The Prez of Jazz Night

Getting into the groove
on Sunday evenings

By Billy Eye

It’s too exciting for words … so they had to set it to music!
movie trailer for Blues in the Night (1941)

I’ve been carping for a decade that this town needs a groovy, early-evening Sunday hangout. Jazz Night at Cafe Europa fits the bill perfectly, especially now that the weather is turning milder and the patio is open. (Let’s hope. I’m writing this in February.) This swinging soiree from 6–9 p.m. is presided over by Prez, spinmeister supreme who also hosts a Wednesday night jam at Flat Iron, broadcast live over WUAG.

As someone who frequented the 1980s and early ’90s Los Angeles underground dance clubs, mid-’90s’ Club Babylon raves here, and, in the early 2000s, footloosing in massive discotheques across London’s underbelly, I’ve had the privilege of grinding behind grooves laid down by the top DJs in the world. <name drop> Keoki, Paul van Dyk, Sasha & John Digweed, plus PeteTong, Fatboy Slim and Paul Oakenfold.

Having been present for a number of Prez’s performances in a dimly lit Greensboro nightclub over the last year or so, I’d rank him with the best on that list, possessing a prodigious talent for transforming the most quotidian room into bouncy blissfulness, drawing on an all-too-rare musical intelligence unleashing a barrage of mind-blowing beats veering wildly but seamlessly from one genre to the next.

“I could be at a bar, for example, and everybody’s got their back to me,” Prez tells me. “But something they hear they register with, either their head nods, their foot taps, fingers clicking, and you know that, ‘Oh, wow. They recognize what they’re listening to.’”

For Sunday Jazz at Cafe Europa, Prez spins a mellower tone, with a softer but no less sharpened edge. It is anchored in part by modern jazz-inspired pioneers like DJ Can and Amerigo Gazaway, echoing with the vocals of Aretha Franklin, The Chi-lites, Nina Simone and other seminal 20th-century soul sensations. Who is this guy?

“My parents were into music and they’re from the South,” Prez says. “So, there were cross-cultural dynamics for me, like them growing up in a Southern culture, then my father joining the military, traveling around the world while raising kids along the way. Then I came to UNCG as a freshman, where I honed my skills.”

Residing in various countries, like Germany and Thailand, as a child before settling in Massachusetts had to have influenced his musical preferences. “I think it gave me a taste of what the culture of a certain environment sounded like,” Prez says. “Finding different dynamics in soul music but with kind of an African flavor or a Polynesian flavor or Latin rhythms.”

This DJ paints with a broader brush than one would expect, which makes sense because jazz underpins so many contrasting styles. “You get a different flavor that’s not just classical jazz,” Prez says about his style. “It’s not just big band; you get a little hip-hop flavor, some soul, house, electronic and funk music that stems from jazz.”

Cafe Europa attracts an eclectic clientele on a regular basis, that’s part of the appeal of the place. “We started Jazz Night back in May 2021,” Prez says. Just took a chance. My man [bartender] Jonny Alright and [owner] Jacob Pucilowski over at Europa said, ‘Hey, let’s do something kind of cool, something different.’” When Jazz Night first got underway it was just the lone DJ flying solo alongside crates of his albums. “It was not what the crowd expected jazz to be,” Prez recalls. “That’s why we kept doing it and why we’re still doing it now.”

Warding off any remaining chill in the air with more chill on the patio at Europa, surrounded by our downtown parks? For a serene Sunday twilight, nothing could be finer in Carolina when you consider this is a casual bistro offering affordable cocktails and slightly Southern comfort cuisine. Its French dip sandwich, steak & frites, and the cafe burger come highly recommended. I’ve never ordered anything that didn’t satisfy.

“Of course, you go with the classics,” Prez explains about his choice of needle drops. “Coltrane, Miles, Max Roach, Dizzy, then venturing into Roy Hargrove, Robert Glasper, Ali Shaheed Muhammad.” As word spread and the audience expanded, people started bringing their own records. “I was like, ‘Cool.’ Then people started turning up with turntables, keyboards, a guitar now and then, and it became a kind of a jazz jam formulated around the records.”

Kinda reminds me of a smoky little joint (back when smoky was okie) called Sammy’s in the Plaza Shopping Center where, a few decades ago, a combo on Friday nights drew legions of jazz enthusiasts.

Moving a crowd with your rhythmic repertoire begins with an understanding of the basics. “I tell people,” Prez says, “if they want to collect records, if they want to become a successful DJ, you listen first. You don’t go out and buy gear or buy records; it’s about listening and then you can curate. Then you can turn that into a three-hour mix where people are entertained.”

In an atmosphere infused with melodic precision, a totality of tonality presented in a way that Greensboro hasn’t heard or seen before, somehow every week Prez manages to discover another fresh take on what jazz can be, constantly experimenting with syncopated juxtapositions.

Arrive alone or with a coterie, and should winter’s icy fingers linger the proceedings will be relocated indoors.

Wheels of steel are largely digital now, but they still spin. Prez has been honing his craft for two decades. “I don’t really know what keeps me going, to be real. I think it’s the joy that I see on younger people’s faces that are new to this, are fresh into music. Seeing their energy, feeding off of their energy. How do you capture that moment?” Prez asks, knowing full well the answer. “That’s what being a DJ is.”  OH

Next month marks exactly six years since Billy Eye started writing “Wandering Billy,” which is why the schools and liquor stores will be closed during April to honor that landmark occasion.

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