Quentin Rice, Contributing Writer
The walls are not cluttered with sports bar memorabilia, the lights are dim and the music — more often than not — is live at Emilio’s tapas bar, where VCU jazz students treat Richmond nightlife to some genuine jazz every Friday.
The unassuming bar has hosted a jam session every Friday for about 30 years, and VCU jazz students have preceded those jam sessions for the last two.
The Feb. 15 entertainers were members of Grove Avenue, a six-piece featuring Mason Klein and Robert Williamson on trumpet; Richard Albright on guitar; Cassidy Wilson on drums; Thomas Levine on saxophone; and James Joyner on bass. The group played a number of beloved and familiar jazz standards, including Miles Davis’ immortal “So What” and the bossa nova classic “The Girl From Ipanema.”
VCU Director of Jazz Studies Antonio García has been working with Emilio’s to keep a constant rotation of jazz ensembles every week, and he appreciates some of the real-world business lessons these performances teach his students.
“We have this ‘school without walls’ scenario where the students learn here, they go out and try it and make their mistakes in public, and they fix it,” García said. “They learn how the business works and they learn how to master their nerves.”
The setlists do not typically feature the barn-burning complexity that VCU jazz concerts can showcase, but it’s certainly not easy listening, either.
“It is the dinner hour at Emilio’s, so they’re not interested in the most avant-garde thing we could throw together. It’s not mathy, thrash metal jazz,” García said. “It’s not entirely easy. The folks at Emilio’s are enthusiastic jazz listeners.”
But, García said, students do play crazier, more complex jazz charts — just later in the night.
The students echoed their director’s appreciation for the growth opportunity the sets at Emilio’s provide them.
“This is the perfect place to make mistakes, experiment and start finding our voice, especially in terms of improvisation,” said trumpeter Robert Williamson.
Fellow trumpeter Mason Klein agreed with Williamson’s thoughts.
“The good thing about Emilio’s is that it’s a very student-friendly environment,” Klein said. “There’s usually a lot of older folks who play jazz and invite us to play with them during the after-hours set.”
Matt Sthreshley, who has been booking performers at Emilio’s since 2008, says the venue hosts a myriad of performers.
“Friday nights are totally jazz, Saturday nights we have house music from a bunch of different DJs, Tuesdays we have salsa nights. Sometimes we do open-mic nights,” Sthreshley said. “There’s always foot traffic coming in, and they always want to hear music.”
Going forward, Grove Avenue wants to introduce more original charts to these weekly sets.
“As we grow as a group, we’re trying to move on to having people inside the band write charts,” Williamson said. “I think that will really define us as a group when we start performing our own compositions.”