Truckee restaurateur helps jazz thrive
J.J. Morgan has been a driving creative force in Northern California’s jazz scene since the early ‘90s. As the co-founder and operator of Moody’s Bistro, Bar & Beats in Truckee, Morgan’s goal is to serve up a steady diet of live music, booking a wide array of styles and genres, including local and national acts. Morgan also runs Moody’s Jazz Camp, a July program offering musical instruction to young people. Lake Tahoe Action caught up with Morgan to learn more about his contributions to Tahoe’s music scene.
Lake Tahoe Action: How did you first get involved with musical production?
J.J. Morgan: I started a club in the early ‘90s, the Up and Down Club, that was kind of a groundbreaking venue for the hip-hop jazz scene in San Francisco. We recorded two albums, the Up and Down club sessions, that became classics, kind of earmarks of the time. I was partners with an international fashion model, Christie Turlington. That really helped get us on the map.
What else did you work on at that time?
I produced a play, a Sam Shepard play called ‘Suicide in B Flat.’ We took jazz musicians and kind of blended them in with stage actors to create super-original music theater in nightclubs, places like Slim’s and Justice League, which is now the Independent.
What brought you to Lake Tahoe?
I just burned out. I lived south of Market and just day in and day out, just needed to get out of there for a little while. I just kind of always wanted to come up here.
Did you start Moody’s immediately?
No, my partner Mark Estee and I opened Moody’s in 2002. First, I worked as food and beverage director at Lahontan Golf Club. Mark was the executive chef there.
Did you start Moody’s with the idea of having live music, or did that evolve?
We started with the music. We just knew that we were going to have something unique because (Estee) was a super talented chef — just the melding of a really nice restaurant with good music. You don’t come across that everywhere. It’s really hard to pull off actually.
Why is that?
Because of the physical structure of restaurants, the fact that we have a lounge and a dining room is a big help. And I think that it just hasn’t happened too many times. Some people, like foodies, don’t really care about seeing live music, and people going to see live music haven’t necessarily been in that environment where there’s really good food.
What has the process of booking musical acts been like?
The most important thing is to have a strong local base because that’s going to be 75 percent of your act. Just finding the local acts was a little bit challenging, but we had UNR which is a great music program. A lot of the music acts came from UNR as either teachers or students. I’d already had a lot of connections from my musical past, and after twelve years we’ve gotten a lot of word of mouth out that there’s a great place to play in Lake Tahoe, which is a bonus stop on any musician’s tour.
Moody’s seems to host a constantly rotating variety of musical acts. Is that intentional, or just the way the schedule falls?
It’s intentional. When we first opened, we were pretty focused on jazz, and I just would have bands like Vagabond Opera. That turned me onto this whole Gypsy music, Klezmer music thing, so I got really into that. Through that, I just got really into Americana music.
What are you looking for when booking bands?
I think the main constant is good musicians, that’s the consummate thing. I’ve been doing this for a long time. You can just tell when you have some of these, like, upper-tier musicians on your stage. You want to be the spot where people want to play. To gain that, to be that spot to be where musicians want to play, you have to kind of honor the stage and make sure that people that are on that stage have talent.
What are some of the bands or performances that have really stood out to you?
Shotgun Wedding Quintet’s first gig here, and then Vagabond Opera. They were that seven-piece, almost-jazz band that had a classically trained opera singer that could play the accordion, and they just blew my mind. And then Jamestown Revival and Andy Fresco. Amy Lavere, she just played here a few months ago, she’s from Memphis. Then one time, I had Gap Theory from New York, they were a crazy thing.
How about Moody’s Jazz Camp? How and why did you start that program?
It just started out from how I kind of got really into the Berklee music school systems, and why they had all these great musicians coming out of there. When I moved up here, the area was really void of that kind of thing. I got together with Adam Theis. He’s from Shotgun Wedding and Jazz Mafia in San Francisco. We just kind of came up with the jazz camp. The whole idea was to take six bandleaders from all over the country and throw them into Truckee for a week and have them teach the kids during the day and play at night. It kind of shined a light on the kids, like ‘hey, I’m kind of interacting with professional musicians, and this might be something that inspires me to go to a conservatory or music college.’
I understand Paul McCartney has played at Moody’s? What was that like?
My partner would go cook for him. We knew he would be coming in at a certain time, and we’d book a band for that night. He wanted to watch the music. We didn’t tell a single person that he was coming, and he felt so comfortable in our environment that he got up and sang both times. It was awesome. He did it twice. We really didn’t get the magnitude of it until a few years later. Now that it’s that long in the past, it’s just kind of a really cool thing that happened.
What’s on the horizon for Moody’s that you’re excited for?
I’m excited about David Lunning this weekend, and then we do have Jamestown Revival coming up at the end of this month. Just the fact that Moody’s went through some changes a few years ago that were super stressful, but we’re on the other side of that. I’m madly in love with my girl, want to get married. Things are good.
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