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Make no mistake. This is decidedly not one of those chicken/egg conundrums.
When Ken and Christine Kitchings bought, refurbished and reopened the Old Lyme Inn, with its 13 cozy guest rooms and a world class restaurant and bar, they did so with great affection for the property and its history — and for the possibilities to come.
But it's a small, convivial room just off to one side of the facility that, all along, spoke to the heart of Ken Kitchings' desires.
"All my life I wanted a jazz club of my own," says Kitchings, an encyclopaedic fan of the music who has been actively involved in booking acts at New London's Garde Arts Center.
"Always in the back of my mind there was always the idea of a music room all my own where I'd make the decisions and take advantage of the incredible musicians not just in the area but in New York and Boston."
When he and Christine were initially looking at the Inn with thoughts of buying it, Ken focused on the area in the hotel that had once been an Italian restaurant.
"I knew at once that was the place," Ken said.
The Kitchings bought the inn in 2011 and spent a year and a half getting it ship-shape and with all permits and inspections in order. Once the doors were open and the operation running smoothly and to great acclaim, Ken turned his attentions to what is now known as the SideDoor Jazz Club — an admittedly speculative idea at an economic period that hasn't been particularly kind to live entertainment. But Kitchings wasn't worried.
"It's interesting," he says. "Jazz is not folk or rock; there's a different audience. It's not as large an audience, but it's there and the fans don't grow out of their love for the music. I wanted to tap into that."
Kitchings knew two things. The SideDoor is an intimate venue that seats about 75 people so he's not having to fill a 500-seat club or 2500-seat venue each night. That's a reachable goal if you're talking about devoted listeners.
Secondly, typical gig-routing for world class jazz musicians takes them from New York to Boston — and a four-hour stretch of I-95 where they might pick up a welcome stop along the way. At its equi-distant point, Old Lyme was geographically ideal.
The SideDoor opened in May in proper style — with a performance by jazz impressario and piano wizard George Wein and the Newport Jazz All Star Orchestra. Since then, live music (and crowds!) have filled the room each Friday and Saturday and most Thursdays.
Artists including Fred Hirsch, Jimy Cobb, Giacomo Gates, Phronosis, Al Coply, Jon Regen, Ferenc Nemeth and Iavier Vercher, the Freddy Cole Quartet, Manuel Valera and the New Cuban Express and the Donny McCaslin Trio have performed or are booked — or both.
"One of the most amazing things is to see the smiles on the musicians faces when they play here," Kitchings says. "They love the sound of the room and the sophistication of the audiences. It's different for them from the New York or Boston clubs — and we're getting
tremendous feedback. Artists tell us, 'You don't know what this means to us.' They call and say they heard about us from other players. '(Musicians) are bragging about your room. Can we play?'"
Kitchings says the mix of traveling guests who are staying at the inn, as well as folks who live in the area and come to hear the artists, has been rewarding, as well.
"We're establishing a presence on a lot of levels and building on," he says. "It's very exciting. Visitors will look around the inn and they sort of stumble into the SideDoor and maybe have a drink — and then you see them again. They suddenly get it. Jazz is a very small community. But maybe we're helping it grow a bit."
The SideDoor Jazz Club
Old Lyme Inn
85 Lyme St., Old Lyme