All That Jazz: The Jewell Jazz Club Features Tasty Food, Great SoundsJun 25, 2020 12:02PM ● By Tim Trudell
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
People once packed Omaha’s dance halls to listen and dance to the sweet sounds of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Ella Fitzgerald. Even the great Nat King Cole performed in Omaha. It was a different world then. Clubs such as the Dreamland Ballroom, Carnation Ballroom, and Allen’s Showcase Lounge routinely drew large crowds in North Omaha's 24th and Lake area known as “The Deuce.”
The area was booming. Businesses filled storefronts. People had money in their pockets. They wanted to party. And jazz clubs were there for their enjoyment.
Celebrating jazz's influence on Omaha's music scene was the impetus of opening The Jewell jazz club, said Granville Sharpe, the club's general manager. The longtime jazz fan has been involved with The Jewell since shortly after it opened in February 2019. Located in the Capitol District, next to Omaha Marriott Downtown, The Jewell took its name from the North Omaha building that was home to Dreamland Ballroom. Located on the top floor of the Jewell Building, the ballroom remained one of the area’s major night clubs until it closed its doors in 1965. The Jewell Building was named to the National Register of Historical Places in 1983.
Sharpe, an Orlando, Florida, native, has loved jazz music for as long as he can remember. Family friend Eric Rutledge gave him a saxophone when he was around 10. He became infatuated with the sound and continued to play through his youth. The chance to work at The Jewell brought back childhood memories.
“It just reminds me of hanging out in my grandfather’s study with Duke Ellington vinyls and his cigar smoke,” Sharpe said.
Following a stint in the Air Force as an intelligence specialist, he was stationed at Offutt. He decided to stay in Omaha.
Having worked in the hospitality industry at places such as Le Bouillon and the Marriott, he joined The Jewell as a bartender in spring 2019. He later took over as beverage manager before agreeing to become the club's general manager in July 2019.
In addition to listening to the sounds of national and local acts—David Sanborn performed at the club’s grand opening—guests can enjoy a delicious meal and drinks at The Jewell, Sharpe said. From small plate items, including seasoned deviled eggs and cheese curds, to entrees such as a New York strip steak and roasted tomato penne, the menu is strong on comfort food.
“My favorite is the salmon,” Sharpe said of the Faroe Island salmon, a dish that includes fried Brussels sprouts.
When it comes to drinks, Sharpe works with his team to create a broad range of cocktails. “For example, we want something fruity, something more spirit forward, a fizzy and floral cocktail, a sweet and savory cocktail, etc.” he said in an email interview.
Sharpe said he is excited for their new cocktail menu, which he was about to have printed right as the pandemic worsened. “Luckily, I hadn’t ordered all of the stuff for the new menu yet, so we didn’t waste a bunch of money during this rough time.”
He said they do suggest cocktails with specific dishes on the food menu, but haven’t yet had a full cocktail dinner tasting menu. “And though I very much love wine dinners, I think a cocktail dinner tasting would be more fitting for the jazz atmosphere. So, you can expect a tasting in the near, post-pandemic future.”
The Jewell works with the hotel’s talented kitchen staff. “We have the freedom of creativity with dishes at the Marriott,” he said. The setup is convenient too, as the kitchen is located right behind the stage wall.
In a followup interview, owner Brian McKenna said that while they will match menu items with the hotel for efficiency’s sake, the kitchen occasionally features different items just for The Jewell. They also support all of the club’s private events and prix fixe dinners, typically for holiday specials. “The food is excellent due to the farm-to-table concept,” McKenna added. “They have amazing chefs.”
A jazz fan for most of his life—McKenna’s mother was a jazz singer and his father an enthusiast of the genre—it seemed natural for him to end up owning a night club. McKenna himself has played the drums since fifth grade and started on the clarinet in fourth grade. The Syracuse, New York, native earned his undergraduate degree from Ithaca College, and then earned a master’s degree from Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. Following college, he played professionally until he received an offer to work at SONY Music Entertainment in 1991. He worked his way up to being a vice president. After the studio was sold in 2007, he opened his own agency, managing musicians and singers, among others. Then, the McKenna family headed to Nebraska in 2015.
When McKenna and his wife, Mary, started researching potential club locations in Omaha, they were encouraged to contact the Capitol District management about a possible restaurant and music club. After spending a few months developing a business plan, the jazz aficionado received the support he needed to open a jazz club in downtown Omaha. McKenna believed the new club needed to be on the same quality level as Dakota Jazz in Minneapolis, or Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola and Jazz in St. Louis.
Gaining the support of North Omaha jazz experts in opening the new club was critical, he said. He worked with the Omaha Economic Development Corp., which is located near 24th and Lake streets.
“Duke. Count. No one could play downtown because of segregation. Sleeping and eating at peoples’ houses,” McKenna said. “Jimmy Jewell became the conduit to bringing everyone together. People came from all over the area to see shows. Why don’t we celebrate this now down at the Capitol District?”
McKenna decided to honor the North Omaha influence by naming the club The Jewell. With about 3,000 hotel rooms in the area, McKenna believes The Jewell could attract visitors as well as locals. It offers guests an opportunity to enjoy a good meal and drinks, as well as see Omaha in a new light, Sharpe said.
The Jewell helps continue the story of jazz in Omaha, said Tim Christian, president of the Love’s Jazz and Art Center foundation.
“The Jewell is a great venue,” he said. “It really goes along with promoting the music, promoting the culture. It gives awareness to the culture. I think there should always be a back-and-forth between things we are doing and things The Jewell is doing.”
In the end, an enjoyable experience at The Jewell comes down to great service, McKenna said.
“I’ve always said once you make the artist happy you will make the customers happy,” McKenna said. “I have a deep respect for people who purchase a ticket. They deserve good service, good food, good cocktails, and a high-quality performance worth the overall experience.”
Visit The Jewell’s website for upcoming shows and more information at jewellomaha.com.
This article was printed in the July/August 2020 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.