In an age when it’s increasingly difficult to forge a career in any area of the music business, he’s a rare example of a success story in many different wings of the industry—drummer, bandleader, producer, concert promoter, and club owner.
A resident of the New York City area since the mid-’80s, Cecil Brooks III has been an A-list drummer for jazz legends such as Houston Person, Phyllis Hyman, Jack McDuff, Terence Blanchard, Geri Allen, John Hicks, and Stanley Turrentine. He’s led his own groups for most of his life, including current projects the CB3 Band and the organ trio Hot DOG (drums, organ, guitar). A natural-born organizer, Brooks has much experience as a concert promoter and as a producer for the jazz labels Muse and Landmark.
Early in 2000, Brooks began to feel a bit restless. He attributes this somewhat to the “empty nest” phenomenon he experienced after his youngest son moved out. The drummer and his wife, Adreena, felt the need to take on a new project and give their lives a different kind of focus. Since 2003, they have been owners of Cecil’s, a major jazz club and restaurant located in West Orange, New Jersey.
There’s a small but rich tradition in jazz history of drummer-owned clubs, including Buddy’s Place in New York City— named after Buddy Rich—and Shelly Manne’s Manne Hole in Los Angeles. Cecil’s features a wide variety of music with a focus on jazz, reflecting its namesake’s tastes and talents. Some of the biggest names in the genre have performed at the club, including Wallace Roney, Kenny Garrett, George Benson, T.S. Monk, Steve Smith, Jeff Watts, Ralph Peterson, Geri Allen, Hilton Ruiz, Steve Turre, Eric Alexander, Billy Hart, Don Braden, and the World Saxophone Quartet.
Brooks grew up in Pittsburgh, the son of bebop drummer Cecil Brooks II. As a youngster, Cecil was deeply inspired not only by his father’s playing but also by the professionalism, dedication, and dignity the elder Brooks displayed. We begin our conversation there.
Cecil: My earliest impressions of musicians were totally positive. My father didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, didn’t cuss— he was just a solid dude. He had a day job and played music at night. He would come home between the day job and the night job and take a little nap, and then he would put on a nice suit and go to his gig. I just thought that was the hippest thing in the world. Later on, once he started taking me with him to gigs, I would sit in the corner and see the joy that music brought people. In turn, they would treat musicians with respect.
When you look at the compensation back in those days, musicians would make $75 or $80 per gig—that was quadruple what an average person made working a day job. My father often boasted that he was doing his day gig just for health insurance! Of course, we’re talking about before home entertainment; if you wanted entertainment, you had to go out to see it. You could charge for good entertainment, because it attracted people.
MD: What brought you to open your club after fifteen years on the New York jazz scene?
Cecil: What put the seed in the mind to open the club was being a record producer and having the opportunity to help artists obtain record deals. The producing thing happened naturally, just being the guy in the studio who made suggestions that gave life to the recording. I became the go-to guy; musicians I was recording with would ask, “Cecil, what do you think?” Eventually that became, “Hey, man, can you help me with my record?”
My wife, Adreena, and her family have experience owning real estate and restaurants. She comes from a strong background of entrepreneurship, and I had all this experience with concert promotion, producing, knowing all these artists, and loving to create music, so it just seemed serendipitous. I saw an ad in the paper one day for a bar/restaurant with a liquor license included. When I walked in, it was like a flash went off, and that’s where the journey began.
A lot of musicians ask me, “How can you be a businessman and an artist and not have them conflict?” My answer is that the business part comes as naturally to me as the music part. I think everyone is talented in various ways. For example, you may find someone who plays great saxophone but is also a great carpenter. I’ve always had a natural aptitude to do business and to play and not have them conflict.
MD: What were your goals in opening this club?
Cecil: Specifically the goal was to make available and accessible a brand of music that is nonrestrictive to the artist. The only requirement is that they swing and groove. There’s a term I invented, ESFI, which stands for emotion, sound, feeling, and intellect. Every style of music imaginable, if it’s good, has those qualities— classical, rock, jazz, everything.
Another goal was to have a venue that musicians would be comfortable playing in, as far as the sound and stage setup. We built a stage, paying a lot of attention to the dimensions. We put 10,000 pounds of sand in the stage, insulation on top, then plywood. Underneath the stage is a twelve-foot drop, which made for the perfect sound chamber. On the walls, we used special acoustic tiles with little pockets in them, as opposed to regular painted tiles, which would have created a glassy kind of bounce. I went in every day for months, just trying to fine-tune the room. We went for a good-sounding room, and we ended up with a great sounding room.
The main reason I did that is out of the spirit of being a drummer. How many rooms do we play in where the drums are too loud or the sound is too dead? I wanted a room where the drummer could play comfortably and project. Listeners can sit right in the front and it’s not overpowering, or they can sit in the back and still hear everything clearly.
MD: What have you done to get people to come to Cecil’s?
Cecil: The July Fourth weekend of ’03 was the soft opening. We spent lots of time, energy, and money getting the club up and running, but we opened the doors and nobody came! Apparently nobody really knew we were around yet. Fortunately I had been doing some work for Bill Cosby on The Cosby Show as the drummer and musical director. Bill, of course, is a huge jazz fan. I was at a rehearsal for a record date that he was doing, and he said, “Cecil, you opened a jazz club?” and I said, “Yeah, I thought I’d give it a shot.” So Bill said, “I’m going to come to the club and do two shows to help put you on the map, so tell everybody I’ll be there.”
MD: He did those shows as a favor to help the club?
Cecil: Yeah! His appearance was an all-out blast. CNN turned up and showed Bill Cosby walking in. Of course, everybody wanted to know what Bill Cosby was doing at this club. He did two shows, two hours each, and the only compensation he asked for was five bottles of water. We were able to put the money we made into the business and keep it going. Bill Cosby normally gets quite a bit of money for an hour-long performance, and he did a pair of two-hour shows. We really owe him everything. If it wasn’t for Bill, I don’t think we would have made it. When you look at the statistics for restaurants and clubs, a huge percentage of them close in six months, and a larger percentage close in two years due to undercapitalization.
A few years later, Nightline came here and did a thirty-minute segment on Cecil’s Big Band, and 30 million people saw that, in fifty-four countries. It also went into the in-flight entertainment for Delta Air Lines. Dave Marash from Nightline is a big jazz fan and a regular here at the club.
MD: What are the biggest challenges now, nine years in?
Cecil: The biggest challenge is certainly not the music. Here we have three businesses: the music, the bar, and the restaurant. They all require long hours and a lot of work. The biggest challenge is getting people out. In this day and age of “perfected mediocrity,” you have folks who are happy to just sit at home with their entertainment centers and computers. How do we get them to see the value of live performance and why it’s better than sitting in front of the TV?
Running the club has provided a lot of great moments and allowed me to work with a lot of great players. But there have also been a lot of hurdles. Keeping the arts alive is a challenge.
MD: What have been the performance highlights at the club?
Cecil: Man, there have been so many. Again, I have to mention Bill Cosby. Herbie Hancock has hung out here, and he signed the piano! Grand Mixer DXT, who played the turntables on “Rockit,” brought him here. Drummers such as Steve Smith and Jeff Watts have played here. We’ve had a who’s who of heavyweight cats.
I’ve also enjoyed having my own bands playing here. My organ group, Hot DOG; my quintet, the CB3 Band; and my piano trio—these groups were all formed here at the club. And I’ve had the opportunity to function as a club owner, record producer, bandleader, and drummer all at the same time by producing live records. Winard Harper, Don Braden, Anthony Nelson, and Hendrik Meurkens have all made live albums here.
MD: Tell us about having your dad play at the club.
Cecil: That was a great treat, because he’s one of the original bebop drummers. He played with a lot of heavy musicians who wanted him to come out on the road, but he was more of a family man. He’s just a great drummer—naturally talented. His playing and career inspired me to play, produce, and promote music and now to open up a club. It’s a real treat for me to bring him up here and have the opportunity for us to play together in a club that’s named after him.
MD: What advice would you give to a musician who wants to get involved in concert promotion, booking, or owning a club?
Cecil: Jump in and get involved, but make sure that you’re willing to give unconditionally. You have to put two hundred percent into what you do, and you have to do it for the music, not for self-glorification. Narcissistic behavior has no place in being a club owner. The music is its own reward.