Riverside

Inside 'The Merc'

The Merc.jpg

Inside The Merc, there's no sense of time, only time signatures. Within the old brick walls and open-beam ceiling, time and place are figments -- it's music that matters. Once inside, with the music wailing, you can be anywhere. For some, it's a New York night club; for others, a 1950s Paris club along the Seine, or maybe a Brazilian club where the Bossa Nova sways.

For locals, The Merc marks a huge a change. More than a hundred years ago, The Merc was a stop for jerk-line freighters hauling supplies to area ranchers. Unlikely as it seems, the one-time country general store has morphed into one of Southern
California's premier jazz venues -- the acoustics, the Steinway piano, the state of the art sound system, the attentive audiences, the soul -- all combine for its unique status.

"It's a listening house," says Sherry Williams, the Temecula jazz singer who has taken The Merc under her wing and made it a place where world-class jazz musicians ask to play. You can get a glass of Pinot Noir or Grigio from the concession booth out back, but there are no waitresses wandering through tables taking orders distracting from the music. It's about the music.

The Merc's Thursday night jazz series focuses on straight-ahead jazz -- no soft, easy-listening jazz -- it's jazz as it was meant to be, one of the few places left in SoCal that dishes it up on a regular basis. When you're seated at a table, and the music swirls up from the stage to mix with history, you can feel that indefinable "It" that is The Merc.

Sherry Williams. Photo: Gordon Johnson.

The Merc harkens back to Temecula's dusty-cowtown infancy. In 1889, shortly after the townsite was surveyed and mapped, one of the lots, lot No. 12 on Main Street, was offered as a lottery prize. At a cost of $1 a piece, 70 tickets were sold to townsfolk. Philip Pohlman's ticket, lucky No. 62, won. He decided to build a store. He acquired the one and only load of bricks fired in nearby Wolf Valley and built a mercantile. About 10 years later he sold the store to an enterprising young employee, George A. Burnham, who ran it as G.A. Burnham & Son for 20 years, then turned it over to his son-in-law who ran it until 1953. It was a store that sold "everything to clothe and nourish the human family." The Merc still nourishes the human family.

Eventually, in 1969, it became an antique store, one of Temecula's first, and stayed that way until the city bought it in the 1990s. The building was old, it wasn't earthquake safe, and was slated for the wrecking ball. But citizens rallied to save it, and the powers that be decided to make it part of the new Old Town Community Theater. A complete retrofit was ordered and the city hired Bruce Beers, a theater management expert, to oversee the project. He knew the ingredients of a good house.

The Merc's walls still echo with the sound of ranchers knocking the dust off boots before entering, of barefoot kids pestering for penny candy, of a young mother inquiring about the new-fangled pre-strained baby food she saw advertised in a magazine.

And before there was Temecula, there was Temeku, an ancient Luiseño settlement. So add Indian history to the Merc's musical mix, the Luiseño songs and ceremonies that sanctified this ground.

Sherry Williams believes in The Merc's magic. She's sung here many times, and knows it's feel. "It feels alive," she says. Williams has been a professional singer for more than 40 years. Blessed with pipes from birth, she was a 16-year-old San Bernardino high-school student when she got a gig singing and touring with the Young Americans. From there she sang with Disneyland's Kids of the Choir. The day she graduated high school was the day she left San Bernardino for bigger things. In 1969, she joined the singing group The Unusual We and was working for Debbie Reynolds in Las Vegas.

In addition to the countless shows since, there have been numerous television appearances: The Tonight Show, The Glen Campbell Show, The Tom Jones Show, the Della Reese Show, Soul Train and others. She's toured with Andy Gibb and Johnnie Ray, and recorded with El Chicano and Red Bone.

As a solo act, she's sung all over the world and with the best of jazz musicians. It was her connections in the music industry that convinced Bruce Beers to ask Sherry if she would help with The Merc's jazz series. A lifelong, lover of jazz, she agreed to do it. She's been doing it since 2005, every Thursday night, while continuing her own jazz career, traveling to world-wide performances, playing her own gigs.

She came from a musical family, her grandmother played hymns on the piano, and she was 6 when she started piano lessons. It was a third-grade outing to the Pittsburgh Symphony (she was born in Pittsburgh) that riveted her to music. "I was a little person, in that huge chair, feet not touching the ground, and the wall of sound opened up. I was blown away. It was like hearing God speak," she said.

The jazz came into her life through her father's albums: George Shearing, Lionel Hampton, The Duke and all the others that seemed to tug her toward jazz. But it wasn't instantaneous. It took time. Like most teens she was a rocker -- Cream, The Moody Blues, Pentangle. Nancy Wilson, though, reeled her into jazz. Once she heard Wilson do Green Dolphin Street she was forever a jazzer.

"Jazz is the fabric of my life," Williams said. She feels an allegiance to it and wants to do her part to keep jazz alive and relevant.

Jazz as an art form is struggling. Once jazz was the epitome of hip, of cool, but youth today don't take to it much. "So many of the young respond to music as simply rhythm. But they lose out on the complexities of melody and improvisation on a theme," Williams says.

The number of fantastic jazz musicians out there amazes me, Williams says. But these days the waning appetite for jazz translates to fewer places to play. Most professional jazz musicians have a day job to pay for their jazz habit. They teach, or work as studio musicians, or write music for TV and movies. The Merc is a place for them to do what they love.

In the beginning, Williams relied on her 40 years in the business to line up acts for The Merc. But now, The Merc has a reputation in the music world as a great place to play. These days musicians often call her looking for dates to play at The Merc.

Just a few months ago, Delfeayo Marsalis's agent, inquired about at date for Delfaeyo at the Merc. "I opened up a special day, he's such a great trombone player," Williams said. The musicians play for love at The Merc, because the pay barely covers gas and a good dinner.

The Merc is basically a break-even proposition. The price of admission is only $15, so she can't afford to pay the musicians huge sums. For Williams, as well, it's a labor of love. "It's part of my mission to keep jazz alive," Williams says. "And to pass on jazz to our young. Jazz is part of our heritage, part of our American legacy. It's a true form of American music. I feel obliged to do what I can to see that it survives," she says.

Sherry Williams | Photo: Gordon Johnson.


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Top Image: The Merc.

About the Author

I’m Cahuilla/Cupeno Indian and live on the Pala Indian Reservation. Good or bad, I’ve had a desultory approach to education. I studied philosophy, literature and film at UC Santa Cruz, journalism at UC Berkeley, communications at ...
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