“We will offer all kinds of music, from birth to earth, with a focus on jazz, classical, funk, rock, and the blues,” says Mark.
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The wooden dance floor is empty for the moment as the lights illuminate the black piano, and instruments set before red velvety curtains on the small stage. Music lovers start to mingle in, finding their way to seats and ordering drinks before the show. A calm but anticipated hush fills the air as the audience waits for the music to begin.
The musicians start to emerge from the back – drums, bass guitars, and the piano player assume their positions. Conversations stop as Al Copley begins to tap the white piano keys and for the next two hours’ soulful blues and jazz tunes bounce off the walls as the dance floor comes alive and music takes center stage at The Knickerbocker Music Center.
Rich with music history The Knickerbocker Café (previous name) located on Railroad Ave is a true testament to its soulful roots and is branching out to embrace the Westerly community. Known as a “storied music club” the Knickerbocker Café opened its doors in 1933, the same year national Prohibition ended. The well-known neon sign was a welcome beacon for club goers to unwind and listen to legendary greats such as Big Joe Turner, Albert Collins, Johnny Copeland, and Stevie Ray Vaughan and later Al Copley.
With a strong influence on blues, the Knickerbocker (or as the locals call her, “The Knick”) became the leading entertainment center in southern New England booking regional and national bands every weekend. “It was the original dine and dance club from the 1930’s to the 70’s,” says Mark Connolly, Executive Director of The Knickerbocker Music Center. “It took off as a music club and was packed every Sunday night, you couldn’t get into the place.”
Popular headliners Duke Robillard, playing guitar and Al Copley on the piano, started a band called Roomful of Blues and made the Knickerbocker their home club, belting out tough Chicago style blues. They later added horns and a touch of swing and the dance floor jumped and jived.
Mark, formerly the music center’s manager, has always loved music and even though his clarinet playing days as a kid ended when its wasn’t cool back in his day to play the clarinet, he is proud to be a part of The Knick’s famous history and the music center’s exciting future in the Westerly community.
The Knickerbocker Café changed to a nonprofit organization called The Knickerbocker Music Center back in March of 2015, with the goal of engaging more of the community, keeping the blues alive for families and all generations, and making it the biggest music school in New England. When the plans to build a music school in the expansive basement of the music center proved to be too costly The Knickerbocker reached out to the music community and formed partnerships with the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra & Music School and The United Theater.
The mission? To preserve, cultivate and grow the Knick’s unique brand of blues, and expand access to music of all genres, through a performance venue and as an exceptional center for music education.
With the renovation of The United Theater to begin in spring/summer of 2018, the Knickerbocker Music Center plans to set up its music school in the theater, offering music classes for all ages, both ensemble and individual lessons, even renting instruments to its students. Working in partnership with the Rhode Island Philharmonic Music School instructors will be local musicians and teachers from Westerly, South County, and Southeastern Connecticut.
Coming full circle, the Knick will welcome back some of their regional and national acts as part of their education and performance mission with Al Copley, Greg Piccolo and Duke Robillard teaching master classes to new musicians. “We want to get more of the community involved, we are not just a nightclub,” states Mark. “Westerly is a great community and we want to foster that as one spoke in the wheel.”
The recent Bricks and Murals festival really captured The Knickerbocker Music Center’s vibrant and eclectic history, commemorating its original café name after a train that passed through Westerly station to its iconic musicians, and the musical notes soaring into its exciting future. The Knickerbocker Music Center is all of Westerly’s to keep the stories alive.
Come celebrate music with upcoming local and national bands, fundraising events, and holiday parties! The Knickerbocker Music Center, 35 Railroad Ave, Westerly 401-315-5070 / knickmusic.com
**All photos courtesy of Mark Connelly and The Knickerbocker Music Center