By Ryan Michaels
The Birmingham Times
Rod Conwell recalls visiting a family member at an area hospital and coming across a jazz trio playing in the lobby of the cafeteria. He remembers what the music meant to everyone there.
“Everybody, from employees and visitors, was just kind of getting away from whatever they were at a hospital for . . . work or visiting family members. It was a perfect place for an environment to just say, ‘Just ease your mind for a minute. Just chill and relax.’”
That’s what Conwell and his co-founders Larry Forest and father-son duo Patrick Chatman I and Patrick Chatman II hope to do with Uptown Jazz, a lounge set to open first in August, with a grand opening on Labor Day weekend inside the downtown Birmingham Uptown entertainment district and feature a variety of contemporary jazz and classical music performers.
Jazz, the lounge’s primary offering, is such a broad style, full of positive feelings, Conwell said.
“It relaxes me, whether I’m listening to easy-listening smooth jazz, to just kind of keep me in the flow, or whether I got something really grooving [that’s] got me bopping and got me moving, [that] keeps me pumped, keeps me motivated,” he said.
Conwell, 59, and Chatman I, 61, have known each other since they were kids in Birmingham’s Smithfield neighborhood. While Conwell’s family moved before he was an adult, the two later reconnected at Alabama Agricultural & Mechanical University in Huntsville where Chatman played drums.
In 2016, they reconnected at that year’s Magic City Classic in Birmingham.
“During that conversation, we just decided we wanted to do something that was unique in terms of the type of entertainment that we were talking about, and Uptown Jazz was born,” Conwell recalled.
The pair brought in more business partners including the younger Chatman and Forest, who played trumpet with the older Chatman in AAMU’S band.
“We [the business partners] came together. The synergy was immediate, and we just kind of kept it going from where me and Rod were at that time, and here we are,” Chatman I said.
The men all have long-held passions for jazz. Chatman II, 35, said the “door was opened” for him in middle school at Grantswood Community School in Irondale, when he was introduced to the music of saxophonists Kenny G and Najee.
“I’m not an aficionado or anything, but my appreciation for it is real, and it’s deep, and it’s genuine,” Chatman II said.
The older Chatman said his taste for jazz is simply the result of having played in band before and during college, but if it weren’t for jazz, he might not have met his wife Audrey at Music Land in the former Brookwood Village mall in Homewood.
“I worked in a music store after college, and I had the jazz section, and she walked in looking for jazz, so I think all the time about if I was in another section of the store, and she liked another type of music, that match might have never happened,” Chatman I said.
Conwell said when he was a junior at Hueytown High School, he explored jazz music with his friend, also named Rod, who was a talented musician. The pair would listen to artists like smooth jazz guitarist Earl Klugh and saxophonist George Howard, jazz fusion keyboardist Lonnie Liston Smith and jazz/R&B vibraphonist Roy Ayers.
At AAMU, Conwell said jazz was part of his daily experiences with friends.
“After three o’clock or so, [I’d] find somebody wanting to grill hot dogs or hamburgers—that’s all you could do at that time—sometimes Vienna sausages, and we’d just listen to music and have a good time,” he said.
When his wife died in 2016, Conwell said his relationship with the music grew stronger.
“After she passed, that was one of the things that kept me whole, was jazz music. I could listen to it, and it would take me away from sad times, sad moments. It uplifted me in a number of ways, and not just from the music part because jazz is both instrumental and lyrics…and it was just like she was speaking to me, just like those songs were written for me,” Conwell said.
Uptown Jazz is also partnering with Exposure Community Development Corporation (ECDC), a nonprofit started by Timothy Huffman III, drummer and leader of Birmingham-based Clutch band.
As a result of the partnership, Uptown Jazz is giving kids a space to take music lessons through ECDC.
“We want to reach out and do some things for the community and not just be someone that provides jazz in the evenings,” Chatman I said. “As kids are kind of finding themselves, maybe some develop a love for music and want to play a certain instrument, and we want to be a conduit to help them develop that.”
Uptown Jazz is located at 2250 B 9th Avenue North, Birmingham AL 35203