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Salem restaurant sparks jazz community

Front man of The Mel Brown Septet, Mel Brown pictured playing drums at Christo’s.

Photo taken by: Will Bragg with special permission from Christo’s

Muttered voices hushed as smoke filled the dimly lit room. The restaurant, Christo’s, was filled to the brim with people. Those who couldn’t get tables sat slumped on bar stools. Lights reflected off of the frames of countless photos of musicians who have played in this hall. Waitresses finished dropping off food and drinks to the patrons. The audience stirred, and everyone’s attention was drawn to the stage. To a large explosion of fanfare, the band stepped on. Seven well-dressed men paraded onto the stage, clutching their instruments like marching batons.

After a brief introduction by the owner of the restaurant, Michael Learn, the band launched into action. Without missing a beat, Mel Brown’s drums burst out the lightning-fast tempo as the rest of the band worked off of his rhythmic groundwork. Throughout the night, the band gave their own improvisational flair to classic jazz standards. Complex piano chords mesh with the steady pulse emanating from the upright bass. At times, they democratically subdued their instruments to allow one of the members to solo. The Alto-Saxophonist, Renato Caranto, fired quick bursts of notes and his music shot through the audience.

A single note sustains from the saxophone and, for a moment, it is as if time moves slow. For Christo’s, a local Italian restaurant and pizzeria, this performance is not out of the ordinary. Every week, usually on Thursdays, jazz music radiates from the walls of this humble restaurant. It is one of the few places in Salem that hosts regular shows in the genre. It wasn’t always like this; things started small. The restaurant grew from Learn’s talent and love for making pizza. Learn, while always liking jazz, didn’t initially set out to expand his restaurant to host music. Learn explained that “I like to eat and I grew up in an Italian household, so cooking was really essential and (…) I love to eat so I might as well learn to cook. To make something that someone else wants to eat is kind of nice too,” Learn said.

Christo’s has its own lounge, a building attached to the restaurant like a garage to a house. Bottles of whiskey, vodka, and gin sit behind the bar illuminated under the constant shifting red-blue-green spotlights of the lounge. Numerous paintings of jazz artists envelop the walls. Rows of different sized tables face the stage. A painted mural of The Golden Man on the stage gives the area an air of Salem authenticity. It can feel like an old club that could have hosted Louis Armstrong or Chet Baker. The history of this building is not as spectacular: it used to be The Space, a bar that would host local bands shredding out everything from heavy metal tunes to Indie DJs sampling beats, but never jazz.

The people living around The Space and Christo’s used to complain about the noise and about the kind of people on the nights The Space hosted music, usually hard rockers and loud teens. The bar eventually moved in 2011 to West Salem. Since The Space was vacating their old building, Learn decided to buy the venue. “[I] wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with it, if I wanted to rent it out to a CPA…but then I started thinking about it and said, ‘Why didn’t I just use it for something that would work for Christo’s?’” He decided to expand Christo’s into the building and built a stage there.

Learn wanted to continue having live music played at his new venue, but he didn’t know exactly what. “I didn’t want to do another rock ‘n’ roll club because that was what was here and that failed.” Michael started considering trying something different in his new venue. “Jazz is something I’ve always appreciated – but I’m a real rock n’ roller at heart. I’ve always been aware of jazz, liked jazz, over the years seen real good jazz players and decided to maybe focus on it.” He booked a group through a mutual friend for his first show.

To get a taste of live jazz in a club, he and his wife Lisa visited Jimmy Mak’s in Portland, a formerly prominent jazz club. There, they watched The Mel Brown Septet play. “I was just so blown away. As they were leaving the stage for their break, the sax player, who I didn’t know at the time, this guy, Renato Caranto was unbelievable. It was like I had to go up and shake his hand and say that it was fantastic.”

Two weeks later, at Christo’s first Jazz show, Caranto surprised Learn by being a part of that band they contracted. “I thought the place was very cozy, very intimate, and the people, Lisa and Michael were the nicest people I ever met. We felt pretty comfortable right away. I want to come back here,” Caranto said. Caranto loved the venue so much that he wanted to bring his trio down to play there again. Michael couldn’t believe his ears. Soon after, stories about a new jazz club in Salem spread around the Portland jazz community. “[Caranto] told all of his friends, Mel Brown being one of them, ‘Hey, this is a cool little club down in Salem.’ and it kind of just snowballed from there.”

Mel Brown is a prominent Portland drummer who played with big names like George Harrison, Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder. He and his bandmates seem like brothers. With glances and side-steps, they communicate when it’s someone’s turn to solo or when to return to the melody that ties the improvisational piece together. They seem to know the venue well, as they play at Christo’s every second Saturday of the month.

Brown and his Alto-Saxophonist Renato Caranto have been playing together since the ’90s, but, in a strange set of circumstances, have known each other for much longer. Renato, a native-born Filipino, watched Brown perform live with Diana Ross in the Philippines in 1974.

“Twenty-three years later, we’re playing in the same band and I didn’t recognize him and he doesn’t recognize me. He hired me to do this gig in Washington and we were sitting down in this coffee shop and we’re talking. He starts talking about The Philippines and Mel says that he has played in The Philippines before with Diana Ross and then things start clicking and then I say, ‘Wait a minute.’ We were pretty excited,” Caranto said.

The musicians give the impression that they never need to stop and their music plays well into the night, but, like all things, the show eventually ends. After a final climax of applause, the musicians leave the hall musicless and empty. Until the next week, the stage will be hidden behind a curtain, as the lounge seats average Christo’s patrons. Learn sees himself as a middleman between the musician and music lovers.  “Musicians want to play, this is one thing I know…They would play for free and most of them do… They like it even better to have an audience to play to, and if they could get paid for playing… That’s where I saw myself, I could get musicians to play and it’s nice to have an audience for them and if they get paid, that’s the best of all.”

Christo’s Pizzeria & Lounge, located on 1108 Broadway St NE, Salem, OR 97301, Hosts weekly jazz every Thursday. The Mel Brown Septet plays the second Saturday of every month. (503) 371-2892

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