Q&A: Missy Lane’s Cicely Mitchell continues her mission to bring jazz to Durham

Cicely Mitchell smiling in front of a mural in Missy Lane’s music room.

Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024

By Tanner Arter

Missy Lane’s Assembly Room is a multi-dimensional music venue, coffee bar and yoga studio all wrapped into one that opened in January. Cicely Mitchell is the co-owner of Missy Lane’s and, before this, created the nonprofit The Art of Cool to broaden Durham’s jazz audience.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

The Durham Voice: Where did you get the idea to start Missy Lane’s? How does your background fit with this idea for a business?

Cicely Mitchell: Missy Lane’s is kind of the culmination of 13 years of work that I’ve done in the community with an organization that I started with Al Strong called the Art of Cool. It was a nonprofit to expand the audience to Jazz. Along the way we did little concerts and a festival which ran for about five years in downtown Durham. Then the pandemic hit. This is kind of like the next chapter of the work that I’ve been doing in the community to bring jazz to the people of Durham.

Why Durham specifically?

Well, that’s where I live. So, I wanted to build some things that may not have been here that maybe other major cities had, and all the pieces are here. There’s a jazz studies program here at North Carolina Central [University], and then there are music programs, UNC and Duke, that also champion jazz. So, some of the players are here and the talent is here as well.

What inspired you to start a jazz club in the first place?

It all really goes back to my work that I was doing with Al. He’s a trumpeter in this area and we just started doing pop-up concerts to solve an immediate issue. He wanted to put on more concerts and put on more original tunes instead of just covers. Doing the concerts in a small intimate environment like an art gallery was our first kind of offering, and it just got bigger and bigger. People like to think “Jazz is dead” and “Oh, that’s that old-timey music.” It may not be on mainstream radio, but I do think that once people are exposed to it and people feel comfortable coming in and having a connection with the music it’s an easy sale.

Getting into the more logistical side of the business, what financial tools were available to you? 

We ended up getting a small SBA [Small Business Administration] loan. That was for construction and working capital and for some of the equipment, and then the rest was through investors. I have some business partners, so that’s how we secured the funding, but most of it was through the SBA loan.

How many employees do you have and how do you balance the needs of your employees and the needs of your business?

Right now, we have about 15 employees and as far as balance, I have a general manager and a coffee bar and the regular bar supervisors, and we really do empower them to train the staff and inspire the staff. But also, me and the other owners are there and we’re working right there alongside them. And that’s how we try to lead as collaborators.

And for making decisions on the business, are employees involved in that process?

I feel like when everybody is collaborating or seen as a collaborator we can only get better. So, no one person’s ideas are bigger or better than anyone else’s. There’s an open line of communication if someone has an idea, they can tell it straight to me or any of the owners or managers or supervisors. I think that everybody’s input is welcome.

How has business been since you’ve opened your doors?

We’ve been very blessed the first few weeks to have sold out concerts, I think this weekend is the first where we haven’t sold out in advance. There are some tickets still available for this particular artist. He’s a trumpeter for Silk Sonic, so it’s going to be quite an entertaining night.

What were some obstacles you’ve had to overcome?

Well, maybe not obstacles for Missy Lane’s, but obstacles for the work I was doing with the Art of Cool was just getting people used to coming to jazz events and building an audience. It just doesn’t happen overnight. Those are the biggest things. Securing funding for our first festival was a challenge. I would say a lot of the work have been put in within building Art of Cool that helped kind of catapult Missy Lane’s.

What makes the venue unique against your competitors?

We wanted to be nimble and flexible enough to where people can find their lane on how they interact with us and the community inside the space. People’s relationships with most music venues is in the evening. And I wanted to do something different and have a full day’s experience at the music venue. Some people may be a little nervous to go to a jazz show, maybe they haven’t been to a jazz show, but they can just grab a cup of coffee and start to become comfortable coming to the space and maybe along the way, they’ll want to come back and grab their friends for a show.

How do you promote your business? Is there any type of marketing you’d like to implement further down the road?

It’s pretty grassroots right now. Like, we do a lot on socials, so Instagram and Facebook. We just launched a TikTok. We also have a newsletter that people can sign up for. Just hitting people’s inboxes every other week letting them know what’s coming, that’s our biggest thing. We had taken a few radio ads for some of our shows, and the rest is just earned media, like me talking to you. I feel like word of mouth is really helping us. People are having a really good experience and time and so I feel that’s the best form of advertising. Just letting it grow organically like that.

Who would you say is the audience that you try to capture, and how do you try to attract them?

From some of the analytics, it’s been mostly people from 35 to 45. Two thirds are female. And most of the people are from the Raleigh-Durham area. It really falls in line with the type of people that you may expect would be looking for jazz. We kind of control that with our programing, too. Some of the more classic jazz may appeal to a more mature audience and then some of the jazz that is more kind of like ‘hipster’ and ‘fun’ may appeal to a younger audience. So, we really try to make it generational, how we program it.

I was wondering what some of your goals are for this business in a couple years. Where do you see it going?

I would like for it to become a legendary jazz club in this area, and on this side of the country. I would like people making a night or a weekend of it and not only checking out what we got going on but checking out all of downtown Durham. So, really becoming a tourist stop. I would love to present some legendary jazz artists, so that just takes time and building a reputation in the artist community. And people just identifying it as a place for community and that it’s got a good vibe and people feel safe. And they can have fun there.

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