“It’s not every day that an American main street gets a new Jazz venue,” read an announcement post, earlier this summer, for Missy Lane’s Assembly Room.
The new venue, located at 310 Main Street, is Cicely Mitchell’s latest love letter to Durham. It is slated to open late this fall.
Over the past 11 years, Mitchell has embodied curatorial ambition with a diverse, engaging slate of projects across the Triangle. Her accomplishments range from founding the Art of Cool Project in 2012 and organizing the Art of Cool Festival in 2014 to serving as Beyu Caffe’s booking director and curating the restaurant’s innovative jazz programs. In 2019 she took on the role of artistic director for the SummerStage event series at Golden Belt, and for the past three years, her entertainment consulting company, So When Do I Clap?, has led the stage activations at Boxyard RTP.
Collectively, these endeavors showcase Mitchell’s distinct ability to curate dynamic artistic experiences that leave indelible marks on Durham’s local music scene. Located downtown next to Weldon Mills Distillery, the 240-capacity venue will dramatically expand Durham’s musical footprint. It also marks Mitchell’s return as a presenter.
“It has always been a dream of mine to launch this space,” Mitchell tells the INDY in the lobby of one of her favorite meeting spots, the Durham Hotel. “It took me a long time to get back inspiration, to bring forth a concept. It is just very serendipitous on how it happened.”
Nish LeBlanc, CEO of Lennox and Grae, Inc., and a close friend of Mitchell’s, is the building’s owner; her invitation to Mitchell to explore the unfinished space, earlier this year, has yielded remarkable results. Although she was a little hesitant, at first, Mitchell says she was captivated by the space’s potential and the visionary essence of what a jazz venue in it could be.
“I thought to myself, ‘I’m gonna just dust off my old business plan and see where this takes me,’” Mitchell says. This spark of recognition of the venue’s possibilities set the stage for a new creative collaboration between the pair.
The venue’s name is drawn from a nickname given by Mitchell’s late grandfather.
“My middle name is Elaine,” Mitchell says, “but my people are from Greenwood, Mississippi. And so my grandfather said it so fast [that] together it sounds like ‘Missy Lane.’”
Jazz venues have historically played an instrumental role in preserving the cultural heritage of jazz music: they provide a platform for musicians to showcase their talents, connect with their audiences, and contribute to a local arts scene.
The Triangle is home to a vibrant and supportive environment for jazz education and appreciation: NC Central University has a well-regarded jazz studies program within its Department of Music (Mitchell is already planning to partner with the program to lead Missy Lane’s jam session), and while not exclusively a jazz school, Duke University offers jazz programs and has a strong presence in the area scene.
For all its credentials, though, the Triangle isn’t home to many designated public spaces to experience jazz. In 2018, with a renewed focus on expansion, Durham’s Beyu Caffe dropped its regular jazz-focused programming, and in 2022, after a decade-long run, Raleigh’s premiere jazz spot, C. Grace, closed its doors. There’s Sharp 9 Gallery, a spot serious listeners can seek out, but it’s not located downtown and operates more as a listening room.
In June 2022, the jazz community lost Meghan Stabile, a local promoter whose taste united jazz and hip-hop. Mitchell was inspired by Stabile, and the two had shared a close relationship that was solidified through their love for jazz. For Mitchell, the loss prompted questions about who will carry on the storytelling traditions of jazz and Black music for the next generation.
Missy Lane’s Assembly Room is one answer to that question.
Over the past year, Mitchell has felt the pull to offer curated experiences once again. When it opens, she hopes the space will be more than just a music venue: She wants it to be a multifunctional social hub for jazz lovers to enjoy themselves and connect. In the mornings, there will be a coffee bar and open meeting rooms in the front room. Beginning in the afternoon, a bar will serve cocktails; Mitchell also hopes the space will play host to “soul yoga” classes. In the background to all this, expect playlists made by Mitchell herself.
“That’s why it’s called Missy Lane’s Assembly Room—I envision it to be a space where Durham can commune together,” Mitchell says, adding that she views this new venture as an “evolution of cool.”
A distinct feature of the venue is its unique showroom layout, which features two different floor setups: one with cocktail tables and chairs for seated shows, and the other adaptable for standing shows. Mitchell and her team are looking forward to experimenting with how the music is experienced with the flexible floor set.
Durham is home to a lot of great music venues, but Missy Lane’s fills an unmet need.
“I think one thing that was missing [up until now] was a place that truly carries Black American music and Black culture in an authentic way,” Mitchell says. “The top venues in the area have been known to champion punk or indie rock. This is a space where jazz, funk, and R&B music is going to be booked regularly.”
Nevertheless, music enthusiasts from various genres will still have the opportunity to book space at the venue; Mitchell’s sole requirement—which remains consistent with the core values she adopted from her Art of Cool Project days—is that performances be live and not prerecorded or tracked. When asked about a dream lineup for an opening show, Mitchell excitedly lists 9th Wonder, Phonte, and Nnenna Freelon as her top picks.
Backed by years of professional experience, Missy Lane’s is giving Mitchell an opportunity to apply what she’s learned. When asked about the key takeaways from the Art of Cool Festival’s journey thus far, her response encapsulates a journey of evolution, creativity, and unwavering dedication.
“I want to revisit our earlier work from the Art of Cool Project, prior to launching the festival,” Mitchell says. “This entails curating local performers and elevating them artistically. My vision is to revisit collaboration with local musicians to create more jam sessions, diverse dance nights, like Latin dance, and open mic events. I also miss our custom performances, like Carolina Soul, celebrating artists such as Nina Simone and John Coltrane.”
It’s important to remember that the Art of Cool Project was started by Mitchell and Al Strong, a jazz musician who is also a product of NCCU’s jazz program. Collectively, the pair’s jazz roots run deep.
On October 7, Missy Lane’s will host Made in Durham: A Little Brother Block Party. Organized by Mitchell and her team, the event is set to celebrate 20 years of the hometown legend’s debut project, The Listening. VIP ticket holders will have access to the inside of Missy Lane’s, and the experience will also include drink tickets and small bites.
“I’m excited about activating that block and that specific side of downtown, because it’s right outside the loop,” Mitchell says. “People tend to forget about that area because it’s mostly government buildings and churches, but then something needs to connect the center of downtown with the corridor out east where Mezcalito, the Fruit, and Golden Belt are. And then further out there’s Rofhiwa and Mike D’s—hopefully, Missy Lane’s will be that connector.”
Comment on this post at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Support independent local journalism.
Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.