MoJazz No Mo'
On MoJazz Cafe's last night, this past Sunday, owner Mo Morgen looked like a man in his element. His club was packed close to capacity, the music was sizzling, and cigarette smoke clouded the air so densely that Morgen could barely find the microphone. "This is what it's like in a Paris jazz club," he told the crowd. "I gotta go soak my eyeballs."
In an evening characterized by reluctant goodbyes, red-hot improvisation, and hilarious songs (pianist/vocalist Joe Petrone brought down the house with his version of an unpublished Cole Porter tune called "This Is No Shit"), the traffic was heavy with regulars and other jazz lovers.
In the end, ironically, it was traffic of a different sort that contributed to the demise of MoJazz. "A long, painful street construction makes it hard to promote a place to new people," Morgen says, referring to the public works project that has had 71st Street torn up for nearly two years. "Most people will drive by and keep going. And you can't rely just on regulars to bring in new people." According to Morgen, the club had lost about two-thirds of its patrons since construction began.
Morgen says he is planning to sell the eight and a half years remaining on his lease to a local investment group that will turn the space into a Mediterranean restaurant and music club, showcasing jazz and other genres.
Traffic wasn't the only factor that doomed MoJazz. Morgen insists South Florida's fair-weather fans also played a role: "The basic problem facing everything in South Florida is that people don't feel an urgency to go out unless there are perfect circumstances. If there's an important sports event on TV, forget it. And then there's the media hysteria with all the weather warnings. People here like to say that they have perfect weather, but it's the biggest myth. So when the weather report is threatening, you automatically have a 50 percent drop in attendance, and that's not just for outdoor events."
Morgen took pains this spring to improve attendance by adding an evening of Latin jazz to his weekly lineup. But the gambit backfired. "People liked it, and it brought in a younger crowd, but it also brought in a later crowd. That worked against us, because the older dinner crowd wouldn't come in. Besides, we could only make it work through word of mouth. We couldn't advertise because we'd just lose money. People are not likely to take a chance unless they had come in before and knew it was nice."
Vocalist and saxophonist Morgen arrived in late 1992 from New York, where he oversaw the Jazzmania Society club from 1975 to 1984. He ran MoJazz for four years, during which time he offered some of the world's finest musicians. "I walked in and said 'This is a great room,'" Morgen recalls. "I could have it for a song, so why not open a New York-style club?"
Since opening in April 1993, MoJazz has hosted performances by dozens of world-class jazz artists, including Ira Sullivan, Eric Allison, Gary Campbell, Eddie Higgins, Billy Marcus, and South Florida's top talents, such as Joe Donato, Melton Mustafa, Mike Gerber, and Nicole Yarling. In the past couple of years a roster of Latin jazz artists joined the MoJazz constellation, among them Carlos Averhoff, Johnny Conga, and Luis Miranda.
The club was well-known for its periodic superjams, including Sunday night's closing set and a recent fundraiser to benefit Eddie "Gua Gua" Rivera. "There's been no place where people can be free to play in an environment like this, that nurtures the music," Morgen contends. "And I don't know of a place with a cross section of cultures, ages, and income groups mixed in the audience like this. Most places have a certain kind of crowd -- yuppies socializing, people drinking, the pick-up and party crowd that doesn't listen to the bands."
Despite drops in attendance at the club, the quality of its music kept many coming back. "We got an incredible amount of unsolicited praise from people who said they had the time of their lives, but a lot of them didn't come back, or they would return months later, spreading out their visits," Morgen reports.
But to some jazz fans, even musicians, MoJazz's failure wasn't just a matter of fickle fans but of Morgen's own management.
"He did things like close down the place to go on vacation and change the cover charge," says Luis Miranda, an Afro-Cuban percussionist and bandleader whose group, Final Touch, played regularly on Thursday night for about a year. "Why not have just one cover? It ruined the place, because once you lose the crowd, you can never get it back."
According to Miranda, Morgen was also inconsistent when it came to paying his musicians. Morgen, he contends, didn't pay his bands but made them play for the take from the door. On a bad night, this meant little pay, and Miranda says recently there were more and more bad nights.
Another source, who preferred to remain off the record, said Morgen's own abrasive personality -- and his tendency to hog the spotlight -- made him hard to work with. "Mo is very dedicated to music, but he's a musician first, then a businessman. He's a little rough around the edges. He liked to play with the world-class musicians he brought in. But he's not a world-class musician. It made you want to say, 'Hey, Mo, give it a rest.'"
As is his wont, Morgen remained unbowed in the face of criticism. He insists, for instance, that MoJazz's fluctuating cover charge was a necessity, not a heedless whim. "People think music is this ethereal thing that should come with dinner or drinks," Morgen observes. "I guess I could have gone the way of those places that charge eight dollars for a glass of house wine, but I didn't think our crowd would go for that. Most people were not resistant to paying a cover for large bands. If you give people more, they're willing to pay for it."
Morgen agrees that musicians like Miranda don't get paid enough, but he says he didn't pay his players any less than they could expect to earn elsewhere. "The Latin jazz guys during the week got paid low, but it was a respectable amount. Even in New York, musicians work during the week for nothing -- it's like they got paid to rehearse."
As for his own personality, Morgen insists he's an "easygoing person. If you talk to the guys who worked with me, they'd tell you they all love me. I think the people who grumble are those who don't get asked back. But I can't always choose people who feel they should be chosen. Some people in the press think I'm argumentative, but I only argue if something is wrong. I had to promote the club."
Whatever opinions they held of Morgen, jazz lovers agree that MoJazz will be missed. "Mo's a nice man and he's tried very hard to create a jazz scene similar to what he knew in New York. This is definitely a loss," says Kitty Ryan, owner of O'Hara's Pub, a successful jazz spot in Fort Lauderdale. "It's a loss for the musicians especially, because this is their livelihood, and their heart and soul. I don't know if it's a reflection of what the public wants or what club owners can afford, but more and more musicians are being replaced by DJs or electronics. It's a cultural loss, because people don't get to see players creating music before their eyes."
Others believe there are plenty of venues that can pick up the slack. "I think it's a shame, but there are still a number of good clubs, so I don't think it will be a big loss to the scene," says Bruce Scott, owner of the marketing firm Marquee Graphics and publisher of Heat Beat, a small magazine that serves as a guide to jazz and blues in South Florida. Scott points to the Van Dyke Cafe, Jazid, and the National Hotel, three prosperous locations also in Miami Beach that offer jazz six or seven nights a week. Meanwhile a number of places on the Beach and the mainland (Tobacco Road, the Taurus, Yuca, and Tangerine's, among others) have successful jazz nights at least once a week.
Like Morgen, Scott says he believes MoJazz was a victim of insufficient walk-in traffic. "Mo's was out of the way. It hurts to be off the beaten path. That's why O'Hara's does so well, and so do the clubs on Atlantic Boulevard in Delray Beach."
But Ryan disagrees. She notes that when she opened O'Hara's eight years ago there were few restaurants and no other nightlife spots on her patch of Las Olas Boulevard. "A place survives when it's a destination, when people know what to expect," she says. "I've seen it happen at a few places -- the club is publicized one way, but then it's not at all like what you'd expect. When a club changes policies, when people have to pay more or less, it's confusing to the customers."
Morgen now hopes to devote more time to his own music, but he admits he would be interested in promoting music again someday. "I hope someone is willing to put a MoJazz-type program in their place; I'd be willing to work with someone who is serious," Morgen says. "But I'm not ready for my own room."
On Morgen's last night in his own room, the club owner snapped pictures like a proud papa and herded musicians on-stage to make sure everyone got a chance to play. At about 2:30 a.m., Morgen bid the remaining crowd farewell. His goodbye was a simple one: "Keep supporting live jazz -- or start supporting it, I should say," he mumbled. The crowd burst into applause as Morgen waved, then pulled the plug to his own mike.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Miami, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.