How did a world-class jazz venue come to exist on Hilton Head Island?
It’s a fair question, until you actually get to spend five minutes with The Jazz Corner owner and founder Bob Masteller.
The love of sharing jazz as a fine art form has always been in Bob Masteller’s blood. He just got sidetracked with being a Hilton Head Island pioneer for a while.
Masteller and his wife Lois came to Hilton Head in 1973, as Bob was hired to serve as vice president under Charles Fraser in his Sea Pines Development Corporation. Masteller spent years working with Fraser to carve a resort destination out of a wildlife-fi lled forest on the water. So the visionary part of his resume was already full before he ever dreamed of launching a jazz club here.
It’s a passion that percolated from birth, a genetic gift from his father Harold, a frontman for a hot music band at the pinnacle of the Jazz Age, a master of the hot fiddle violin and one of the first vibraphone players in America.
While many thought Masteller crazy for wanting to sink money into a jazz club on the island, it was simply a matter of marrying two passions and living up to his own vision.
“The believers were in short supply in the early going, but I knew what it could be,” Masteller said. “Sharing jazz, fostering the passion for the music, it was so important to me. I wanted to do it the right way. I believed and Lois believed and that’s all that I needed.”
“I was fortunate enough to have an early partner, Charles Swift, who shared my vision and provided invaluable financial and logistical advice from 1999 to 2005 after which I purchased the majority ownership position from him,” he said. “In addition, we both hired Leslie Rohland to be our first general manager who established a standard of excellence which Kelli and the staff have carried on and they have continued to raise the bar in our search for excellence”
When Masteller talks about the right way, it involves an unrelenting attention to detail in two all-important areas – the design of the room and the cuisine.
Thanks to his dad, Masteller had seen many a jazz club and had an eye and an ear for what worked and what didn’t. He created a small space with pitchperfect acoustics that was just as intimate a dining room – going so far as to bring in sound engineer consultants to make sure sound traveled the room exactly the same from any angle. The stage was raised 45 degrees, using elevation to push toward the listener instead of toward the ceiling.
Masteller and Swift hired top chefs from day one to create a menu as succulent and captivating as the sounds he was hoping to present on stage.
“Lois and I wanted to create that perfect meal at your friend’s house, create a setting where the meal is beautiful and readies you for the music,” he said. The trick was making sure the music wasn’t drowned out. For that, the Mastellers put a subtle yet fi rm reminder on each table, asking for minimal conversation once the music began.
The mix worked instantly for musicians, as world quickly got out almost from the moment jazz piano legend George Shearing – a dream “get” for Masteller – took the stage to open the club on March 30, 1999.
“The meticulous approach to what he created, it was a gift for musicians,” said pianist and island musical favorite Martin Lesch. “There’s an appreciation in that room, a respect for the artist. You feel it the minute you’re there. The piano is perfectly tuned, the acoustics are amazing. That’s the kind of room that any legit musician wants to play.”
Getting the word out to the public took a bit more time, but the Mastellers – and later, the Leschs, with Martin’s wife Kelli now serving as the club’s general manager – were unwavering in their dream.
The crowds steadily started to catch up to the buzz and 15 years later, the club has established itself as one of the most respected jazz venues in the world.
“It’s a joy to play that room,” said Lynn Roberts, a Lowcountry resident, worldrenown vocalist and Jazz Corner regular. “It’s magic every time I’m on that stage and you can’t say that about too many venues. That’s what Bob and Lois have created in that space. Magic.”
Masteller has been just as active in spreading the gospel of jazz outside the club. He and Lois created the Junior Jazz Foundation in 2004, with a focus on identifying kids passion about music and making sure no roadblock obstructs that passion. The Foundation distributes instruments for kids in schools, pays for music lessons and for scholarships to the summer jazz camp started at Hilton Head Christian Academy in 2011 with director James Berry. Instruction is provided by Berry along with professional musicians recruited by Masteller to teach.
A successful March concert at USC Beaufort raised funds for the foundation while celebrating the club’s 15th anniversary.
“It’s so important what he’s doing. Jazz is the first art form that we created in America and it truly pushes musicians beyond their limits,” Lesch said of the Foundation’s work. “I was so fortunate to have Bob take me under his wing and he does that with every kid. He instills that passion, that precision and dedication to the craft.”
Even those outside the jazz genre marvel and pause to praise when Masteller’s name comes up.
“What he’s doing to keep jazz alive and thriving with the youth, exposing kids to legends while being just as vigilant in promoting the next group of stars, it’s pretty impressive,” said Cranford Hollow guitarist and vocalist John Cranford. “Martin has been such an infl uence on me as a musician, so to see he and Kelli dedicated there, I know the place is in good hands.”
The torch isn’t being passed just yet. Now 76, Masteller is still working 12-hour days right beside his wife, according to Lesch.
“Bob and Lois have set the club up well to keep thriving. Nobody’s gotten rich here. Bob has put everything back into the club and the foundation and it shows,” Lesch said. “To keep this alive, we’ll need the community to keep supporting us. We’ll keep the standards higher than ever. Bob has had a lot of juice in this town, he’s a tough act to follow. But it’s our duty to live up to his standards and to keep jazz thriving here.”