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Joe Clarke puts musicians center stage at his Forte Jazz Lounge

Joe Clarke puts musicians center stage at his Forte Jazz Lounge
May 2020

Joe Clarke, owner of Forte Jazz Lounge, performs with his quartet.

Jazz involves musicians adjusting to the riffs and rhythms of their colleagues onstage, a kind of ongoing improvisation. Thankfully, longtime band leader and musician Joe Clarke is accustomed to the bobbing and weaving of the art form, as his almost year-long tenure as owner of Forte Jazz Lounge on King Street has put his off-the-cuff skills to the test.

First, there was the room itself, the former PURE Theatre space, which he took over on a challenge from a friend. It was fine for a small black-box theatre group, but not optimal for a club. Clarke flipped the room’s orientation by 90 degrees to fit more people in front of a large stage. There was also the usual back-and-forth with city permits and licenses that delayed the opening for weeks. And, finally, there was the roof that workers hadn’t shored up properly before a massive rainstorm. “I spent the night here babysitting buckets of water,” Clarke recalls. “We hadn’t opened yet, so I had no track record of how much business the whole thing cost me.”

Forte Jazz Lounge finally opened its doors in June 2019. Inside the club’s dark blue walls, a stage large enough for a big band holds pride of place, and snug seating areas dot the room. One wall is covered with a mural of song stylists, including Aretha Franklin, Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, and Frank Sinatra. This is a listening room. Not even food intrudes, although there is the occasional pop-up chef for larger events, but mostly beer, wine, soda, and popcorn are what’s on offer.

During its first year in business, bands have included local favorites such as Charlton Singleton as well as tributes to jazz greats like Ella Fitzgerald. Clarke himself performs with his trio, quartet, and big band, and he says he wants to collaborate with other jazz clubs so that musicians can include Charleston in a regional swing. “As far as performances, it’s everything I ever wanted,” Clarke says. “I’ve done what I think this town needs, to spotlight music.”

Most recently, in the ultimate ad-lib, Forte owners Clarke and his wife, Rosie, responded to the coronavirus shutdown by going online with live streaming performances and offering virtual tickets. Those who purchased tickets are invited to attend a big bash with Joe Clarke’s band once the shutdown ends. Seeing live musicians back up on center stage again is something we all look forward to.

Forte Jazz Lounge
475-477 King St.

To donate to help support Joe Clarke and Forte Jazz Lounge:
Venmo: @BigBandSinger