New London — Sean Nelson’s love of jazz solidified while he was still in college and bought his first John Coltrane CD.
This love ignited the dream that he would one day found his own big band.
The dream traveled with him from his home state of Texas to Connecticut, where he moved 11 years ago to play in the US Coast Guard Band. However, it wasn’t until he came into contact with the people working to open The social bar and kitchen at 208 Bank St. in 2016 that the dream came true.
The Social quickly became Nelson’s home base New London Big Banda 17-piece jazz band formed in 2016. With the exception of a hiatus from the COVID-19 pandemic, the band’s catchy swing music has been drawing people to The Social ever since.
“You need a place that’s going to sound good for that kind of music and for that amount of sound coming out of the band, which is mostly acoustic sound,” Nelson said.
Nelson is just one of many musicians who have seen their careers flourish through a program of live performances performed at New London restaurants such as the Hot Rod Café, the Bayou, the City Dock and the Octane. Plus, the city’s dining establishments enjoy a wide variety of live concerts – from outdoor summer festivals and shows at City Pier, Waterfront Park and Hygienic Art Park to concerts by many big-name musicians and the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra at the Garde Art Center. Music draws people downtown, and more people downtown usually means more buoyant business for local restaurants.
For many years, a focal point and mainstay of this restaurant-musician relationship has been Daddy Jack’s, which opened in 2014 on Bank Street.
New London Mayor Michael Passero said he had developed a deep friendship with Daddy Jack owner Jack Chaplin, who died in 2021. Passero said many people were drawn to the restaurant to listen to music while enjoying a good meal.
“Jack was very connected to the music scene, the blues and the jazz scene,” Passero said. “He really took the restaurant scene and the music scene in New London and brought it to the next level; he really showed us how we should do it. My wife and I used to go there frequently, and there were so many people. other people who went there frequently, it became like a little club in itself, so you saw your friends and you saw Jack, and different bands played there.
But New London’s diverse music community has much deeper roots. The city became a hotspot for live music and a home for musicians in the 1980s after reducers left its mark on the community, inspiring up-and-coming musicians for decades to come. The Reducers formed in 1978 and for more than three decades filled local clubs such as El ‘N’ Gee Club on Golden Street, now the site of RD86a restaurant that also hosts live music.
A starting point
Wendy Bury, executive director of the Southeastern Connecticut Cultural Coalition, said the city’s restaurants are a springboard for many local musicians who aspire to play in bigger venues.
“It’s the path to becoming a top musician,” she said. “You start in the small, small places that will allow you to play in the background.”
Bury said restaurants in New London provide opportunities for local musicians to see what their followers like. “In general, musicians need to test their waters, and it’s a great place to watch a larger crowd, see the looks on people’s faces, and find followers who love their music,” she said.
In turn, Bury said, restaurateurs benefit from the diversity of the music scene because it draws a crowd. “Restaurants love to keep musicians in their spaces,” she said.
Rod Cornish is one such restorer. He opened Hot Rod Cafe at 114 Bank St. in 2005 and a year later, chef Carlos Pauear. Soon after, Cornish said they started creating the cafe’s signature wings together.
In addition to the food, customers come to Hot Rod for the music. Cornish said many local talents have played at his restaurant over the years, including Andre & Friends, DJ [email protected], Karl Kelly and RJ, the DJ who hosts karaoke for customers at Hot Rods and other restaurants. local.
Although he suspended live broadcasts during the pandemic, Cornish said he was slowly bringing the music back until he felt it was safe to return to the “pre-pandemic lane”.
“We’re kind of a sports bar, where all kinds of people come,” he said. “We’re kind of an eclectic audience, and music has always been part of what we’ve done.”
Cornish said when Andre & Friends play in the cafe it’s special. Andre “Dre” Charles is there every year for the anniversary of the restaurant’s opening and draws a varied crowd. Diversity is important to Cornish, which makes the band a great fit for Hot Rod.
“His band is diverse, and his audience is diverse, and Hot Rod’s audience is diverse as well,” Cornish said.
Karl Kelly, famous in New London for his role in the blues band Little Anthony & The Locomotives, even did a commercial for Hot Rod Cafe. Later in life he was known to be part of the Karl Kelly Band before he died in 2012. In the commercial he sang an original track “Going Down to Hot Rods”.
Cornish said DJ [email protected] has also been a Hot Rods DJ for 10 years and always brings a crowd.
“He can read a crowd,” Cornish said, “and people love him.”
Feeding the culinary scene
Cornish knows how great local gigs drive restaurant business. He sits on the board of the Garde Arts Center, the city’s premier arts venue located on State Street, about half a mile from his restaurant. When shows are scheduled at The Garde or Hygienic Art Park, a venue with an outdoor stage on Bank Street, downtown restaurants are packed.
“Our goal is to create a continuous flow of business so robust that restaurants and other businesses can survive,” said Steve Sigel, executive director of the Guard.
Sara Connolly, director of Hygienic Art, said that whenever an event is taking place in the park, patrons are encouraged to stop by local restaurants as well.
“Hot Rods, which is right across the street, every time we have a grand opening or a music event, I know it gets a boost in sales,” Connolly said.
Noah Feldman is a singer, songwriter, and instrumentalist who started playing professionally in the city at a young age. When he was just 15, his father noticed Feldman’s talent and began helping him book shows at local bars and restaurants.
“I showed some interest in it as a kid, and my dad sort of hung on to that, and when I was able to play well enough, and play well enough where I could get a gig, he helped me book,” Feldman said. “So I was 15 and playing in bars, which I think is quite unusual for the area. I don’t think I’ve ever booked a gig where someone was unhappy, and that was cool d ‘being out there and entertaining people, and you know, I learned a lot of music that way taking requests, and I learned a lot about the industry.’
Similar to Nelson’s experience with the New London Big Band, Feldman also began playing gigs at The Social in a show called Funktion.
“I’ve always had my eye on New London as a place I wanted to be, and so we found The Social,” he said. “The Social has such a great space, it’s big, and the management has been super cool and music friendly.”