Max Wellman has loved jazz his whole life. That’s why he keeps it alive at Des Moines jazz club, Noce.
Video by Sarah Beth Coleman
Words by Giuliana LaMantia
It’s quieter than one might think. Each table in the dimly lit room is filled. People aren’t distracted by their phones. Instead, they’re looking ahead.
Royal blue curtains act as the backdrop to the stage. The piano keys are silk, each note dancing after the other. A man takes the microphone, his smooth voice crooning a Sinatra-like melody.
It’s After Hours with Max Wellman, a late-night performance that takes place every Saturday (except the second of the month) at Noce, a jazz club in Des Moines.
“I’ve been performing (jazz music) for ten years, but really my whole life I’ve loved it, and I still feel like I’m scratching the surface of it,” Wellman said. It’s an American tradition, pulling inspiration from the country’s history and the talent that was bred here.
Wellman can take the stage from soft and calm to passionate and soulful within one song. However, he’s not just a performer. He melds the worlds of music and business as the general manager and entertainment director of Noce. Along with singing three Saturdays of the month, he books and develops new shows, oversees the business plan, and makes decisions on how to run the bar.
Owner Bob Filippone had the idea for Noce. He had seen Wellman perform, and he originally asked him to headline. But Wellman wanted to be more involved. From the beginning, he worked with Filippone, architects and designers to create the interior and brand of the now-stunning club.
“I had the picture in my head, and (Wellman) really formulated it,” Filippone says. “He’s been completely instrumental. It wouldn’t be possible without him.”
Besides carefully designing for the acoustics of the space, architect Evan Shaw worked with Filippone and Wellman to create a dynamic environment.
“The reason everything is dark and muted is because you want the focus to be on the show and on the performance,” Shaw said. “It’s sort of architecture that is purposely designed to be un-architecture.”
Wellman grew up with jazz music. When he was a kid, his mom would play Harry Connick Jr. every Saturday while his family cleaned the house. He also grew up around small businesses. His parents ran a pub, and many other family members owned restaurants and bars. When he began performing, it was often at places that reminded him of his childhood.
For Wellman, mixing music and business at Noce is no easy feat. He spends each day finding ways to make the two worlds work together, and he’s learned to not be afraid of setbacks.
“As a musician, I was very concerned with how to make a career in music and how to make money out of it,” Wellman says. “So this is really just a further manifestation of that issue. Like, okay, we’re going to have great music, but how are we going to make it sustainable.”
So far, Noce has sustained its music by harboring a space for young and old music lovers alike. It welcomes new styles and talent from not just Iowa, but around the country. For Filippone, one of the most important steps when creating Noce was carefully designing a space that is an entertainment venue with a bar, not a bar that also happens to have music.
“They’ve done a good job with making a club-feel where the focus is the music,” said Barb Nish, a jazz enthusiast and frequent Noce visitor. “People aren’t here chit-chatting while the music is going on. Most of the time people are here to listen, and that’s what I like about it.”
Noce acts as a home for the jazz scene in Des Moines. Wellman hopes to capitalize on this further in the future by bringing in members of the jazz community to play together and try new things after their more concert-like shows. This less primed and proper setting makes for a more traditional jazz atmosphere.
“People would find it shocking how much of that music goes on here in central Iowa,” Wellman says. “You wouldn’t really think that I could have grown up in Des Moines, Iowa, and been able to grow up through this community of musicians that all performed that music, but I totally did. There is a rich history of that music here that goes way, way back.”