"Stiff drinks, good jazz, no homicides."
This is the pitch that John Scott gave me last Thursday night, when I stopped in to visit his recently opened jazz lounge in the Crossroads. The Green Lady Lounge is located at 1809 Grand, an address you might recognize from the police blotter: It's the former home of Balanca's.
Balanca's had been on a wild ride over the last decade. In its early years, it catered to a downtown LGBT crowd. Over time, it morphed into more of an anything-goes swingers scene and then into a tweaked-out swingers scene. (Contributing to the block's overall sleaziness, an underground sex club reportedly operated, until recently, in the alley behind Balanca's.) In recent years, the bar began to attract, on certain nights, a troublemaking hip-hop crowd. In 2010, a fight broke out inside Balanca's that spilled into the street and ended in the shooting death of Jeremy Mott, an underage patron. Owner Lori Burroughs agreed to close the club for 45 days. This past March, less than 18 months after the venue reopened, 31-year-old Wayne Steward was shot inside Balanca's. He later died. After that, the bar slowly faded away, opening only on certain nights, before finally closing its doors for good sometime over the summer.
Scott, a tall, middle-aged guy with wild eyes, has never owned a bar before, but he has been doing business in Kansas City for 17 years as the owner of Scott Fitness. Last year, he sold three of his gyms to Jonetta Stewart, a business partner (he still operates one in Briarcliff), who renamed them TheGymKC. (Full disclosure: I am constantly blasting my lats, traps and delts at TheGymKC, where I am a member.) Finding himself with some extra time on his hands, Scott started thinking about a new venture. He saw opportunity in the shuttering of the long-running Plaza jazz club Jardine's in late 2011, which created a void in the city's jazz scene.
"My grandmother used to sing once a week on the radio station in Atchison, Kansas, and at dance halls with a guy named Colorado Pete," Scott says. "And my Aunt Carol has been a fan of Kansas City jazz for as long as I remember. I've grown up with a lot of music in my life, and I'm really passionate about jazz in particular."
His original idea was to reopen a jazz lounge in the old Jardine's space, but after scouting the building and crunching the numbers, he decided to pass. "I think it would be tough to stay in business under the circumstances at that location," he says. "It obviously has a rich jazz history, but I don't have enough experience to have made what I'm trying to do work there."
Scott's gaze turned toward downtown. After looking at a few spaces, he got curious about 1809 Grand. Sheri Parr, owner of the Brick, put him in touch with Burroughs, who owns the building. (Burroughs hasn't exited the bar business; she recently bought Norm & Betty's, in Independence.) They negotiated a deal, and the Green Lady Lounge quietly opened for business in mid-December.
At first blush, not much has changed inside since the Balanca's days. There are red-leather booths, and a sexy veil of red lighting blankets the bar. But improvements have been made. For one, it's cleaner. And a 1940s Wm. Knabe & Co. vintage baby grand is plunked down in the center of the room, which lends some class to the joint. Right now, at least, the ambience is on-point: a little bit of that Grand Boulevard seediness (you can never wash that away) paired with the nostalgic, middlebrow aesthetic of a jazz club. And it has a 3 a.m. liquor license, which is great news for downtown residents like me, who often find themselves lamenting the lack of non-Power & Light nightcap options.
Scott says he has purposely been slow out of the gate. ("We wanted to open really soft so we had time to figure out what we don't know and make improvements.") But last week brought a few confirmations of regular gigs. Pianist Bram Wijnands (from whom Scott bought the bar's piano) holds court at the Green Lady Lounge for a jazz matinee every Sunday from 4 to 7 p.m., and Mark Lowrey performs every Friday night from 9 p.m. to midnight. "I'm so freaking happy to have Mark onboard. I've been trying to get him down here to look at the space for months," Scott says.
Drinkswise, Scott is focusing on local beers — Boulevard and Mother's at the moment, with plans to bring Free State and Tallgrass into the fold. For food, Kelli Daniels is moving her Good You food-truck operation down the street from Czar and is serving dinner at the Green Lady Lounge from 4 to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. (General hours for the bar are from 4 p.m. to 3 a.m. Tuesday through Sunday, though Scott says those hours might expand.)
The long-term goal is to work up to six nights of live music a week, but Scott says he's not trying to replicate the formal jazz-venue business model of Jardine's. (He's not charging at the door, though he allows that that, too, might change at some point for certain shows.) Scott stresses the word lounge. "I think 'lounge' suggests a comfortable, casual, quiet tone," he says. "We're not stuffy. We just want people to be comfortable, listen to some music and not shout. We're trying to impart that this is not a fraternity party. We're here to have a drink and relax."