Saunders: Hayti offers top-grade, reasonable shows

July 7, 2013 

You know how, when you go to the local multiplex to see “The Great Gatsby,” it’s raining outside, so you just stay and see the end of “Monster University” without paying again?

Neither do I.

One can imagine, however, that people who commit such a lowdown dastardly act become paranoid and are constantly looking over their shoulders every time the door to the theater opens, thinking “OK, they’re fixin’ to bounce me.”

That’s how it was at the Norman Connors show at Durham’s Hayti Heritage Center a couple of weeks ago. I paid what they requested to get in, but at $15 a head to see Connors and jazz trumpeter Tom Browne together, you couldn’t help but feel that you’d slipped in past the gendarmes, and at any minute you would receive that dreaded tap on the shoulder that signals “Get outta here, ya bum.”

A microscopically small crowd of perhaps 40 people gathered at Hayti on a warm, dry – yes, we once had one of those – Friday evening for the second show as a slightly larger crowd left the first performance. Connors was performing as part of the center’s Heritage Music Series.

The Triangle has had and lost some terrific jazz venues because of low fan and municipal support and haphazard publicity, most recently the Prime Smokehouse in Garner. The owner of that place moved his business to Rocky Mount after he said the city refused to let him erect a sign showing potential customers where his spot was. He said his business is now enjoying a Rocky Mount high.

I asked Angela Lee, Hayti’s executive director, how long she can continue attracting great talent with 40 paying customers. On a Friday night.

“We’re launching a grass-roots campaign,” she said. “A big part of it has been just getting the word out. We’ve got to continue to let more and more people know.”

If they don’t, there may not be anything left about which to get the word out. It’s hard to imagine so few people coming to hear Connors unless his appearance was a secret. The previous month, even fewer people were on hand to hear Browne. If you haven’t heard and seen this porkpie-brim-wearing cat lately, trust me: There’s more to him than “Funkin’ for Jamaica.” This month, world-renowned singer Jean Carn is scheduled to appear.

Browne, who has lived in Garner for the past 17 years, is coordinating the jazz series and is calling upon the talented friends he’s acquired over decades as a world-traveling performer. “They are willing,” he said, “to support the concept of the series, and they realize that the economic times dictate working together in a cooperative way to provide low-cost alternatives to our standard fees.”

Spreading the word

Ah ha. That’s how we got to see that show for $15. Browne said he hopes Hayti can become like Blues Alley in Washington, a well-known jazz joint – but one where a Bacardi and Coke probably costs $15.

The center may be, as Lee and Browne said, shackled by a tiny ad budget, but this is one time it needs to realize the old adage about spending money to make money.

Lee said the center depends upon word-of-mouth, which is precisely how I lucked up and learned that Connors, one of my all-time favorite musicians, was in town. Lee also said I wasn’t the only one surprised by the low price. “We’ve had people call here and ask, ‘Is that person really coming? For $15?’ ”

“Best $15 I ever spent,” one of the first-show attendees beamed when I accosted him in the parking lot.

What a bargain to see two musicians of that caliber in an intimate setting, he said, sounding as though he’ll remember that show three decades hence the way I remember a similar one from three decades ago. That’s the night I parted with the best $9 I ever spent.

A night with Stevie

One summer evening after getting off work as a copyboy, a position that no longer exists, for the Atlanta Constitution newspaper in 1979, I saw lines of people gathered outside The Omni. They were queued up, I learned, to see a Stevie Wonder-Peabo Bryson concert. Now, this was back when Peabo was a real soul crooner and before he went all Disney and tried to become the crossover pop king. Stevie was, of course, still Stevie and superb.

The cheapest tickets were $7, so I paid that. Desiring some libation, I ran across the street to a liquor store for a bottle of two-buck chuck.

The fact that it was my last $9 – we’re talking in the world, not just in my pocket – weighed heavily, but rent was paid, and I knew I had enough Jif in the pantry to keep me in choke sandwches until payday.

The Carnegie Hall treatment

That was 34 years ago, and I remember everything about that night – albeit in a wine-soaked haze. Spending your last $9 for a concert may seem foolhardy, but there is nothing else in the world I could’ve done with that pittance that would have brought me as much continuous joy. It was not a pittance then, of course, since according to Bureau of Labor Statistics calculations, that $9 in 1979 would be worth $28.88 today.

At one point in the show at Hayti, Connors, wearing his customary ascot, pointed out his well-dressed keyboardist and said “He’s got the tux with tails. Where do you think you are – Carnegie Hall?”

I’ll tell you what. Nobody at Carnegie Hall could have gotten more bang for their buck than we 40 or so people did that night.

You’d better enjoy it while it lasts, because if more people don’t support the joint, you may have to go to Carnegie Hall to see a show such as that.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service