Always brainstorming ways to transform, expand and better the local community, Wilmington Downtown Inc. (WDI) has begun a new venture called Live at Bailey’s. The jazz series features the talent of local performer Keith Butler and other local jazz musicians who want to join in on an impromptu jam session. Live at Bailey’s, which started on October 6, takes place every Monday through November 10 at 5:30 p.m. at Bailey Theater Park (12 N. Front St.).
WDI annually fills downtown Wilmington with tunes every Friday night throughout the summer with its Downtown Sundown concert series—which wrapped up its ninth season in August. The popular, free event runs the gamut of musicianship, by hosting tribute bands across all genres. Ed Wolverton, president and CEO of WDI, found that the concert-goers wanted to extend the fun into fall.
“We saw this as an opportunity to do something a bit more organic, simple and intimate,” he details. “With so much happening on weekends, we picked Monday to avoid competing with other events and hopefully attract more performers, too.”
The collective settled on jazz in an effort to cater to a different musical palette, which also seems soothing for the outdoor intimacy of Bailey Theater Park. Spurred by the heavy foot traffic on Front Street, they thought the under-used, city-controlled park would be a prominent location.
“So far attendance at the jazz jam has greatly exceeded our expectations,” Wolverton reports. “People pulse in and out of the space during the two-and-a-half hour session.”
Keith Butler Jr. was enlisted by Kim Adams, a member of WDI’s Play committee, which encourages community participation in downtown’s arts and cultural offerings. “She loved what The Rusty Nail and Benny Hill were doing with their jam on Sundays,” Butler says, “and she wanted to bring something similar to Front Street.”
Butler’s taste for jazz expanded during his educational career at UNCW, where he worked toward a degree in parks and recreation management; however, it wasn’t until two years ago he broached the stage at The Rusty Nail.
Butler began playing drums 12 years ago, but truly engulfed himself in the instrument’s magic only five years ago. The primarily self-taught drummer actually didn’t have his first serious lesson until this year. By listening to horn players like Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter and John Coltrane, he threw himself wholly into the musical form, often checking out out all the jazz-related CDs at Randall Library.
“I picked up a Kenny Garrett CD (‘Songbook’) with Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts playing drums, and it blew me away,” Butler recalls. “The musicianship is amazing of course, but what intrigued me most was how the players were able to humble themselves for the sake of song. Each player seemed to understand his role within the music. That is one thing that interests me about jazz: You can’t have an ego when you’re on the bandstand. It takes humility to practice your instrument for hours, with the end goal of making a song or band sound better.”
Butler has honed his collaborative abilities since he started playing local venues, such as Satellite Bar and Lounge, Bourgie Nights and Calico Room. He also has played with fellow musicians like Justin Lacy and the Swimming Machine and Mike Blair and the Stonewalls. He’s helmed his own trio that can be heard at the newly opened speakeasy The Blind Elephant every Thursday night. He transitioned into a full-time musician just over the summer. “I stay fairly busy with gigs, and I think people enjoy playing with me,” Butler tells. “So, I guess I’m doing OK.”
Since Live at Bailey’s has begun, Butler has lit up the park with a batch of young musicians, including Cameron Ticklenberg on piano, AJ Reynolds on the sax, Colin Schmidt on bass, Dan Nowell on guitar, and Ryan Mulder also on sax.
“Of course Glen, the downtown sax man comes and plays, as well,” Butler says. “I don’t know who will show up these next two weeks. I guess that comes with it being a jam session, but I’m hoping we can get some vocalists out there, as well as some of the older cats from around town.”
Each week Live at Bailey’s permeates music from a never-ending list of jazz standards and American songbook classics. The informal setting encourages musicians to busk a few tunes of their own, too. Improvisation is the name of the game, as attendees bring lawn chairs to listen. It’s a free experience—as smooth as the melodies that scour the park and float into the streets.
“I think locals have really enjoyed it,” Butler says. “It’s something nice to stumble upon as you walk downtown, but it’s also something nice to plan your evening around.”
Live at Bailey’s with Keith Butler
Mondays through Nov. 10, 5:30 p.m.
Bailey Theater Park
12 N. Front Street