but hopping. But if you look closely between the storage spaces, the ignition interlock installation facility, the shoelace manufacturer, and the pair of storefront churches, you'll find the Sharp 9 Gallery, an unlikely pocket of the Triangle jazz community.
Founded in 2012 by saxophonist Dave Finucane and artist Valerie Courreges, the gallery has a simple, ambitious mission: to be a hub for jazz education in the Triangle. The two had run a similar workshop in Peekskill, New York, and had hoped to restart it when they moved to Durham in 2004. It only took eight years of planning for the gallery to emerge.
"We initially started the workshop in our house," Finucane recalls. "We were doing ensembles, which was great. Some of the students still participating were from those days," he says.
Finucane and Courreges had hoped to open the gallery downtown but found, unsurprisingly, that rents were too high and institutional support was absent. When the Industry Lane space appeared on Craigslist, they jumped at it, with some help from grants from the Jazz Foundation of North Carolina.
After four years, Courreges and Finucane seem to be well on their way to achieving their mission, despite being dwarfed by more established institutions like North Carolina Central University's stalwart program and the Triangle Youth Jazz Ensemble. They have over a hundred students of all ages taking classes and lessons, and playing in various big bands and combos.
As Finucane observes, "A lot of band programs in schools, some of them have jazz programs, but mostly it's big band-centered stuff, and there's not a lot of small-group improvisation. I think there was a need for that."
For adults, classes at Sharp 9 provide an opportunity for students to jam, letting them learn to respond to one another in real time. Instructors drawn from all over the Triangle teach courses on everything from vocal arranging to advanced harmonic theory, from Afro-Cuban jazz to music publicity.
Finucane takes pride in the gallery's ability to adapt to the needs of students. When a vocal student mentioned that she didn't know how to talk to a rhythm section, for instance, they started a vocal combo class. And when a student isn't at the right level for a given class, Finucane will guide him or her to the right place to make the most of his or her potential.
Once you get past Sharp 9's generic brick-and-glass façade, you reach a small antechamber whose walls are covered with black-and-white pictures of jazz musicians. Images of jazz greats sit among Courreges's photos of locals on the Sharp 9 stage, emphasizing the gallery's connection to, and investment in, jazz tradition.
After passing through a black curtain, you enter the main space, a large room with high ceilings and exposed girders. Along the far wall, blocking a garage door, is the small main stage with a new Yamaha C7 grand piano and a small drum kit. The rest of the space is filled with rows of comfortable chairs, interspersed with small round tables topped with candles. On the wall hang decorative panels, also Courreges's creations, adorned with open CD booklets from various jazz albums. Their pages spill this way and that, enticing you to spend a minute reading about Dave Brubeck or Art Blakey.
What's not there is just as significant: there's no kitchen, no bar (just a small concession stand), no place to stand around and have a side conversation. The stage is the focal point, the music front and center.
"This really is a listening room," Courreges says. In so many other venues, she notes, "people are there to drink and to talk, so jazz becomes more of a secondary thing. Here it is forefront. We only do two hours of music. We limit the time since it requires listening."
Finucane adds that, for jazz players, the dynamic of restaurant gigs differs slightly from that of small, cozier spaces that demand listeners' attention.
"We really enjoy seeing the performers who don't often get to play for an attentive audience and seeing the effect on them, especially when they come back a month or two months later. They come prepared for a show," he says.
Those shows draw on the area's deep pool of talent, presenting some of the finest players from around the Triangle and beyond. NCCU and UNC faculty and graduates play alongside talented high schoolers; prominent performers come from Charlotte and Wilmington; nationally acclaimed musicians like guitarist John Abercrombie, pianist Joey Calderazzo, and vocalist Tierney Sutton occasionally show up, too.
Other concerts explore the gallery's educational mission. Over the past year, it has presented a Tuesday night series of lectures and performances that expand on the diverse history of jazz. Pianist Ernest Turner has been excavating the history of jazz piano—the next iteration on September 13 focuses on post-bop and more modern players—while drummer Larry Q. Draughn Jr. goes deep into the roots of jazz rhythm on September 20.
Finucane and Courreges have turned their distance from downtown into an asset. Going there requires a certain kind of focus and intentionality. You can't just wander in on your way from one bar to the next. You have to want to listen and play and learn, efforts that bloom into a stronger, more close-knit musical community—one that Courreges and Finucane hope will bear fruit for years to come.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Stay Sharp"