Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Spirit of Churchill Grounds lives as Julie Dexter Sings in the New Year at Decatur's Mason Tavern

Julie Dexter
On July 31,2016 Atlanta’s longest running jazz club, Churchill Grounds, shuttered its doors with a final concert at its downtown location adjacent to the Fox Theater. For many it was a shocking reminder of how fragile the economic existence of community based institutions and artistic venues can be. CG was the love child of its owner, Sam Yi, who nurtured the art form we call jazz and fostered a sense of community within and outside of its walls. Jazz musicians found a home at Yi’s little club for close to twenty years. Musicians and fans alike could congregate, socialize, listen to each other, learn, laugh, cry, improvise, entertain and be a part of something bigger than themselves. The club also had its hard-core fans, those who don’t necessarily play the music, but love it just the same and want to preserve this most original of American art forms for future generations. The club was a way station for young, up and coming musicians who found a space where they were given a chance to test their mettle, experiment with new ideas and sometimes get the rare opportunity to play with some of the music’s luminaries and elder statesmen. When Churchill Grounds closed, it was like a gaping hole was torn out of the heart of the Atlanta jazz community.

The good news is that since the closing Mr. Yi has been fervently working on finding a new location to reopen Churchill Grounds. It was recently announced that Yi has come to an agreement with Beacon Atlanta developer Phillipe Pellerin, to open a new Churchill Grounds jazz club in the soon to be revitalized Grant Park development. This is a twenty million dollar, mixed use, inner city development project that will take time to come to full fruition, but Yi is hopeful that the new club will be ready in a year. In the meantime, Yi has been setting up “pop up” jazz concerts in a local Decatur eatery, the Mason Tavern. For the last four Thursday evenings, the Tavern has hosted some of Atlanta’s finest jazz musicians, all pulled together by local trumpeter/producer Terrence Harper and curated by Yi. The shows have been a fabulous success drawing an ever-increasing audience to the Tavern on Thursday nights after 9 pm.

Appropriately, New Year’s Eve was the perfect chance to offer a jazz inspired celebration to usher in 2017 at the Mason Tavern. The Tavern offered music after dinner with a special performance by British born, Atlanta based vocalist Julie Dexter and a trio. Ms. Dexter, an established artist who has released seven albums to date, has a smooth, soulful voice that easily traverses the most difficult of jazz changes with an instrumentally based scat style.

The trio was made up of pianist Alex Williams on electric keyboards, drummer Jonathan Mills and bassist Steve Brown. They started the set warming up the crowd with Chick Corea’s “Windows” and then followed that by a Joe Henderson classic “Recorda Me.” Pianist William’s got to stretch out nicely on some of the changes on these two gems from the jazz anthology. Bassist Williams showed some animated pizzicato and drummer Mills established the solid groove.

Julie Dexter, Steve brown and Alex Williams, Jonathan Mills is playing drums
Ms. Dexter came out to what appeared to be a full house. She started her set with the 1926 Henderson/Dixon classic “Bye Bye Blackbird.” Ms. Dexter has a captivating voice that can easily grasp an otherwise rambunctious audience’s attention with her beguiling delivery and buoyant stage presence. She can scat with an instrumentalist’s sensibility and makes it all seem deceptively easy. Bassist Brown added a nice Arco bass solo to this one.  Ms. Dexter continued with swinging version of “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise” which she sang with a raucous blues sensibility, showing deft inflections and a soulful earnestness in her voice.

Ms. Dexter continued the set with Mongo Santamaria’s rhythmically driven “Afro Blue,” followed by “The Meaning of My Love,”  which seemed to lose the band at times and then into “The Nearness of You.” Perhaps her most moving performance came with her rendition of “Willow Weep for Me.” Her ability to reach into the lugubrious lyric and make it her own was worth the price of admission. A vocalist of extraordinary elasticity, M. Dexter offered her own version of the serpentine Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson composition “Four.”  A song made famous by Miles Davis; the lyrics were written and sung by the great vocalese master Jon Hendricks. Ms. Dexter, an obvious student of Hendricks, successfully demonstrated her own vocal dexterity on this challenging composition.

As the witching hour approached Ms. Dexter did an abbreviated version of the classic “My Favorite Things”, a Broadway tune from The Sound of Music that was made famous in the jazz lexicon by the saxophonist John Coltrane. She scatted her way into a countdown to the New Year in true jazz style as we all toasted to a hopeful and healthful New Year.

Once again jazz lives and breathes in the Atlanta area with the help of flame keepers like Sam Yi. While we wait for the new Churchill Grounds to open its doors next year in Grant Park, it’s nice to know that for the foreseeable future Yi continues to bring this live music to the Mason Tavern on Claremont Road in Decatur every Thursday night after 9 pm. 

Check her sing "Softly as the Morning Sunrise" from the show:


  1. Ralph!!! Bravo. Simply.......bravo. Thank you for your completely accurate and beautiful description of the night's events as well as the plight of Churchill. We will have a Churchill because people like you care and share the magic that's created therein. I look forward to seeing you on Thursdays and reading more of your work.

  2. Every town needs a Mr Yi, especially San Diego where clubs and venues are drying up like no ones business. Wonderful to see that kind of commitment and dedication...thanks for writing about it.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.