There are certain times in our lives when it seems like everything we’ve done in our past, everything we’ve worked so hard for comes together to set us up for success in creating something truly special. In Portsmouth, the stars lined up for brothers Michael and Peter Labrie and the phenomenon they created when they opened Jimmy’s Jazz & Blues Club.
Everything about this chic new club, which opened on September 30, 2021, is pure perfection. From the magnificent multi-million dollar historic restoration of the bones of the former 1905 YMCA building on Congress Street, to the sophisticated and serene design appointments, to the installation of impeccable lighting and sound, to curating an exquisite art collection worthy of adorning its magnificent and expansive walls, to finding the best culinary team and a seasoned talent booker, Jimmy’s has done it all right and more.
This project may have taken five years to prepare, but it’s backed by a lifetime of dreams that have finally come true for these two hardworking restorers/developers. Growing up in an entrepreneurial family with real estate including apartment complexes, commercial properties, as well as the Chug-A-Lug Beverage Center, the boys bagged ice for five cents a bag, shoveled sidewalks, picking up construction debris and doing everything else. it took learning the family business from the bottom up.
It was not until 2009 that the paths of the brothers merged. Peter had notebooks full of restaurant ideas dating back to college. “We only opened the River House on Bow Street in Portsmouth when I was in my thirties.” The Labries also own the Atlantic Grill in Rye. Across both sites, they have supported music and the arts, sponsoring concert series in the Prescott Park area and the Seacoast Science Center. Prior to working in the hospitality industry, Peter was in software sales and even flew airplanes in Alaska for a while.
Michael had a technical background in theatre, including lighting design. From high school through college and beyond, he directed installations and presented concerts at gymnasiums and performing arts centers with Huey Lewis, the Motels, the Kinks and more. When he got tired of touring, he followed in his father’s footsteps and got into real estate. But Michael began to run out of lighting.
In an unexpected turn of events, the brothers received a call from a man asking for a price on a building they had for sale on Route 1 that they had been developing. The man said the price was too high and hung up. He called back twenty seconds later to ask if they would be interested in a real estate swap – the Route 1 building for the old downtown YMCA. The Labrie brothers explored the building the next day. The Japanese restaurant Sake was still operating there. The top three floors had not been lived in since 1959. The brothers immediately knew this was what they were looking for. Michael, the creative visionary behind the space, says a jazz supper club immediately came to mind.
Transforming a former YMCA building with a former gymnasium as the main performance space came with its own set of challenges. Les Labries said the building itself dictated much of what would happen. They incorporated as many old features as possible, while focusing on light and creating environments. Peter found a photo of the bay windows in the front of the Library of Congress building. Artisans crafted off-site replicas with precise detail down to the watermark. The windows were then installed with large cranes.
The sky bar wall at the back of the building features original brick walls and restored windows. The Labries brought in several consultants to handle the acoustic engineering of the space, the sound of which bounced off massive windows, tall walls of glass, brickwork, and pocket areas throughout. Even the luxurious bathrooms are adorned with stunning marble panels salvaged from the YMCA’s former laundry room. Hundreds of historical objects were discovered during the construction phase. Many are displayed in the club and a book presenting the objects is also in preparation.
The Labrie have created a space with versatile and multiple uses. Neutral grays allow the spectacular art collection – purchased by Michael in Miami nearly two decades ago – from abstract and expressionist artist Sam Stetson to pop, while allowing the space to be sufficiently subtle as a backdrop for weddings and corporate events. The Green Room is a luxurious setting that invites musicians to want to return and doubles as a gorgeous bridal suite for weddings.
The brothers have also invested a considerable sum in audio and video technology, not only for use on their large screens throughout the club, but also for archival purposes and future recording releases. They are working on high-quality streaming as an additional revenue stream for artists and have their own operational YouTube channel. They have a superb teleconferencing capability, which is used by their corporate clients to hold meetings around the world.
Suzanne Bressette, who handles reservations for Jimmy’s, was a real find. With concert-promoting roots in the rock, blues and jazz industry stretching back to Lansdowne Street in Boston and New York, Bressette has assembled an incredible lineup of not only some of the biggest legends from the worlds of jazz and blues and beyond, but also has an eye for showcasing emerging talent. Bressette says, “Social media has been an incredible asset to us. We have worked hard to grow our database to over 35,000 subscribers, contacting them regularly, updating them on the artists performing on our stage.
Michael says, “I’m a jazz guy. Peter is a blues guy. That’s the fun part of it. We have such diversity in our programming. One evening, it’s a jazz trio, then classical, then someone like Paul Nelson is unleashed on our stage. The music changes every night, allowing us to attract a diverse audience. Night after night we see new faces. People drive hours to get here, or fly in from Chicago or New York, spending a weekend in Portsmouth. Local businesses from all walks of life, from restaurants to hotels and hostels, to high-end clothing stores, stopped us on the streets to say thank you. The opening of Jimmy’s was a real economic driver for this region.
Peter, the original kitchen operator, says, “We’re a real dinner party. Our chef worked for the best restaurant group in New Orleans and returned to the area when it opened. People come two hours before the show to enjoy our delicious cuisine and phenomenal wine selection. As the staff pool improves, Sunday Jazz Brunches will be added, featuring regional jazz artists. We are really excited to add a jazz brunch and additional new programming to the mix.
I have no doubt that Labries’ father Jimmy, a Portsmouth legend in his day, smiles proudly for what his sons have achieved. “Our father and brother were both named Jimmy, so we honored them by naming the club after them. Dad died in 2016, just before we bought the YMCA building. Our brother died in 1986 in a tragic motorbike accident Our dad grew up in Portsmouth but we didn’t get to hear much about his time here until his friends started sharing stories with us during the process of this project. We always say we slept in Rye, but we grew up in Portsmouth. We love being part of this community.
135 Congress St, Portsmouth, NH, 888-603-5299, jimmysoncongress.com