When I first walked into C. Grace, several months after turning 21, it was like stepping into another world. I left behind the technicolor whirlwind of modern life, the stumbling bar-hoppers and glaring streetlights of Glenwood Avenue, and walked into an elegant black-and-white movie.
The classy jazz bar, founded by Catrina Godwin in 2011, was like something out of the 1920s. Its lush velvet loveseats and dim lighting created a romantic, old-fashioned atmosphere where people could enjoy a good drink and good conversation or simply a good night out on the town. And while C. Grace didn’t have a dress code, it was the kind of place where an evening gown or three-piece tuxedo wouldn’t have looked out of place.
For a decade, C. Grace was the center of the live jazz scene in downtown Raleigh, regularly home to musical virtuosos like trumpeter Al Strong and pianist Ryan Hansler. In 2018, renowned jazz singer Carol Sloane performed on the club’s small stage. Jazz legend Branford Marsalis occasionally even occasionally haunted its doors.
Then, last month, it abruptly closed.
The club’s closure on August 20 was a shock to many. C. Grace had survived the COVID-19 pandemic, reopening in June 2021 after having closed for more than a year. By all accounts, its relaunch was a success. Even after the coronavirus, the club drew crowds.
Godwin—who has run C. Grace and its sister club Empress for the past 10 years—says she was ultimately forced to close both clubs this summer because of staffing shortages. Not only did her general manager leave for another position, recently, but Godwin says that most of her bartenders left last month. She still had an adequate number of servers, but with school resuming in the fall, the availability of her college-age hires was about to be drastically cut.
“I didn’t see any way to keep [C. Grace] open unless I went back to square one,” Godwin says. “[After my manager left], it kind of turned into a house of falling cards.”
Godwin, like many restaurant and bar owners, both in the Triangle and nationwide, has had trouble finding employees post-pandemic. Her workers usually fall into three categories—college students, career bartenders, and part-time gig workers—and it’s employees in that last category who are hard to find.
Many of the bartenders Godwin used to hire, who might have worked in hospitality one or two nights a week and also held down a day job, just aren’t there anymore, she says. She sees a lot of people working at Amazon or other large companies that offer comprehensive benefits. She thinks some potential hires may also have dedicated themselves to traditional careers during the COVID pandemic or developed a preference for working from home.
“Wherever they are, it has definitely cut down on the pool of people that would normally want to come and work in hospitality,” Godwin says. “[When we reopened after the COVID closure], it was really hard to find good people.”
Remembering C. Grace
C. Grace was beloved by hundreds, both patrons and performers. News of the club’s closure, posted by Godwin on social media last month, drew almost 300 comments. People shared memories of first kisses, weekends on the town, and legendary music performances.
“I’m heartbroken to hear this news; C. Grace is my favorite place to go in the Triangle,” wrote one patron, Rachel Mertz-Rodriguez. “Whenever I have out-of-town guests, my hubby and I treat them to a night of music and fancy drinks at the swankiest club in town.”
Many regulars recalled Mardi Gras or New Year’s Eve parties from years gone by. Others remembered the touching memorial held for pianist Courtland Stewart, who died in 2019 at age 45. Several commenters mentioned Godwin’s two fundraisers for hurricane relief in 2017 and 2018.
“The music we made there was incredible, only surpassed by the friendships, many whom are now like family,” wrote jazz vocalist Lauren Meehan Machos. “It was an honor to play music there and I will forever be grateful for having that opportunity.”
Above all else, C. Grace was a place for jazz musicians to play. It was a bar and often drew talkative crowds, but five nights a week, the stage was open to musicians of all shapes and sizes. On Tuesdays, amateur artists could join weekly jam sessions for invaluable experience and exposure. On weekends, local bands blasted jazz standards and improvised hot riffs.
“For jazz musicians like myself, [C. Grace and Empress] were a dream come true,” says keyboardist and composer Michael Pelz-Sherman. “Good, well-cared-for grand pianos, a house sound system, and an actual stage where the music was front and center, not an afterthought or a sideshow.”
C. Grace was a “world-class jazz club,” Pelz-Sherman adds, “on par with anything even New York City has to offer.”
Pelz-Sherman, like many other local jazz musicians, was a regular performer at C. Grace. The club was one of the few places in Raleigh jazz performers could find steady gigs, according to another regular, saxophonist Gregg Gelb. Gelb has played two or three times a month at C. Grace since it opened, he says.
“You didn’t go in there expecting to put on a concert,” Gelb says, “but there were many nights … when we just felt like we had the audience in the palm of our hands. They were really digging hearing early jazz. We would be fired up and the audience would be totally into it …. People were applauding and cheering the band on.”
Playing gigs at local clubs like C. Grace doesn’t make musicians enough money to live on, however, Gelb says. Often, performers supplement their income by teaching or booking other, higher-paying gigs like weddings or concerts.
“But [clubs like C. Grace] kept you playing and kept you vibrant,” Gelb says. “You could build up your audience. You could build up your email list. You could sell CDs. Being out in public, I tell you—it was great.”
Not everyone who went to C. Grace went for the performances, but, as Pelz-Sherman says, the music was front and center. At C. Grace, musicians had a real opportunity to “strike up a relationship with the audience,” Gelb says. And the audience had a chance to really listen.
“There were always moments when the band was doing things just right and the audience could tell,” Gelb says. “Some of my really hot soloists, like Steve Anderson, he could awe the audience at times. That’s the beauty of jazz, really, you just don’t know what somebody is going to come up with. And Catrina, thank God she wanted to have jazz—because where else do you get the opportunity to hear improvised solos that just knock you off your feet?”
For Godwin, the music and the musicians were one of the best parts of C. Grace, she says.
“I used to sit there and hope that everybody in the room would feel like I did and understand how lucky they were to get to hear the talent we have around here,” Godwin says. “We have so many talented musicians, and they all became friends of mine. I plan on still seeing them, but being able to go down every single night and hear live music from these people that are such great talents, I’m definitely going to miss that.”
Godwin says C. Grace is unlikely to reopen. She’s 69 now and is focused on a new project—one smaller than her last—a traditional performance venue called Seven, which will also be located on Glenwood Avenue. When renovations are complete, she hopes to produce theatrical and musical performances there, maybe even a few jazz concerts, she says.
Godwin says she plans to lease out the space that was once home to C. Grace and Empress. What kind of business will move into the former jazz club is unknown. But before that happens, Godwin wants to host one last hurrah at C. Grace, a farewell party for everyone who loved it.
“I had a great time at C. Grace and Empress Room,” she says. “I was just so lucky to be able to have a business that was so rewarding and so much fun. I got to meet so many great people and enjoy [the] music. It was like having a party every night.”
C. Grace, a family business, was also run with the help of Godwin’s daughter and the bar’s namesake, Catherine Grace. But Catherine is busy with a new baby and two restaurants of her own, she says—SideBar and Hank’s Downtown Dive, both in Cary.
“It’s definitely a sad thing,” Catherine says. “We’ll miss the music, but hopefully it’s not the end of jazz in Raleigh.”
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