Location: About one mile from the University of Wisconsin
Venue capacity: 600
Building opened: December 15, 1906, as a vaudeville theatre
Venue opened: September 29, 2007
City population: 243,344
Universities: University of Wisconsin (43,275 students),
Edgewood College (2,894 students)
Number of acts per year: Around 300
Price of a Budweiser: $5 for a tall boy
The Blue Note
Location: Less than half a mile from MU’s campus
Venue capacity: 800
Building opened: 1927 as the Varsity Theatre, a vaudeville theatre
Venue opened: August 1980 at 910 Business Loop 70 East (now Club Vogue); The Blue Note moved to its current location in 1990
City population: 115,276
Universities: University of Missouri (34,658 students), Stephens College
(673 students), Columbia College (4,500 students)
Number of acts per year: 250–300
Price of a Budweiser: $4
For Matt Gerding, few experiences compare to seeing a favorite band perform live.
“It’s almost a sacred thing,” he says. “Just being surrounded by friends and trading memories with them in this space where 600 people are just singing together and enjoying the moment.”
A Columbia native, Gerding developed an appreciation for the power of music by attending concerts at The Blue Note during his high school and college years.
He came to view such shows as vital to the city’s culture and pursued a career in the music industry because he wanted to play a part in enhancing that relationship.
When Gerding and his business partner, Scott Leslie, were first looking to open a venue, they reached out to longtime Blue Note owner, Richard King. The pair wanted to purchase the space and its sister location, Mojo’s. But at the time, King turned them down.
Instead, Gerding and Leslie purchased the Majestic Theatre in Madison, Wis., in 2007. And the vibe of the venue and the city are remarkably similar to The Blue Note in Columbia.
So when the partners reached out to King again seven years later, the conversation went a little differently. King has owned The Blue Note for 34 years, and he was ready to part with it. He felt Gerding and Leslie would be able to carry on music venue’s legacy.
“In those guys, I saw a lot of the way myself and Phil (Costello), my partner, were when we started The Blue Note back in the early ’80s,” King says. “They are very passionate about music. They’ve proven themselves with what they have done up in Madison. ”
Gerding and Leslie expect to close on the sale in November. But Gerding will relocate to Columbia at the end of August to take over the operation of the venue, where he once raged in mosh pits as bands like My Morning Jacket and Against Me played onstage.
The opening act
Gerding and Leslie met in Los Angeles. At the time, Gerding was working for Creative Artists Agency, and Leslie was playing in a band.
They’re both from the Midwest and share an appreciation of historic music venues. That mutual interest eventually developed into a desire to operate their own place.
Madison’s Majestic Theatre opened in 1906 but remained vacant after the nightclub that operated there closed in 2006 due to problems with gun violence.
The community wasn’t sure what to make of the duo. “When Gerding and Leslie purchased the venue from the previous operators, there was a lot of skepticism because they have no real ties to our community,” says Mike Verveer, Madison’s District 4 Alderman. “But they have quickly proved themselves.”
Gerding and Leslie sought to repair the Majestic’s name while developing a reputation as an artist-friendly stop for acts traveling between Chicago and Minneapolis.
“In terms of working with the artists, we treat them well here,” Gerding says. “Locally, we know live music is a great thing for a city, and the more shows you bring in, the more impact you can have. So we book a lot of shows and take the time to really promote them.”
Just another music fan
Gerding’s father, Bob Gerding, has seen his son’s love of music grow. “Matt was always fascinated with music, but he really got into it around high school,” Bob Gerding says. “He and his brother were really into Green Day, even before they really got popular. One summer we were on vacation in the San Francisco area, and we went around trying to find the garage where they got their start to get a sense of their history.”
But it’s more than just a passion for music that helps Gerding run a venue. Gerding’s brother, Columbia attorney Tim Gerding, says: “He’s always been all about music going back to when we were going to see all the punk bands at small clubs. And then he really learned the inside of business. He is really smart when it comes to booking shows.”
Gerding says part of what attracted him and Leslie to The Blue Note is its successful management. They can continue the core business King already established.
The partners are planning some remodeling, including the installation of new flooring, light fixtures and green rooms. They’re also exploring incorporating some non-music aspects of the Majestic’s business such as hosting weddings and movie nights.
They also hope to develop more expertise in country music because Gerding says such acts, though not popular in Madison, routinely sell out The Blue Note and other local venues.
Ultimately, Gerding is hopeful that their ownership of The Blue Note and Mojo’s will allow the duo to play a positive role in continuing the development and expansion of Columbia’s music culture.
“The more live music, the better it is for everybody,” Gerding says. “It’s about fostering a nightlife culture and creating an option that goes beyond just going out and drinking yourself into a stupor. Not that that isn’t fun, but cities really benefit from having a rich nightlife, and I think live music is a big part of that.”