Jazz is dead: Take it from a popular touring jam band launched in 1998, or a popular recording label founded in 2017.
It’s the name of both.
The same doomsday outlook has recently been assumed — with some validity depending on the geographic market and especially locally — regarding the chances of finding either affordable or quality live music in general. And especially in finding both.
One such dead zone is the once-thriving Northwood section of northern West Palm Beach, which now appears close to flatlining status while featuring as many vacant as occupied storefronts.
Yet thankfully, the Italian restaurant Café Centro lives on to simultaneously dispel all such notions. Located at the corner of Northwood Road and North Dixie Highway in West Palm Beach, it features live music six nights a week. And while that in itself is a rarity, the fact that it’s live jazz makes it an additional destination for discerning music fans.
“We started playing there about five years ago,” says bassist Susan Merritt, whose self-titled trio features youthful piano and vocal sensation Dr. Gianni Bianchini and her longtime rhythm section band mate, drummer Marty Campfield. “There’s a dining room up front and a bar in the back, and both rooms have a piano.”
A jazz drummer capable of segueing between ballads and swinging intensity, at the low volume required in a restaurant, is a rarity, but Campfield has had that duality for decades in South Florida. Paired with Merritt’s impeccable fretless electric bass, the subtle drummer’s work sets a perfect table for Bianchini, whose taste and touch, technique and tone are all top shelf. A battle with throat cancer during the COVID-19 pandemic slowed Campfield’s roll, but he’s back in 2023, albeit with occasional necessary breaks that require capable substitute drummers.
“It’s been a tough couple of years,” Merritt says. “I’m glad he can still play, and grateful to have been able to work with him for so long now. I’m really spoiled.”
Merritt has been an area performer and piano instructor since coming south from North Carolina to play dinner theater shows in 1982. She and Campfield also once ran the Jazz Showcase, a nightclub that was located 15 blocks directly south. It featured future stars Medeski, Martin & Wood, members of Bela Fleck & the Flecktones after one of their SunFest appearances, and more between 1993 and 1996.
The Jazz Showcase gave it another go at the former Carefree Theater complex in West Palm Beach in 1997, memorably featuring star guitarist John Scofield’s quartet with saxophonist Seamus Blake, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Bill Stewart. So Merritt knows from experience how difficult it is to present an expansive jazz calendar.
“Café Centro is one of the only places I can think of that’s presenting this much live entertainment,” she says. “Especially jazz, which is wonderful for both the musicians and people who love this kind of music.”
Merritt’s trio performs on Wednesday and Sunday nights. On Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, it’s the Copeland Davis Trio, led by the Greenacres-based pianist who’s performed both locally and nationally, in both jazz and symphonic pops settings, since moving south from his native Orlando to attend Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton in the 1970s.
Inspired by pianists and musical arrangers as diverse as Ramsey Lewis, Ahmad Jamal, Liberace, Peter Nero, Henry Mancini, Quincy Jones and Burt Bacharach, Davis has returned to Florida after living and working in Las Vegas and Massachusetts. Along the way, he wrote arrangements for renowned pop vocal group The Fifth Dimension, and recorded three albums under his own name.
“The first recording I did is from 1976 called ‘Smouldering Secrets,’” says Davis. “The second, from the 1980s, features the horn section from Miami Sound Machine, and is called ‘Totally Outrageous.’ And the third is ‘Endangered Species,’ recorded in 2000.”
The bar portion of the café on its west end is nicknamed the Legends Room, which is fitting for area legend Davis, whose trio mates are bassist Val Shaffer and drummer Bill Alexander.
“Besides all the concerts that he does, this is one of the only places where Copeland plays,” says Joyce Kutsal, who’s owned Café Centro with her husband Sal Kutsal since 2007. “Since the COVID pandemic, more people have realized that he’s here and started coming to see him. He’s part of the Centro family.”
It shows. The Florida native is constantly being chatted up by patrons who are former college classmates; saw Davis perform recently with a symphony, or saw him play decades ago at some long-since-gone Palm Beach County establishment.
Shaffer’s intricate and supportive bass links the animated Alexander, Davis’s drummer of choice since the 1980s, to the bandleading pianist. And Davis’s trio has an improvisational telepathy, whether on low-volume show tunes, jazz standards, or instrumental covers of pop hits by Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye, or The Carpenters.
“Way back in the day, I established that my name would only be associated with one place at a time,” Davis says. “And I’ve managed to do that for all of my career. I’m in my third year at Café Centro now.”
The Kutsals have presented live music since 2009, but it wasn’t jazz at first. That purposeful decision came more recently.
“Initially we had Motown music, which we still have late on Friday and Saturday nights,” Joyce Kutsal says. “Shortly before COVID, we started booking Susan and Copeland’s trios and other jazz artists.”
In addition to its regular calendar, promoter Rob Russell started a monthly Monday open mic night in February that’s featured the likes of Dawn Derow, Mike McGann, Meri Ziev and Gregory “Popeye” Alexander. Russell has also been involved in the café’s intermittent cabaret and dinner showcases, which have included performances by the likes of Ann Hampton Callaway, Billy Stritch, and Carole Bufford.
If You Go
See pianist Kimberly Forman from 6:30-9:30 p.m. on Tuesdays, the Susan Merritt Trio from 6:30-9:30 p.m. on Wednesdays and Sundays, and the Copeland Davis Trio from 6:30-9:30 p.m. on Thursdays and 6-8:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays (with additional rotating Motown performers from 8-11 p.m. both weekend nights) at Café Centro, 2409 N. Dixie Highway, West Palm Beach.
Café Centro is open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 4-10 p.m. Sundays. Dinner and lunch options include appetizers, soups, salads, wraps, sandwiches, burgers, calzones, pizzas, pasta dishes and other entrees, desserts, domestic and imported beers, and house wines and spirits. A special happy hour bites menu is also available 4-6 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays. Info: 561-514-4070, cafecentrowpb.com.