The laid-back village of Stony Brook is poised to become Long Island's jazz mecca.
In a few months, jazzophiles will be treated to everything from museum-quality memorabilia to pulse-pounding live performances — all emanating from a two-story stone building on Christian Avenue across from Village Center.
The Jazz Loft will be a first for the Island — a pseudo-museum dedicated to the eternal appeal of all things jazz, with a focus on education, preservation and performance.
"Its mission is to celebrate a great American-born art form," says Tom Manuel, 35, a trumpet player and educator who's been passionate about jazz since his early teens.
Manuel, who will serve as the center's president and curator, said it will feature on-site jazz and other concerts, performing arts productions including dance and musical theater, plus workshops for kids, adults and the physically challenged. It's also intended to become a source for jazz studies.
Facing the Village Center's elegant boutiques, restaurants and specialty shops, the Loft promises to add a lively spin.
The Jazz Loft's cultural programs will be anchored by displays of Manuel's huge collection of jazz memorabilia, including original diaries and sheet music once used by sidemen in legendary jazz bands led by Harry James, Louis Armstrong and others, autographed photographs of great jazz artists, vintage instruments and recordings dating back to 1920.
Bounty in the basement
Most of the items had been entrusted to him for safekeeping by friends who are professional musicians, many of whom lived on Long Island. The growing collection was overflowing the basement of his St. James home, forcing him to troll for an alternate venue in universities and libraries on Long Island and beyond.
"The collection is too large; it would have to be digitalized with the originals buried in archives," he told Newsday for a May 30 LILife cover story. "I wanted it to be seen by the public firsthand."
The comment caught the attention of Gloria Rocchio, president of Stony Brook's Ward Melville Heritage Organization, who says, "As soon as I read the Newsday story I called Tom with an offer. I said, 'You need a building and we have a building. Let's get together.' "
Manuel's reaction: "I was literally speechless. All I could do was stammer out a thank you. It was an offer I couldn't refuse."
He signed a 49-year lease — costing Manuel $1 a year — on Dec. 7. The name of the center, he says, was inspired by the cutting-edge Jazz Loft in Manhattan in the 1950s.
"Most of my musician friends have since died," says Manuel, a teaching assistant in the music department at Stony Brook University and director of Jazz Studies at LIU Post in Brookville. "But they'd all have wanted me to share their legacies of treasures with the public, and I can think of no better way to do that than at The Jazz Loft."
The heritage group owns and manages 42 properties in the Three Village area (Stony Brook, Setauket and Old Field), including Village Center and the building to be occupied by the Loft. All properties were originally acquired by Ward Melville, who died in 1977.
Manuel is responsible for the cost of renovation and, under the umbrella of the group, he's seeking donations of funds and materials. His target for the Loft's formal opening is early summer.
New life for an old site
The building started as a local firehouse, then became The Suffolk Museum. In more recent years it was a consignment shop for fine antiques and has sat empty since closing about 10 years ago. The jazz center is the fourth incarnation.
The 6,000-square-foot structure, with freshly painted interiors, upgraded utilities, a new performance stage and display spaces, promises to be as much an attraction as the unique jazz collection it will feature.
"When I heard that the famous, nearly 100-year-old Roseland Ballroom in Manhattan was being torn down, I acquired some of the bits and pieces that might have been thrown away," Manuel says. "Sections of the original dance floor and some lighting fixtures in particular will find their way into the [Loft] renovation."
A cache of carved-oak paneling rescued from a demolished Gold Coast mansion will also "add atmosphere," he says. "A perfect finishing touch for an upstairs library for writers and students."
Stony Brook village and jazz might seem an odd pairing, but local history reveals a strong connection.
In the early 1950s, Ward Melville, an avid jazz fan, created a 2,000-seat open-air arena called Dogwood Hollow Amphitheater that was carved out of the hillside behind the Village Center.
"It was intended as a venue for jazz concerts," says Rocchio, of the heritage group, who lives in Stony Brook. "Ward Melville brought to Stony Brook all the greats, including Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller and Tony Bennett.
"Mr. Melville loved jazz," she adds. "I know he would have supported The Jazz Loft. It feels right; I knew it had to happen."
TO LEARN MORE OR TO DONATE
Visit the Ward Melville Heritage Organization website: WMHO.org
See Tom Manuel perform and conduct a virtual tour at indiegogo.com/projects/the-jazz-loft
Call 631-751-2244 for information.