Though there are no venues shuttering, for now, tectonic shifts in Durham’s live music scene are happening as a downtown hub for jazz ends its regular programming at the end of the year and a new concert venue opens its doors in Lakewood. It would be easy to read these concurrent developments as further evidence of a rapidly gentrifying city, but, if you ask the owners, the changes reveal more about their specific passions than they seem to reveal about the economics of live music in Durham.
Beyù Caffè, which has been a staple of the Durham jazz community and a beacon of black business downtown since it opened in late 2009, recently announced in a Facebook post that the start of 2019 would mark the end of its live music programming.
“After much reflection on the changing landscape of downtown Durham and the evolving business model of Beyù, our owner Dorian [Bolden] has decided to make the difficult choice to refocus the business’ efforts and energy on its original passion and scope—coffee,” the post reads. “In a word, Beyù Caffè is returning to its roots.”
Started by Duke alumnus Dorian Bolden, Beyù (pronounced “Be you”) Caffè has evolved in the decade since its opening into a full café and restaurant with breakfast, brunch, lunch, and dinner service with a bar, in addition to a live performance space.
Many of the café’s followers expressed dismay in the comments, accusing Bolden of catering to a changing demographic downtown—a euphemistic way of saying that Bolden was turning his back on his longtime customer base in favor of attracting more white patrons.
“I have been wrestling with this decision for a very long time,” Bolden says. “The saddest part and the hardest part of putting on live music was that people don’t realize what it takes to run a music production unless things go wrong. It was a choice between being a jack of all trades and master of none, or picking a lane.”
Although the café is known for its live performances, the story penned by Bolden himself on his website emphasizes his love of European coffee and how working at cafés in New York City prepared him to start Beyù. Even before he opened Beyù’s doors downtown, Bolden was going to house parties with his “Heart and Soul” coffee blend to share his vision for this café.
In 2016, as rents rose downtown, Bolden decided to move just a few storefronts down to its current location at 341 W. Main Street. With financing from Self Help, Bolden bought the space so the business would no longer have to lease from a landlord.
“Why it was such a difficult decision is that I want to make sure we do have a place where we can celebrate another ten years,” Bolden says. “I want to make sure this is a community gathering place and that we can continue to be a part of downtown growth.”
Over the years, a slate of impressive and beloved musicians have performed at Beyù, including Branford Marsalis, Nnena Freelon, and Cyrus Chestnut. It also was a space where many musicians honed their chops, whether up-and-coming percussionists or renowned vocalists. The café was also a staple venue in the Art of Cool festival, as well as in Duke Performances programming. Cicely Mitchell, co-founder of the Art of Cool festival, says she found out about the decision to end live music from social media. It came as a total surprise.
“I think that this poses a huge impact on the jazz and live music community,” Mitchell says. “There is an opportunity to see how resilient the community is. I am optimistic that the musicians, deejays, and audience will find or create a space to connect through live music very soon.”
The impact on the jazz-forward Art of Cool festival will likely be minimal because of its programming across several venues, but Beyù is still one less venue for the festival. And it’s one less stage for jazz hopefuls across the Triangle. Bolden says he’s sympathetic towards those who disagree with his decision.
“Beyù has provided music for so many years, and it is a part of people’s lives and memories, so, yes, of course, there is anxiety,” he says.
Still, Bolden insists that this decision to focus on the communal coffee shop is a good not just for the longevity business, but for the Durham community writ large.
“Let us remember that in April 2018, two black men were arrested in a Starbucks for doing absolutely nothing. Beyù Caffè was one of the top coffee shops listed as one of the places to go and support black business in the coffee industry,” Bolden says. “That goes to the importance of bringing together this space for safety and inclusion and diversity.”
Meanwhile, on Chapel Hill Road, a new venue for music will officially open on December 7: Rhythms Live. Owned by husband and wife Victor and Jerre Graham, the venue promises to be “re-expose our adult populations to the music they love and demand,” according to its website.
Victor Graham says the venue is a culmination of a twenty-year journey that began with a fortuitous childhood where he saw Elvis Presley and Jackson Five back to back in the same audience as Johnny Cash and Jerry Lewis; happened upon a KISS performance when they were a lounge act at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee; and met Earth, Wind and Fire shortly after their first album. To Graham, all these encounters were a harbinger of a musical future to come.
“Something hit me—some people call it an epiphany, some people call it the Holy Spirit—and it led me on this long journey to today to what we call Rhythms Live,” Graham says.
A self-professed “country boy” from South Carolina, Victor moved to Durham in the early eighties straight out of college after visiting a friend.
“I visited Durham for the first time in 1983, and the moment I saw Durham, I knew automatically, this is where I want to be,” Graham says. “I could smell the opportunity in the air.” He’s lived here ever since.
Before opening this venue, Jerre Graham, Victor’s wife, was a banker. Graham himself still works with senior citizens, helping them with estate planning and insurance claims. Last year, faced with an empty nest and a looming retirement, the Grahams decided to move forward on Victor’s decades-long dream: to open up a music venue.
“I remember the day exactly: August 28, 2017,” Graham says. It was the day he walked into the space that more than a year later would become Rhythms Live.
The venue is located in the Lakewood Shopping Plaza near the Scrap Exchange. According to Victor, the Reuse Arts District played a pivotal role in the decision to move to the neighborhood.
“They really embraced us and the concept,” Graham says. “I was looking for them, and they were looking for me.”
While Beyù boasted low admission prices (usually under $20) and a range of shows from amateurs and seasoned professionals alike, Rhythms is actively courting an older audience for “classic” acts, with a fully seated venue and much pricier tickets (tickets for the venue’s opening show featuring Blood, Sweat and Tears are $60, which includes an entrée from the dinner menu as a grand-opening treat). Rhythms also will have a full dinner service and a bar. Victor Graham is especially excited that the venue also has free and accessible parking.
The venue’s early line-up of shows includes country music singer Crystal Gale, R&B artist Jeffrey Osborne and Grammy-winning guitarist Larry Carlton. Graham says that he believes that Rhythms Live is a good complement to existing venues: smaller than DPAC, but bigger than more intimate jazz clubs in the area like Sharp 9 Gallery.
“The music scene here is just as strong as any music scene in the country,” Graham says. “We feel as we grow, we hope we will be in a position to engage the community and serve it.”