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Boxley's legacy: Danny and Robyn Kolke turn to foundation to preserve North Bend jazz club's music, education
An up-and-comer in the world of jazz drumming, Walker Byford learns as he plays. Byford is just 10 years old. By rights, he should prefer the newest pop music. But there’s something about jazz.
“You’re able to play whatever you want,” says Byford, who listens as his teacher, local jazz drummer Brian Gmerek, improvises riffs to the sounds of Chris Clark’s bass.
The two adult musicians are jamming on the stage at Boxley’s, the jazz club and restaurant in downtown North Bend, as middle-school and high-school age jazz musicians arrive for their Wednesday night show.
“It’s easier to play jazz with a group,” says Byford. So, veteran musicians like Clark and Gmerek play alongside young people who are just beginning their journeys in jazz.
“It’s a great experience, for us and for them,” says Gmerek.
It’s that mixing of the old and new generations of players that’s one of the core facets of Boxleys
Keeping education and performance is a key reason why the club is changing from a business to a non-profit.
On January 1, owners Danny and Robyn Kolke turned their restuarant over to the Boxley Music Fund, the non-profit organization they founded in 2010.
It was part of a master plan to keep jazz flowing for many years to come.
Changing the business
The Kolkes opened the club, named for a creek that runs southeast of North Bend, on September 27, 2009. Running the club is a sideline for both the former owners.
“We both basically did this in our spare time,” said Danny, who works full time in the software industry, and remains the club’s general manager. Robyn plays a support role, stepping in as hostess as needed.
Back when Boxley’s opened, the plan at first was “we’ll do this for as long as we have fun, and we’re done,” Danny said.
He and Robyn could look back on their triumphs, such as the visits by world-class and Grammy-winning artists, brought to North Bend by the club.
“We’ve had a lot of successes,” Danny said. “We’ve done the jazz walk, the blues walk. We’ve brought in a lot of big names.”
“It’s a fun place to hang out,” says Robyn. As owners, they’ve spent a lot of hours here, also relying on a staff that is good at handling things when the they needed to get away.
As owners, the Kolkes were also subsidizing their business with time and money. Business has improved most years, “but it’s been slow growth,” Robyn said. “The biggest stressor is financial.”
“We never got paid a cent for being here, and we constantly put money into the place,” Danny said.
While their passion is still strong, they couldn’t help but think about the future.
“We were looking for a way that we could keep the club here for a long time, and have a succession plan,” Danny said. “We’re still having a lot of fun doing this now. But how many years do we want to do this?”
“One option is you do this until you’re burned out. Or you do it past burnout and you get angry. We just didn’t want to go down that path.”
Since those first days in 2009, Boxley’s had built momentum of its own.
“We woke up one day and said, ‘This is bigger than us,’” Danny said. “When the city gave us the Business Owner of the Year award (for 2012), we started getting so many thank-yous from kids, parents.... It really shifted for us.”
“Now, it’s not about, ‘let’s do this as long as we’re having fun,’” he added. “Let’s figure out how to do this for a long time.”
How Boxley’s will change
The Kolkes started the Boxley Music Fund one year after opening, as a way to support music programs and community events.
As Danny put it, “we can’t charge enough for a cheeseburger to pay for this. We can’t charge covers.”
With the support of the foundation, and the successes of the jazz and blues walks, now was a good time to make the change.
Boxley’s, as the Valley knows, it wouldn’t exist without the generosity of patrons. That’s typical in this business, says Danny, and there are precedents.
“Few jazz clubs are successful without foundations to support them,” said Danny.
Putting the club in the hands of the Music Fund allows other, passionate people to rotate in and out of the organization. It brings community ownership.
The restaurant remains a limited-liability corporation. When there are proceeds, they go to the nonprofit.
Danny will still hold the general manager’s role. He’ll also remain visible as a regular musician at Boxley’s.
“In the short term, not much is going to change. We’re still going to be very involved,” Danny said.
Kolke sees himself as a collaborator, good at starting ideas and finding leaders to help with the details.
He has a lot of confidence in the staff, including manager April Littlejohn, who joined shortly after opening, chef Blake Wardman and bar manager Nancy.
The management of Boxley’s will report to a small volunteer board that in turn reports to the seven-person board of the Music Fund.
A plan is afoot to revamp the foundation’s membership program, improving it for members. Right now, perks include online access to hundreds of hours worth of recorded Boxley’s shows. Music is recorded nightly, and members are mailed a compact disc album of music every month. Premium members get other perks, including monthly gift certificates to dine at the club.
“Now it’s all one, we can blur the lines and come up with unique benefits,” Danny said.
The Music Fund currently has more than 100 members and 10 corporate sponsors.
“We just need about 50 more members, plus 10 sponsors to make it self-sustaining,” Danny said.
From the members who pay premiums to support education and entertainment, to the diners and listeners who come to Boxley’s, and the parents who come to watch their children, to the musicians who share their knowledge with young people, “It really is a community effort,” says Danny.
Seeing it continue
On Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, the club has a local focus, bringing students from Mount Si High School and Valley middle schools to the stage.
Professionals play Thursday through Sunday. Thursday is date night, and features softer music. Saturdays are the biggest groups, and more boisterous. Danny plays with his jazz trio most Sundays. Depending on his mood, he plays quiet or loud. Sometimes Robyn has to come to the stage and “turn me down,” he said.
High-school age performances were always part of the plan at Boxley’s. But the youth role has grown, more than Danny expected.
“The real surprise here was definitely the middle school program. If you had said we were going to do a five o’clock jam session for middle school kids, I wouldn’t have believed you,” Danny said.
Boxley’s weekly performances are a growth experience for students—students like Aaron Tevis and Matt Bumgardner, who earned college scholarships thanks to their jazz skills.
“These kids, they were here all the time,” said Danny. “It’s exciting to see that. There’s a fifth grader (Walker Byford) playing drums now, there’s a freshman (his brother Jared, on trombone) who’s just a monster. He’s been jamming here for a year, and he’s in ninth grade!”
“I see this. I want this to continue,” he added.
• Boxley’s is located at 101 West North Bend Way. The North Bend Blues Walk returns April 26. The Jazz Walk is back on September 13. Learn more about the Music Fund at www.boxleymusicfund.com. Follow a music schedule at www.boxleysplace.com.
The Valley’s young jazz heads learn their chops on Wednesday night, Jan. 29, at North Bend’s jazz club, Boxley’s. Standing with a group of middle- and high-school-aged musicians, plus regular drummer Brian Gmerek, at right, club owner Danny Kolke recently made the decision with wife Robyn to turn the club over to its education and performance-focused non-profit arm, the Boxley Music Fund. The change is meant to preserve the club’s jazz focus.
Boxley's former owner Danny Kolke with music teacher Haley Smith and board member Joel Byford.
A high school trio performs at one of Boxley's student nights. From left are Seb Rowland, Jered Byford and Nick Mardon.