C Grace: Finding a grace note


by Tracy Davis

photographs by Tim Lytvinenko

It must be jelly,” sang Glenn Miller and His Orchestra, circa 1942, “’cause jam don’t shake like that.” It seems poor form to contradict Mr. Miller on anything jazz-related, but the fact is that jam does shake like that during the open jazz jams at Raleigh jazz bar C. Grace. The bar’s craft cocktails require lots of shaking too, so really, the place is practically aquiver.

To see, hear, and taste what’s shaking at C. Grace, one must first find it. The first hint to C. Grace’s speakeasy nature is the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it black awning over plain stairs leading down from Glenwood South into a … basement? Step inside, and bam, it’s a whole new world. A sublimely dark, luxe, jazz-infused world.

“I like low light and dark places,” says owner Catrina Godwin, and C. Grace has an abundance of both. Named for her daughter, Catherine Grace, the bar pairs shadows with chandeliers, red brocade walls with candlelit café tables. Stretching back for what feels like half a city block, its plush velvet booths and lamp-lit corners are perfect for conversation.

In contrast, its main bar is an unadorned workhorse. “We don’t have seven or eight vodkas to choose from,” says head bartender Beren Houck. “We’ve got two. Because we have these.” He points to the tools of his trade: bitters and syrups, absinthe, vermouths, and liqueurs – all the potions that can elevate a drink into an experience.

But the very best cocktail at C. Grace is a musical one: The open jazz jams served up three Tuesdays a month. “It’s my favorite night of the week,” Godwin says. “You never know what the combinations will be.” It all depends on who walks through the door.

Godwin credits Houck with helping to get the jams started, and both point to talented locals who’ve made them thrive: Court Stewart, who plays piano and keys and helps to run the jams; and trumpeter Al Strong, one of the masterminds behind Durham’s The Art of Cool music festival.

A stuffed bobcat at C. Grace during their March 24 Jazz Jam.

On any given Tuesday, the musicians most keen to play are easy to pick out of the crowd. They seem to almost levitate as they wait. Even the set of their shoulders suggests a need to play right now. They all get a turn, and there’s an easygoing pattern to it. They trade places, share instruments, and swap the lead in the songs, most of which are jazz standards and American Songbook classics.

The audience is diverse in all respects, the single common thread being that these folks are snappy dressers. There’s denim, sure, but also men in suits and women in dresses, a smattering of berets and sans-irony waistcoats. There’s even a fellow wearing a full-on Charlie Brown striped T-shirt, and nothing says jazz like a Charlie Brown T-shirt.

They’re here for cocktails and camaraderie as well as music, so it’s not a “listening room” atmosphere. Plus, the musicians onstage are having their own musical conversation, playing for themselves and each other as much as for the crowd.

“It just works,” Godwin says.

A group of women sipping from elegant flutes have a hushed exchange – who’s first? Yes, people show up to sing, too. Their designee makes her way to the stage, confides that she’s never done this before, and proceeds to slay Route 66. Encouraged by an appreciative crowd, she stays for another song. Then it’s someone else’s turn, and on it goes.

Tempted to tote your instrument in with you? For those inclined to participate as well as partake, Houck suggests coming in to check out a jam or two first, and talking to the regulars. And, he advises, keep in mind that it’s a jazz jam, after all. “Just take the name to heart.”

Learn more at cgracebar.com