In a sentimental mood at Ryles as it closes after 40 years
CAMBRIDGE — There are four kinds of music that move Jan Gadson: “Blues, jazz, R&B, and soul,” she said on a recent night out, counting them off on four fingers.
To celebrate her birthday this month, she invited a big group of friends to join her for drinks at Ryles, the Inman Square jazz club that’s set to close this weekend after four decades as a local fixture. They sat at a long table front and center for the final performance at the nightclub by Athene Wilson, a veteran Boston vocalist who has played Ryles many times.
It was bittersweet, Gadson said. Like the music she loves — “songs that used to tell a story” — the times have moved on from lounges like Ryles.
“It’s sad,” she said. “I know things change. But this is a neighborhood club. We definitely feel comfortable here. There’s no airs.”
In February the extended Mitchell family — the club’s owners since 1994 — announced they were putting the building up for sale. They’ll focus on their other business across Hampshire Street, the deli-style S&S Restaurant, which turns 100 next year, as Gary Mitchell told the Globe at the time.
On Saturday, Ryles will mark its closing with an invitation-only party featuring one last jam session. Friday is the last official night open to the public, with a farewell set from the dancefloor-packing big band Soul City.
Despite a waning audience for live jazz, Ryles has been hanging in there for the past few years, said bar manager Rick Bogaert.
“It’s managed to be lucrative,” he said while working the door, before Wilson and her band took the stage. “It’s held tight.” When the Mitchells broke the news about the closing to the staff, Bogaert said, “they were in tears.”
The late Jack Reilly opened Ryles in 1977 after leaving Jacks, the rock club near Harvard Square that bore his name. Over the years Ryles showcased rising stars with local ties, such as the Metheny brothers, Pat and Mike; local mainstays including Bruce Bartlett and Herman Johnson; and plenty of Berklee College students.
“When Herman Johnson was here, it was wonderful,” said Cambridge resident Cindy Sorensen, who worked in the kitchen in the early years, making the club’s award-winning stuffed burgers. She had stopped in to say hello to her old friend Bogaert after spotting him at the door.
Ryles was a lively place in those days, Sorensen said. Reilly was known for his gregarious personality, his Mardi Gras parties, and his ever-present golden retriever.
When the horse called Genuine Risk won the Kentucky Derby in 1980, the staff created a drink in the filly’s honor, Sorensen recalled — bourbon, lemon, and sugar with a splash of Southern Comfort on top, set aflame.
“It was a creative place,” she said with a grin.
The quirks and the eclectic clientele have remained right up until the end. The staff of the Comedy Studio, the long-running Cambridge showcase that’s moving to Union Square in Somerville, has made Ryles a home away from their own home for years. Before the music started on this night, a few dozen friends of Comedy Studio owner Rick Jenkins crowded the bar to celebrate his birthday.
Jenkins swiped at least one idea from Ryles for his own club, he admitted — the decoupage tables, which are covered with Polaroids, magazine clippings, and gig posters.
“I’d bring comedians here after their shows,” he said, standing against a back wall in one of his trademark vintage Johnny Carson-brand suits. “In the jazz tradition, it became a performers’ hangout. I saw McCoy Tyner here once.”
“Everyone has a different opinion of when the heyday was,” said Frank Vardaros, who led the Ryles Jazz orchestra for years and still serves as the club’s talent buyer. “To me, it was when we had the national artists mixed in with the best of the locals, in the late ’90s and early 2000s.” He once brought in the trumpeter Maynard Ferguson for a 75th birthday celebration.
“To me, that was a big deal. It’s something that’s still talked about today.”
When the Mitchells — who preferred to have Vardaros speak on behalf of the club — assumed ownership, the place was “a wreck,” he said. “I remember a PA speaker fell off the wall and almost hit my bass player.”
The family invested a lot of money into venue upgrades, said Vardaros, on the phone from California, where he now lives. (“To book Ryles, all you need is a telephone,” he said.)
“I knew they were committed to doing it,” he said. “It was a great place, always a friendly place. You’d pay one price, stay the whole night, and have a good time. That was 95 percent of Ryles.”
Though some say they’ve heard the space could become a new wine store, there has been no announcement. The family is not selling the building for financial reasons, Vardaros said.
“It’s just that the owners are getting up there in years, and there is no second generation interested in moving forward with the club. They figured, well, it’s time to move on.”
Back in the club, Wilson waited patiently at the side of the stage as her band ran through an impromptu last-minute sound check. Keyboardist Rollins Ross improvised on a hepcat version of Nat King Cole’s “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” working in lyrics from Dave Bartholomew’s “The Monkey” and the “Beverly Hillbillies” theme.
Finally satisfied with the sound, he introduced “the soulful and dynamic Athene Wilson.” When Wilson noted that this would be her last appearance at Ryles, the crowd — maybe 60 of them or so — booed good-naturedly.
“We’re gonna miss Ryles,” Wilson said. “But, um, everything must change, right?”
Before launching into her first number — a smooth, sultry cover of the 1974 soul hit “Be Thankful for What You Got” — she muttered an answer to her own question.