October 23, 2023
'Blue Room' Opens to Jazz Up RI Village Nightlife and It's Kismet for New Owner Jen Minuto
John Amodeo READ TIME: 9 MIN.
"This is definitely before diva o'clock," protests Jen Minuto about our 11 a.m. interview, with a bit of a laugh, as she waits for her wife Kasey to deliver her cup of coffee. As the owner of the new jazz club, The Blue Room, in Cranston, Rhode Island's Pawtuxet Village, Minuto is typically up until 3 a.m. "Just late nights as a club owner," she laments. "Last night, I brought in pianist Logan Vale Branch for cocktail hour, and his playing was so lovely. Jerry Vale was his grandfather. His phrasing is fabulous. He's like from the '40s. Then we had a great band call The Daybreak for the next few hours. I just happened to jump on the piano at midnight, so it was a late night."
But if you ask her if late nights are a problem, she would say "Absolutely not!" She's living the dream. In fact, it almost seems that Minuto was destined to open this club in this location at this time. "This same space came available 10 years ago when Kasey and I were first together. And we looked at it, and I said this would make a great piano bar," recalls Minuto. "But 10 years ago, I was always too busy, I couldn't imagine it as a full-time gig." So, plans got shelved.
Minuto recalls another important life milestone connected with the place. "The day that gay marriage was legalized federally, Kasey proposed to me in the parking lot behind what is now our bar. And I said yes." Fast forward to earlier this year, Minuto got the itch again to open a piano bar. "I'm a crazy person, I like to do big projects," yelps Minuto, who enlisted a group of musician friends to team up on this project. Soon after, this space became available again. "My musician partners said to me, 'Come see the space,' and I had forgotten I had seen it 10 years before. Turning it into a Paris/New York/New Orleans music spot right here at home was a dream of mine."
Minuto, originally from East Greenwich, RI, has been living in Pawtuxet Village for many years with her wife, and it was just kismet that the space was available again. "I got excited," exclaims Minuto. "It is so rare that a space like this would become available in the village where we live." Even when things didn't go as planned, Minuto was undaunted. "This started as a collaboration with a bunch of other musicians who all bailed out," moans Minuto. "I was left with a lease and loan and on my own. But I took it and ran."
The Blue Room opened this past Memorial Day Weekend to great fanfare. Even Cranston's mayor Ken Hopkins attended and joined Minuto at the piano for a song. And the place has been hopping ever since. "It was a leap of faith hoping that I wasn't the only one interested in creating this romantic space," sighs Minuto. "But people were also craving music and being together again and feeling alive. The magic of this summer confirmed that leap of faith."
Minuto lives and breathes music. She even owes her marriage to music. It was during one of her side gigs during law school when Kasey's dad came in and heard her. He made a mental note to bring in his daughter, who was also a singer, the next time he came in. When he did, Minuto invited her to sing. "She started singing Joni Mitchell's "A Case of You," and I said to myself, 'Oh My God.' She was lighting up every single room in my world," gushes Minuto. So engraved was that moment in Minuto's mind that she had "A Case of You" engraved on the inside of Kasey's wedding ring.
That she went to law school and practiced law for years instead of being a full-time musician is unfathomable when you see her in the club, going table to table amiably chatting with the customers, assisting the scheduled musicians, or holding court at the piano herself. "I asked for a piano when I was five," Minuto recollects. "My mom saw that a woman was giving away a piano and she called, and the old woman said she had already promised it to someone, but she heard something in my mother's voice, and she said, 'You know what, I'm going to let you have it.' When it came into the house, I sat down, and I never left the piano. It was like going home. I just played and played. I played by ear. It all came naturally."
While the club is often referred to as a jazz club, the scheduled fare is quite broad, owing to Minuto's own eclectic taste in music, influenced by her mother's tastes as well. "My mother loved both Sarah Vaughn and Joan Baez," notes Minuto. This then shaped Minuto's record collection. While her parent's had her take classical piano lessons to help her with reading music, that didn't turn out so well. "I hated it," barks Minuto. "I was into the American Songbook. I listened to Duke Ellington. As a teenager, I took lessons with Al Conte. He played with Guy Lombardo. He showed me jazz chords that were so interesting and so beautiful that I fell in love with the piano all over again." That's when Minuto began playing restaurant gigs around town. She was 15 and 16, and her parents would drive her to her gigs, and they would sit and listen. "They would say, 'Jenny, we should open our own place,'" muses Minuto.
"It's my goal to bring in the best music around in every style," asserts Minuto. "I curate the music and I take a lot of time doing it. I want people to be exposed to and drown in music they've never heard." Minuto has brought in a Latin singer from Venezuela. "She's magnificent," beams Minuto. "There's no space and no music like this in this part of Rhode Island. I want to bring in the best singers and best players around. Young and old jazz players, rock and roll, blues, Reggae. There is this one Reggae player who is just so hypnotic. Then this band, Evening Sky, who played last night. They do jazz and Gordon Lightfoot covers. They create these soundscapes."
Even though The Blue Room doesn't serve food, occasionally Minuto will program a food event along with the music. "Tonight, I will bring in this Venezuelan food truck," adds Minuto. "As a lawyer, I incorporated their business years ago. Getting to know the Venezuelan community in Rhode Island is a real joy for me. The Blue Room integrates so many different communities. It's so good for our little Pawtuxet Village to have a place that is dedicated all these cultures, traditions, and musical styles." In honor of September as Gospel Appreciation Month ("Who knew?" quips Minuto), she booked a Gospel group from the nearby Ebenezer Baptist Church.
Minuto is sure to include programs that appeal to the LGBTQ+ community as well. "We've done drag shows and cabaret shows," exclaims Minuto. "Charlie Hall, from Ocean State Follies came and performed. He's gay and an icon in Rhode Island. He's hilarious and often the emcee at statewide events. He's a Rhode Island treasure." Minuto is planning to book more drag and cabaret in the future.
Sunday nights are open mic nights, and the eclecticism continues. Musicians of all kinds show up, from blues, country, and folk, to jazz, cabaret, and American Songbook. Local favorite, performer, and vocal coach Eden Casteel, hosts the Sunday open mics once a month, usually attracting many of her voice students. While Casteel and Minuto will be at the piano for most singers, other performers will come in with their guitars, bongos, and other instruments, and Minuto welcomes them. Unlike most other piano bar open mics, Minuto includes a house drummer every Sunday, Jack Bullock, who commands the "backline" of the stage. Low profile and respectful, he adds helpful support and panache, especially for the less experienced performers. When he knows the performer, he might also sneak in a joke or two under his breathe. It is that kind of welcoming and nurturing atmosphere that Minuto intends to cultivate.
"I'm a romantic," admits Minuto. "We have plush white leather booths, low, blue-tinged lighting, bistro tables, fresh flowers and candles on the tables." The place holds about 45 people, so it is intimate, and the sight lines are clear from every seat. Minuto hasn't skimped on any of the important piano bar production values. "It was my main purpose to build the room as a musician would for musicians," details Minuto. "We have a house drum kit, a digital piano, monitors, lighting, speakers, baffling on the walls for acoustics, so they can sound as good as they can. I want to make a musician feel spoiled. We have a sound and lights guy. Musician's love playing here." And if Minuto wears her romanticism on her sleeve, she's proud of it. "The first thing that went in was the stage. There was so much thought into what the musicians would feel playing from the stage, I placed the stage so the musicians have a view out the large storefront windows, so they can see the snow falling as they look across the candle lit tables."
When Minuto contemplates all the work she and her wife have invested into making The Blue Room a premier jazz club and piano bar in eastern Rhode Island, sometimes it can feel a bit daunting, but it also comes with huge rewards. "The joy for me is to watch the joy in others who come."
The Blue Room is located at 2197 Broad Street, Cranston, RI 02905, and is open Wednesday-Saturday 5 p.m – Midnight, and Sunday 5 p.m. – 10 p.m. For music calendar, menus, and other information, visit their website.
John Amodeo is a free lance writer living in the Boston streetcar suburb of Dorchester with his husband of 23 years. He has covered cabaret for Bay Windows and Theatermania.com, and is the Boston correspondent for Cabaret Scenes Magazine.