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Café Coda’s not going anywhere, despite the for-sale sign

The Willy Street jazz club plans to launch a new coffee and takeout service on March 19.

The Willy Street jazz club plans to launch a new coffee and takeout service on March 19.

The building that houses Willy Street jazz club Café Coda is for sale, but club owner Hanah Jon Taylor is staying put. 

It was a bit worrisome to see a “building for sale” sign show up recently on the front of the venue at 1224 Williamson St.: The pandemic has been starving live music venues of revenue for almost a full year now, and small, independent spaces are the most vulnerable of all. Owners John and Scott Brandt are selling the building, which includes two other storefronts and a couple of apartments. So far, that isn’t disrupting Café Coda’s plans for the future.

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“The building’s for sale. However, the potential owner has told me that the last thing he wants to do is make Coda move, and so I’m going to believe him… he’s a fan himself and that’s very good news for us,” Taylor says. Taylor declined to name the prospective buyer and the Brandts have not answered a request for comment.

During the month of January, Café Coda took a planned break from hosting live-streamed events. Taylor wanted to revamp the venue’s streaming setup and reconfigure the bar with takeout service in mind. On March 19,  the venue will begin hosting a “Jazz Breakfast Hour,” offering coffee service with espresso drinks and Madison Sourdough pastries, Monday through Saturday, 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Patrons who stop by during those hours will be able to catch screenings of jazz footage and possibly some live rehearsals. The club is adding outdoor seating. 

Taylor says he hopes that the coffee service will “be a revenue stream that will keep us financially buoyant, because,” he jokes, “everybody likes coffee but me.” The club has also been raising money through a GoFundMe campaign, and secured some relief funding through a state grant program for venues. Those funds, and the popularity of Café Coda’s live-streamed events, have Taylor feeling confident about the road ahead.

Taylor is not planning a full-on return to in-person shows just yet—as it is, he’d only be able to allow 25 percent of the club’s indoor capacity of 99 people, and the club has cleared more space in its bar area to help with social distancing. Especially if those live rehearsals include wind instruments, people will need to stay far back from the stage and keep their visits brief. In any case, the coffee service offers a chance to support a vital music venue without lingering indoors with others.

Live-streamed programming will continue as this new venture unfolds, and as venues across the country puzzle out when it will be safe or financially viable to truly re-open. “I think our biggest challenge after March is going to be crowd control,” Taylor says.

Over the past year, Café Coda has launched an impressive slate of streamed programming. In fact, few other live venues in Madison have made the switch so quickly or ambitiously. In addition to sets from Madison-based musicians (plus others from around the region), Coda’s Facebook page and YouTube channel have hosted visual-artist interviews from Art Toast, online versions of the venue’s “Cool School” program for young musicians, talks and interviews hosted by Madison-based rapper/educator Rob Dz, Madison musician Stephanie Rearick’s The Human Show variety program, and Fermat’s Last Theater Company’s celebration of James Baldwin. Many of these events have attracted hundreds, sometimes even thousands, of views. 

Coda’s certainly aren’t the only live-streamed music options emanating from Madison—other highlights including streaming-focused studio The Spaceship and the DIG jazz series, which continues this Friday with standout trumpeter and composer David Cooper’s Drift quartet. But the dozens of online events Coda has hosted since last April have given it a global footprint. The club was also attracting plenty of sought-after touring artists even before the pandemic, thanks to Taylor’s booking efforts and those of partner organizations including the non-profit BlueStem Jazz. The shows that Coda had to cancel last spring included visits from the Sun Ra Arkestra, daring trumpeter Jaimie Branch, and legendary Ethiopian musician Girma Bèyènè.

While it’s secure for now, Café Coda has been displaced by Madison’s gentrification-wracked real estate market once before. The club initially opened in 2017 in the former space of State Street bar The Fountain. This was meant to be a temporary location, but the building’s owner evicted the club sooner than expected, to make way for a planned hotel development that still hasn’t come to fruition. All told, the first iteration of Café Coda only lasted about six months. It took the club just over a year to re-open in its current space.

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