Lofty ambition 

Aiming to take upscale jazz downtown

Envision a darkened banquet hall, lit by candles and light filtering in from skylights open to the night above. In this dimness, well-dressed ladies and gents sit at tables, sipping wine and conversing softly while live jazz or electronica emanates from a corner of the room. Maybe, in your mind, you’re in Brooklyn or Seattle. This weekend, thanks to Damon Metzner and Aaron Bolton, you could be in Missoula—and, excluding some ambiance factors like plush couches and fancy cocktails, it won’t just be your imagination.

Metzner, best known as the drummer of the local band Signal Path, is moving into music promotion, drawn by its potential for “sewing community together.” It’s that potential driving his involvement with a new venture called The Loft above Higgins Alley.

Currently, the banquet hall above the Higgins Alley restaurant (formerly Zimorino’s) houses occasional rock or punk concerts cobbled together by a variety of local promoters. Metzner’s aim is to transform the hall into a place where jazz, electronica and upscale quaffing combine to fill an empty niche in Missoula’s music ecology on a regular basis.

“I want to create or help facilitate or give a space to the jazz community to come and just congregate,” Metzner says, noting that The Loft doesn’t intend to necessarily take over the hall entirely, but just establish a theme that can recur as often as there is support for it. “Really, I just want a place where all these musicians can come together with each other and be creative.”

Metzner’s convinced that Missoula’s lack of a regular jazz venue doesn’t stem from lack of talent or interest. He’s working with former UM jazz band member Cody Hollow to book acts out of the UM Music Department and the local jazz scene, and they’ve lined up a sextet for opening weekend as well as backups eager to play whenever there’s availability. As for supplying an audience, Metzner sees evidence that one already exists in the once-a-semester jazz recitals put on by UM music students.

“I’ve been to the jazz recitals they have for the University and it’s packed,” Metzner says. “There’s always tons of people and they love it. There’s a few hundred people there that seem actively engaged in the concert and what’s going on, so I think there is support.”

Jazz might be the main motivation for Metzner, but that’s only half The Loft’s intended musical appeal. Metzner’s partner, Bolton, will schedule the lineup of DJs, aiming for a transition that eases from live jazz to downtempo electronica and, later in the night, into “tech house”—music that’s not exclusively dance-oriented, but still makes people want to move. To keep the vibe consistent, Bolton has engaged locals Taka and Morris the Pat as resident Djs and regulars who can establish the base from which guest DJs excurse.

The vibe Bolton says he and Metzner are aiming for is a “classy lounge” atmosphere, one that features dim lights, small tables, tablecloths, candles and table service. Metzner believes The Loft will draw attendance as much by virtue of the void it fills in Missoula’s nightlife as the musicians who will perform.

In Metzner’s judgment, Missoula’s downtown boasts “no place to go in a nice atmosphere, have a glass of wine and check out some good music with a date after dinner…There are a lot of places that are great for what they are. But there’s nothing like this…”

Metzner has convinced Craig Readman, the co-owner of The Loft, that there’s merit to his analysis of Missoula’s nightlife, reporting that Readman is “actively engaged in making this thing happen, too.” Right now, Readman’s support consists of providing the hall and some promotion for the evening. After putting together a few successful weekends, Metzner hopes he can parlay that support into some couches—furniture to definitively separate a lounge from a bar or, for that matter, a banquet hall.

But first, there’s the matter of getting the venue off the ground. With respect to that, Metzner expresses a willingness to be patient building a reputation.

“I would rather see it start small and build instead of just packed at the first time and then the numbers decrease and dwindle to nothing,” he says. “I want to build something solid.”

That patience might be required because, in Metzner’s words, “usually you promote a headlining act and that’s your draw to the bar. We’re promoting the venue and the space and the idea of what we’re trying to create as much as, if not more than, the individuals who are creating the music in the room…We’re promoting an idea and we’re calling that idea The Loft.”

Ultimately, whether The Loft becomes an instantiation and not just an idea depends on the success of the business. Metzner puts it more plainly: “whether the crowd is drinking wine and the bar is making money.”

So, while Metzner’s motive might be to serve the jazz community, the commercial has to cover the creative. By promoting The Loft as an upscale lounge, Metzner aims to draw patrons who respect musicianship—or at least the ability to have a conversation while listening—enough to raise a glass to it. This weekend, he finds out if Missoula will swallow that.

The Loft above Higgins Alley opens Thursday, Nov. 10, for jazz from 8:30 PM to midnight, and continues Friday, Nov. 11, and Saturday, Nov. 12, with jazz from 8:30 to 11 PM and DJs from 11PM to 3 AM. $3 after 11 PM.

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