As Hunter-Gatherer Closes Its Doors to Live Music, Skipp Pearson’s Thursday Jazz Jams Come to an End

Hunted to Extinction
By Patrick Wall
Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Luther Battiste had been doing the same thing almost every Thursday for 17 years. After he finished up at work, he headed down to hear jazz at Hunter-Gatherer’s long-running Thursday night workshops, started and, until recent health issues arose, hosted by local saxophone colossus Skipp Pearson.

Now, Battiste has to find something else to fill his Thursday nights. At the beginning of May, Hunter-Gatherer pulled the plug on its live music offerings, essentially ending one of the most popular and enduring music series in the state.

“Hunter-Gatherer had become an iconic institution in Columbia for jazz and attracted one of the most diverse audiences in Columbia,” Battiste says. “It was truly a special place.”

Hunter-Gatherer owner Kevin Varner stresses the decision to end live music at Hunter-Gatherer was motivated solely by economic factors.
When Pearson started his residency, Hunter-Gatherer was more of a bar, Varner says. Now, the bulk of his business comes from his kitchen, and the crowd coming on Thursday nights wasn’t coming for the food. Thursday night sales were dropping, and Varner didn’t want to enact a hefty admission charge to cover the gap. The decision, he says, was “inevitable.”

“I’d love to do both,” Varner says. “But they just didn’t mesh together anymore,” and Hunter-Gatherer simply could no longer accommodate music. And once Skipp Pearson, who has been undergoing treatment for bone cancer, stopped hosting, the decision to close down jazz night got a little easier.

“Naturally, it was a disappointment,” says trumpeter Mark Rouse, who led the jazz workshops in Pearson’s absence. “But I was thankful for it being there as long as it was.”

Hunter-Gatherer booked the occasional rock act, too, but its offerings, mostly restricted to late sets on Friday nights, haven’t been steady in years. Henry Thomas, the Can’t Kids bassist who booked Hunter-Gatherer’s Friday night calendar, says there hasn’t been music on a Friday night since early April, and most of its featured acts had been locals. While losing a unique room like Hunter-Gatherer is a bummer, so long as New Brookland Tavern shores up its roof and Music Farm opens on schedule, Columbia’s rock scene will survive unscathed.

It’s the jazz scene that will be more adversely affected. Though it lacks a dedicated, seven-days-a-week home, jazz nonetheless appears relatively healthy in Columbia, with spaces like Speakeasy in Five Points and Pearlz in the Vista offering regular programming. So, too, does the Skipp Pearson Foundation’s Le Cafe Jazz, which sits atop Finlay Park. Conundrum Music Hall, just across the bridge in West Columbia, also books plenty of jazz, but its offerings skew experimental.

Despite these valuable rooms, Columbia still lacks a dedicated jazz venue, and the number of places offering live jazz is slowly shrinking. Blue Martini closed three years ago, and Hunter-Gatherer’s Thursday night sessions represented a large part of the local scene’s remaining infrastructure. Without it, Columbia now lacks its biggest home for traditional jazz, and one of the few events that brought in a crowd mixed in both race and age.

But Hunter-Gatherer’s jazz night didn’t just offer dividends for aficionados. It was equally critical to the city’s jazz players, providing young musicians a learning space and a proving ground. Bassist Reggie Sullivan cut his teeth during Pearson’s workshops; he’s since become one of the most prolific musicians in Columbia’s jazz and rock scenes, touring with luminaries like Joe Sample and The Jazz Crusaders.

Saxophonist Chris Andrews started attending jazz night as a teenager; Battiste remembers Andrews’ mother bringing him there when he was just 14. Andrews now heads up the jazz program at Claflin University in Orangeburg.

Rouse says he’s currently looking for a new venue to host the jazz workshop. But for now, at least, Battiste still has to find something else to do with his Thursday nights.

“I went [to Hunter-Gatherer] every Thursday for more than 17 years except if I was out of town,” Battiste says. “It will be truly missed.”

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