5 Year Reflection

Five years ago, the words “Good evening and welcome to Noce” had yet to be said. After having uttered them in front of these blue curtains a few thousand times, I am happy to report we’re still hosting people at 1326 Walnut Street in Des Moines, Iowa, multiple nights a week to listen to jazz & cabaret. The electricity is still on, we have yet to bounce a check, and while the fire marshal is not my biggest fan he still gives us a pass every year when our inspection comes due.

 

Five years is a strange amount of time. On one hand, many deserving small businesses never get to this landmark, falling victim to the innumerable forces set against their survival. On the other, these last five years represent a mere sliver of this building’s lifetime and an equally small portion of the decades jazz clubs have been around in this country. Personally, it feels like quite an era. I was hired by Bob and Maria Filippone to design the program at Noce six years ago at the age of 23. In the interim, I got married, became a father, and became a co-owner of the business (thank you, Filippones!). Here I am, holding onto my twenties by the skin of my teeth, and I can verify that significant time has passed.

 

Maria came up with the name (Noce means “walnut” in Italian and phonetically translates to “night” in many languages), Bob wanted a venue that hearkened to a Rat Pack vibe, and I was to come up with the plan. We had a wonderful team that made the place beautiful. Evan Shaw’s sleek design, Brett Bunkers’s unstoppable work ethic, and the great Tim Wisgerhoff’s brilliant touch gave Noce its signature looks. I’m grateful for them and countless others who brought Noce into the world.

 

During the formative stage, I had the notion that it could be a success or a failure but that the process would be spectacular and definite either way. It seemed barely-plausible that Des Moines could support a spot like this, and I believed we would immediately sink or swim. As it turned out, the reality was quite different; our survival is a success, but it has come through fits and starts. There were many things that worked right away and plenty of things that didn’t, but there were far more that took dedicated attention and patience to develop into a sustainable element of the club. When the great drummer Matt Wilson first brought his trio (the Christmas Tree-O, to be exact) to this club, I felt such pride that his tour poster listed just three clubs for that December junket: The Jazz Standard in New York, The Green Mill in Chicago, and Noce in Des Moines. My pride was squashed just a few weeks later when we only managed to get 35 people in the door for the show.

 

Here’s what happened next: Matt’s band had an incredible time at Noce and returned the next few years, each time doubling their audience. What at first seemed like a hopeless club-owner failure became an opportunity to develop an audience for this music I felt so passionate about. We’ve been fortunate to replicate that strategy with dozens of wonderful regional and national acts that come from all over to play at Noce.

 

The touring acts and the good relations we enjoy with other clubs and individuals in the industry are so important, but the power of our local scene is what has kept the club successful. The examples are endless but one of my first realizations came the night that Prince died, just a few months after we had opened. Tina Haase Findlay was performing at the club and came back out on stage for a special encore performance of “Purple Rain” that had a full house in tears. It was surely one of the most heartfelt and transcendent tributes that took place anywhere in the country that night.

 

Perhaps the greatest nights happen when these two worlds meet; when a local pillar like Scott Smith hosts his old friend, the inimitable Ann Margret, at his show, or that night in 2017 when, after playing a full show on their tour out of Denver for an appreciative audience, the Annie Booth Trio stuck around for my late night set, leading to an all night jam session which became a lasting friendship and partnership that has produced recordings and tours that I will cherish for a lifetime.

As an obsessive planner, I know how alternately important and powerless plans can be. I cannot stop making them, only to see many of them go immediately up in smoke. Plans for a business are much like the staggering odds against the birth of sea turtles: it takes seemingly one million of them just to get a few off into the sea. Noce was intensely curated, but so much of the beauty that has taken place here could not have been planned. Mostly, there is no telling who is going to come through your door once you hang up your shingle for business. I take it as a supreme compliment to think of the many stellar individuals we have had work at the club. They feel like family; not only to me, but to each other. I feel the same way when I think about our regulars here. A place can have all of the details just right and still just be a husk of a building until people come in and give it life. Noce is warm because it means something to so many people. First dates, engagements, weddings, important anniversaries and simple family outings are frequent, and I am glad that they have happened here.

 

I’ll never forget the summer of 2018 when, following a torrential downpour and while half the city was flooding, a huge wedding in our back room and a show up front continued on while water rained down the interior of our walls. I got back to the club thinking everyone would be in a panic, already stressing over the potential refunds that would have to go out the door, only to be stopped dead by the fact that absolutely no one in the building realized that it was actually raining cats and dogs down our walls. On our very first night of business, New Year’s Eve 2015, our ice machine decided to stop making ice just as we were preparing to let people in the door. Bob rushed out to get replacements while I steered our first customers to the wine and beer. The show must go on, and thank goodness it still does. Never has that sentiment been more true than it is today. It can be difficult to justify turning on the stage lights in the middle of a pandemic. It may seem frivolous at best to some and irresponsible at worst to others, but I believe there is power and refuge in escape; that the world may be burning outside and we will still be making music and revelry in these walls. It is our privilege and our responsibility.

 

Five years ago it was all about making this place feel like it could exist anywhere at any time. On any given night, you could open these doors and suddenly feel as if you were in a major city, perhaps even in a different era. As time goes by, we’ve begun to cultivate (and perhaps, own) a more distinct identity and culture. Yes, you could be in New York or Chicago, but how fortunate for all of us that you are at Noce on Walnut Street in Des Moines, Iowa. Here’s to many more nights of that good fortune.

Max Wellman, Co-Founder