Meet the man behind the guitar for 25 years at Ann Arbor's The Earle
ANN ARBOR, MI - Three nights a week, Jake Reichbart takes his guitar into the basement of The Earle, closes his eyes and imagines playing before an audience of thousands inside a venue like Carnegie Hall.
The Ann Arbor restaurant was one of the first venues Reichbart visited during a cross-country trip from New York to Los Angeles in 1991 and soon became a major reason the guitarist decided to move to the city before completing the trip.
The relationship Reichbart has built with The Earle, 121 W. Washington, in the years that followed is something he looks back on fondly, after 25 years of regular weekly performances.
And when he closes his eyes, it's not that Reichbart would rather be elsewhere - he loves the decor and design inside the bar and restaurant he describes as "old world" - he just appreciates the opportunity to play in front of many of the same faces he's seen on a regular basis since 1992.
"When I close my eyes, I see myself in front of a huge audience at a beautiful concert hall," Reichbart said. "I try to play my best every night. I try to bring out new material and songs every week."
His instrumental picking has become the backdrop for many conversations that have taken place at the bar, with performances that include fulfilling requests randing "from Ellington to Bruno Mars - and everything in between."
Reichbart remembers an Ann Arbor overflowing with possibilities for live music within a few blocks of The Earle dating back more than two decades, including Babs' Underground, Bird of Paradise and eventually The Firefly, the Old Town Tavern, the Del Rio and Sweetwaters Coffee & Tea, as well as well-known music venues like The Ark and the Blind Pig.
When he arrived on a whim in 1991, he was immediately encouraged by local musicians like pianist Harvey Reed and The Earle owner Rick Burgess to stick around. He eventually began sitting in with Reed during weekly sessions at The Earle and never looked back.
"If a pianist has a guitarist with them that knows how to play chords and bass movements, it also gives them a little more rest and there's a little more back and forth between the piano and guitar," he said. "Those guys really gave me the opportunity to get in."
Dennis Webster, who has owned The Earle since it opened four decades ago, said the plan was always to host nights with jazz music as often as possible. The Earle still offers jazz-inspired music five nights a week - thanks in large part to Reichbart.
"We definitely look to provide that soft jazz background while people are dining," Webster said. "(Reichbart) has been very helpful in making sure there is always a quality performer in his place if he can't play on the weeknights and he's also promoting within the music scene here.
"It's extremely helpful with us being an underground club, so to speak, that we give off a vibe that you might find in a jazz club with the offerings that he provides," he added. "It's the perfect volume of jazz if you want to take a date here or if you want to have a meeting on a Tuesday evening, you can still do that with the music providing a backdrop."
Reichbart eventually went on to release multiple recordings of his music, including "16 Songs" and "Long Ago and Far Away," which have earned positive reviews from publications like "All Music Guide," "Just Jazz Guitar" and "Cadence." He also has produced instructional solo guitar DVDs distributed by the Hal Leonard Corp.
Reichbart credits countless performances at The Earle with helping shape his playing style as a musician.
While the venue has helped him evolve as a musician, he said, he credits The Earle for sticking with what has worked in making it a downtown destination for decades.
"I always see all of these restaurants that open to huge fanfare and multi-million dollar renovations, and two years later they're out of business," Reichbart said. "The Earle is consistent in its look and presentation. I think for a lot of people, it's really special to walk into a place like that."
Webster said Reichbart has been instrumental in bringing the jazz club atmosphere since made that fateful stop in Ann Arbor more than 25 years ago.
"He's definitely the quintessential professional," Webster said. "He's very concerned that the music he is providing is appropriate for the clientele and that the offerings and style all have to fit together to make it work. He's really easy to work with and we've work together from the very beginning."