Descending into the underground entrance beneath the Maceo Elks Lodge is like traveling through time. The Young Men’s Hebrew Association built the brick edifice in 1914, when Jacksonville’s historically black LaVilla neighborhood was in full bloom. A vibrant music and entertainment scene earned LaVilla its reputation as “The Harlem of The South.” Nearly a century later, the monthly Jazz Poetry Café reclaims the area’s roots.
From the outside, no one would guess the tableau within. Incandescent lights are strung like stars against a backdrop of exposed-beam ceilings. Below are hardwood floors, black tablecloths and gold place settings. The wait staff dons red ties and white gloves. Attire: upscale chic.
Held the first Friday of every month, Jazz Poetry Café entertains between 100 and 200 guests each session. The vibe is relaxed and enchanting. Food can be ordered before the show starts, and the smell of jazz—a combination of soul food, perfume and essential oils peddled by four vendors—permeates the atmosphere. There’s a 20-foot-long bar flanking the right wall, serving as the room’s social anchor.
The event’s founder, Carisa Brown, has thought of everything. September will mark two successful years for Brown’s latest venture, but this isn’t her first rodeo. “I had a weekly Tuesday event by the name of Uptown Poetry Experience that was an open mic platform to recruit and train up-and-coming artists,” she told Folio Weekly. “I created Jazz Poetry Café to bridge the gap [between] where artists are in their career and where they aspire to be … If they so desire, we will coach, direct and position artists, via our connections and experience… obtain their dreams and solidify the importance of community connections while reinforcing the motto of ‘Each One, Reach One, Teach One!’”
Brown and her staff of eight have created a platform to propel local artists regardless of obstacles. They have seen people go on to achieve their dreams. “One artist by the name of Dawn Thompson did just that!” Brown explained “Ndamix Music Group was invited to see the thriving talent at Jazz Poetry Café. When they arrived, they were overly impressed with her performance. They offered her a chance to open for James Fortune which led to the release of her hit single, ‘The Promise,’ which is now leading on two music charts!”
Each edition of Jazz Poetry Café follows a formula, with four predetermined singers, 4 appointed poets, an open mic session and a phenomenal jazz band—all introduced by a guest emcee. Conscientious of keeping things both fresh and tastefully upscale, there is a vetting process. “The artist are either artists I’ve heard perform live or they’ve submitted video auditions,” Brown said. “We’re trying to get prime talent.” She also uses the event’s open-mic segment as an audition of sorts.
July’s featured band is King and Company. The Jacksonville jazz band provide backup for singers Anisi Powell, Dalisha Monique Colbert, Edward Brown, Jamese Mitchell, Lyric Law and Joyce Quiller. Three poets and spoken word artists also take the stage: Fenton Reese, Love Reigns and Watt Young. July’s guest emcee is Floyd R. Crawford Jr.