Back Bay

A place to watch the talent grow

From Berklee, a music cafe

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Marc Larocque
Globe Correspondent / March 23, 2008

You might see a local hip-hop head, or maybe a fan of the Grateful Dead. You might see a dorm mate or meet here with a weekend date. And you could very well see Marjorie O'Malley eating lunch.

"The food is so good," said O'Malley, assistant vice president for institutional advancement at the Berklee College of Music, in between mouthfuls of roasted veggie panini. "And you never know what kind of music you're going to hear."

Cafe 939 is Berklee's new student-run performance spot and coffeehouse, at 939 Boylston St., adjacent to the Cactus Club. The cafe will showcase Berklee's burgeoning student talent, local artists, and touring acts seeking a small, sleek place to perform.

Memorabilia from famous jazz musicians such as Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, and Nat King Cole line the wall in one enclave of the jewel-toned cafe. In the hallway leading to the room, a placard explains the significance of a pattern covering the tabletops and floor mats in the building. (Apparently, an experiment in the 1780s involving sand, metal, and a violin bow produced oblique, symmetrical patterns that spawned a method for designing guitars and other instruments.)

The cafe, which has wireless Internet access and Ethernet outlets, began serving food in early December. The first show, on Valentine's Day, kicked off an ongoing lunchtime concert series, which is free and features student performers and Berklee staff on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 1 p.m. Evening performances are slated to start in early April; students will book, market, and publicize events, and also work as ushers, clerks, and stagehands. In the summer, Berklee plans to offer a weekly jazz brunch.

Catering to the under-21 crowd, Cafe 939 will not serve alcohol. Nightlife options for the younger set were curbed by a citywide ordinance passed in January 2007, which resulted in Lansdowne Street clubs adopting a strict 21-plus admission policy.

At a recent lunchtime performance, the Adam Lasher Band, composed mostly of Berklee seniors, sifted through slow blues and jazz fusion tunes before a crowd of about 25. Some stared intently at the guitarist's fingers dancing up and down the fretboard during a solo, while others simply soaked in the sounds while typing out papers or studying for midterms.

"Their creation is cool," said Joo Hyun Jun, a freshman business major who sat before her laptop. "I'm going to be coming here a lot."

Stuart Annello, a senior jazz composition major at Berklee, nodded his head to the bongo beat as he lounged on a couch in the performance area. For Annello, a member of the student stage crew, Cafe 939 offers real-world experience.

"Here, it's smaller and simpler, but it's exciting," he said. "You get to learn the work; stage work is a trade. But it's actually not too hard. I love it. And there are a lot of perks, like, I can play the piano and write music when there's nothing to do."

The Cafe 939 management isn't just aiming for the younger crowd.

A Thursday night concert series will feature local bands with middle-aged CEOs, like the Loomers, led by Tom Simons of Partners and Simons, who will perform on April 17.

When the stars arrive - such as Puerto Rican sax player Miguel Zenón on April 2 - Cafe 939 will be ready. Organizers said performers' needs will be accommodated. There's even a posh green room with a leather couch, cushy ottomans, a baby grand piano, and a full-length mirror.

City officials zoned Cafe 939 with a 241-person capacity, but the nature of the show will determine how many are admitted, organizers said.

So far, booking and organizing has been overseen by Jackie Indrisano, hired by Berklee in October as venue manager. Indrisano managed afterHOURS, Northeastern University's on-campus venue, from 2003 to 2006, and her experience includes booking for the closed but classic nightclub The Rat.

"We're trying to showcase not only the amazing Berklee talent on this campus, but from other campuses and around Boston that a lot of people don't see until they get big," Indrisano said.

"John Mayer was doing his thing on this campus before he broke and became huge," she continued. "It'd be great if people from this city can come here and hear these students develop."

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