Gail Harris took a brief break as the Dave Dowell Trio warmed up on the bandstand she designed and helped build.
Like the bandstand, pretty much everything at May the Jazz Never Stop, the stylish cafe that opened last April in Haddon Heights, is a handmade labor of love. The red, white, and-black decor, the student art on the walls, and the vibe are all very much in tune with Harris’ exuberant personality.
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She’s also blessed with energy as unstoppable as a red-hot jam session.
“Ladies, do you have enough glasses?” Harris asked a crew of helpers who were getting the room ready on a recent Friday night before pausing to answer my questions. We got interrupted a lot — guests were already arriving in search of a hug as well as a table — but the proprietor-hostess didn’t miss a beat.
“I’ve loved jazz since I was a student at West Catholic High School in West Philadelphia‚" Harris, 62, said. “I’d come home from Mass on Sunday, and my mother was always listening to Frank Sinatra on the radio. She loved Sinatra.
"Later on, I would always say, ‘Someday I’m going to open up a jazz cafe.’”
A recently retired construction manager, Harris and her husband, Eddie, who works in landscaping, wanted their place to be the sort of venue they’d enjoy going to themselves, if one were near their home in Lawnside.
Although the Jazz Bridge organization presents monthly concerts at the Collingswood Community Center, and several South Jersey restaurants occasionally book a jazz act, most of the clubs or cafes in the region that feature the music exclusively are in Philly.
But after noticing an empty storefront on Kings Highway near Kunkel’s, the restaurant where they often have dinner, "I decided to use some of my 401(k) and some money from my mother’s estate” to transform the long-vacant space, said Harris.
May the Jazz Never Stop opened on April 8, 2018. “And this is what we created,” Harris said proudly.
Her cafe is a 50-seat BYOB at the border of Haddon Heights and Audubon. It offers live music on Fridays and Saturdays, along with regular Sunday brunches, and also hosts private parties and special events “that include a taste of jazz,” said Harris, who books the entertainment.
So far, about 30 performers have graced the bandstand just inside the front door, including well-known Philadelphia-area musicians such as vocalists Kevin Valentine, Paula Johns, and Ella Ghant. Signatures of these and other jazz artists cover a blackboard on the wall next to the stage, like a rainbow of local talents eager for a place to play.
“There aren’t too many spots like this that do live music anymore,” said Atco resident Dave Dowell, 63, leader and namesake of the trio. “Gail is very enthusiastic about what she does, and we want to support this as much as we can. I put the TV up on the wall for her.”
Like Dowell, his bandmates — Galloway Township siblings Bonnie Bennett on jazz organ and Jim Kauffman on drums — are veteran players. The two also have music in their genes: Their father played sax in big bands, their mother was a singer, and a grandfather was a drummer in vaudeville.
Kauffman, 62, studied at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. And Bennett, 59, was and still is inspired by the late Jimmy Smith, the pathbreaking jazz organist who, like the siblings, grew up in Norristown.
“There should be more venues like this,” Kauffman said. “More people need to know that this place is here,” said Bennett.
The room was quickly filling up with guests at a surprise party for retiree Eugene Lambert of Camden. "We said this would be the perfect place, because he loves jazz,’ family member Nicholle DeSesso said. “My sister-in-law fell in love with this place, and fell in love with the owner.”
The Rev. Dennis Blackwell and his wife, Ann, had driven up from Clayton. She’s a retired systems analyst and he’s pastor of Asbury United Methodist Church in Woodlynne.
Both are longtime jazz lovers.
“This is our first time here,” said Ann. “It won’t be the last.”
The Dave Dowell Trio was deep into a percolating version of “Black Orpheus” by Brazilian composer Luiz Bonfá when Harris took a moment from tending to her guests.