Parker Jazz Club in Austin, TX is a study in contrasts. It offers a jazz club experience like those prevalent in the 1940s and 50s, yet it looks and feels like a live performance theater. It’s an intimate space yet it boasts a stage large enough for big band performances. Some nights feature the club’s talented house band while others bring well-known artists from around the world.
Behind the scenes, an experienced tech crew manages the club’s high-quality sound and lighting systems while streaming performances to a growing remote audience. All of this is part of a forward-looking business model that brought the venue through a rough year of pandemic-related closures and gives management and staff the confidence to embrace a “new normal” where a small Texas establishment can boast of reaching a worldwide audience.
Designing The Venue
“Not many people who open a venue in downtown Austin get to start from a clean slate,” notes Parker Jazz Club owner Kris Kimura as he described the venue’s beginnings in 2018. That clean slate was an empty, dirt-floor basement space in a historic building that has now become a “destination” for jazz lovers.
Kimura began by building an experienced tech team. He recruited Joey Christopher, a locally based front of house engineer and production manager, who recommended Mac McDonnell for those times he would be away on tour. McDonnell, who later became the club’s full-time FOH engineer, has a long resume that includes experience on tour with artists such as Johnny Cash, Paul Simon, Kirk Whalum and others, along with expertise in theatrical lighting.
Next, Kimura called his friend Marcus Printup, who plays jazz trumpet with Wynton Marsalis, to discuss how the club could support big-band jazz. “Marcus told me that their rider for smaller rooms specifies a stage that’s just under 22 feet wide and 16 feet deep,” he explains. “So that’s what we built for Parker. And last night our stage actually held a full jazz orchestra.”
Acoustics & Audio
As an accomplished jazz musician and member of Parker’s house band, Kimura sought the best possible sound and acoustics for his club: “One of the first things I did was contact my friend Steven Durr who agreed to design the room for me.” Durr, a noted acoustician and audio consultant, worked with Kimura and the club’s architect to meet their goals for the room, which would seat under 100 guests but have the large stage recommended by Printup joined by a host of additional artists.
Durr says the building presented “a very difficult environment,” and he began with a focus on noise control. “We started with the air conditioner, and I spent a lot of time getting it to NC20 or 30,” he details.
Next came a recommendation for a central (versus corner) location for the stage to foster improved predictability, joined by three proprietary bass diffusers on the back wall to help control low-frequency reflections along with absorption coupled with lattice work in strategic locations tuned to tame the midband region. He also designed a multi-layer stage with a resonance chosen to suit the performers. “The sound in a jazz club is all about the players, so they have to be comfortable,” he explains.
Durr teamed up with Kimura and McDonnell to choose the audio components and formulate the design of the house audio system, which he notes “is the connection between the artists and the audience. The loudspeakers are critical, and the system should disappear. If it sounds like you’re listening to loudspeakers, there’s something wrong.”
Just two Bose RoomMatch DeltaQ vertical array enclosures, one flying at each side of the stage and driven by a single Lab Gruppen power amplifier, provide symmetrical coverage to the entire room while also helping to meet the goal of being visually discrete, with classic White analog equalizers for additional tuning. The mains are joined by a pair of RoomMatch RMS215 subwoofers on the ground. Meanwhile, McDonnell and Christopher chose a Yamaha CL5 digital mixing console, procured from the Austin offices of Nomad Sound, as the anchor for the FOH position at the center/rear of the room.
Instead of in-ear monitoring, Durr recommended traditional stage wedges (QSC K12 in their monitor angle position), explaining, “With in-ears, the artists hear a mix from the sound engineer that probably sounds like a recording studio track. So they don’t know what they really sound like in the live environment.”
A wide variety of wireless and wired microphones are available for both voices and the many different woodwinds, brass, stringed, keyboard and percussion instruments found on the club’s stage (see sidebar). As the FOH engineer, McDonnell also provides the mix for the stage monitors as well as for streaming, with two DPA 4099 condenser microphones in the house add ambience to the streaming mix. But he’s quick to add, “Basically what the audience gets is pretty much what the stream is getting.”
Video & Streaming
Streaming was part of Kimura’s plan from day one: “I’d been watching Spike Wilner’s live streams from the Smalls Club in New York for years. Spike was a streaming trailblazer in the jazz world. He’s been doing it since 2001 and I knew he was attracting audiences to his club that way. Part of the reason I visited his club when I was in New York was because I’d seen his performances on streaming. So I contacted Spike and asked him how he was doing this.
Based on this advice as well as his own research, Kimura built a computer-based streaming system. “When Covid hit, I scratched that first system and built a new system with a new computer,” he notes. “I was tired of being limited by five cameras so I used the best components that I could get. Now, our streaming supports 16 cameras and uses the latest Black Magic video cards, and we added a new audio interface for better sound quality.” Using the club’s streaming system, he’s archived every performance since even before the official opening in 2018.
Big House Sound of Austin, which provided much of the audio equipment, also installed a basic lighting package prior to the club’s opening. Over the next couple of years, Kimura and McDonnell, whose theatrical degree has a specialization in lighting design, modified and added capabilities.
“Mac and I have spent months down there with lighting,” Kimura says, with McDonnell adding, “We host everything from a big band to a trio in this room. And we’ve worked with dance groups and drama groups like Austin Shakespeare who put on special shows like you’d expect in a performance art space. The lighting has to support all of that without overpowering the stream.”
“I didn’t want the audience to walk in and see blue light all night long because that’s kind of boring,” he continues. “I’ve enhanced the scenes we’ve created using primary and secondary colors. We have PARs that are zoomable and color changeable. And we use an iPad for the switch on the lighting console with a program called Luminaire that works beautifully. I can control the intensity of the PARs and we have strip lights along the walls and on the ceiling – all the way around the club – so we can light the walls different colors. And, I try to match the color and intensity to the song.”
One of Kimura’s goals was to make his club look and feel like a live performance theater and that included adding a blue theatrical curtain that encompasses the entire stage. “As far as I know, we are the only small jazz venue in the country, that has a stage curtain,” Kimura says “Some people thought I was crazy, but this is my dream club and I wanted this as part of the audience experience.
“Now, Mac, who also acts as our emcee, announces the show and then the curtain opens. That kind of drama sets the bar for the performance along with the lighting and the sound, and the talent on stage.”
The Business Model
The blend of a traditional jazz club with a live performance venue blend helped the club survive a year of pandemic-related closures and serves to bolster confidence in moving forward. From the beginning, Kimura has paid close attention to key elements like operational efficiency and customer satisfaction. People who frequent a typical nightclub expect to pay a cover charge and often stay for the evening.
In contrast, Parker Club guests purchase advance tickets to one of two 90-minute shows on a typical evening. Two performances effectively doubles the club’s capacity, and the show concept contributes to the club’s reputation as an Austin destination.
Once inside, members of the audience relax in comfortable seating at reserved tables and enjoy drinks from a full-service bar while they experience terrific music. Along with its talented house band, the club regularly hosts world-class artists such as the Count Basie Orchestra, Nester Torres, Joey DeFrancesco, Mike Stern and Kenny Garrett. And the venue’s modest size helps cultivate a personal connection between these artists and the audience.
The quality sound, stage and lighting production elements are also key elements in its business model, while the superb live streams, available on multiple platforms, helps attract its live audience. “I don’t have a marketing budget because the stream is all the marketing we need,” Kimura notes.
During the pandemic, live jazz from the Parker Club stage continues via the streaming, and Kimura considered putting up a pay wall to monetize the platform, ultimately deciding to simply request donations. The strategy worked well during the pandemic as loyal patrons tuned in and donated.
The approach has also resulted in something of a “sound stage” where artists such as trombonist Aubrey Logan can perform live for a worldwide audience. “When Aubrey plays our club, we have a live audience but we don’t stream the show for free,” Kimura says. “If her fans want to watch, they pay a nominal fee. We use a pay wall for this and do it as a service for Aubrey. We even do her shows in the middle of the day for her European audience.”
“Moving forward, we may decide to do a similar thing ourselves,” he continues. “During the pandemic, fans didn’t want to pay because there were eight million artists all streaming for free from their living rooms. Now, those same fans are getting tired of watching a stream from someone’s iPhone with lousy sound and lighting. The cream is rising to the top. And I believe what we offer is on a par with shows like Austin City Limits, so there may be a way for us to monetize our stream in the future. But for now, the stream is our marketing plan.
“I’ve not spoken with a single person who has played our room and didn’t leave completely dumb-founded with how good the room sounded,” he concludes. “After Wynton Marsalis sat down and played with our house band, he pulled me aside and said this was one of the best sounding rooms he’s played in. So, we’ve had some pretty heavy guys on our stage who all said we’ve done a good job.”