In the mid-90s in Atlanta there was a club named MJQ founded and owned by a tall, gangly young fellow named George Chang. The letters stood for Modern Jazz Quartet, George’s favorite jazz group (Lionel Hampton grooved with them). I didn’t know George well, and my best memory of him was seeing him show up at a pick-up football match in 70s-era super-short football shorts, sneakers, and colored socks. I suppose that made sense; it turned out that George was a Chinese Swede, which was probably another story in itself. Otherwise, I would see George hanging out at MJQ in retro Adidas and thrift store chic. I hear he was a friendly guy, but I didn’t have much to say to him and was probably wowed by the cool factor — he operated one of the most laid-back back bars that exuded sprezzatura from all corners and was as cool as Blue Note cover art.
MJQ wasn’t easy to find, tucked away beneath the Ponce de Leon Hotel and next to The Phoenix. The former was a hotel that was as close to a halfway house as you can get, the latter a bar for the less beautiful and less rich members of Atlanta’s gay mafia. There was no sign for MJQ, just what looked like an old police car light hanging over a door on the side of the hotel. The light had the letters MJQ chiseled into its surface, but you couldn’t read it from the street. You either knew it was there or you didn’t.
Inside, one wall was covered with a black and white photo mural of the Brit Mod scene. It made you want to own a Vespa, wear a narrow suit with a skinny tie, and chat with Paul Weller and the English Beat. There was a dance floor, but it was unassuming background material, about 15×15 ft. You could dance if you wanted, or you could just lounge with a Clearly Canadian(!) and talk with people — I once met a woman who knew the guys in the band Moose (who had some great collage cover art of their own) and we talked for an hour about starting a band (back then anything seemed possible).
George died around 1998. Some people said it was cancer, but people who knew him hinted that it was from AIDS. The cause didn’t matter much. His death wasn’t the end of MJQ, but it meant that the place would finally and definitively change. Maybe this was inevitable — by then the word had gotten out and it had become increasingly overrun by the college fraternity crowd on weekends — and I found it tiresome and nearly impossible to go there on any day but Wednesday. MJQ moved out of the basement and into a former stand alone car garage about 1/2 a mile away. The name, too, morphed into MJQ Concourse, and the beats became hippity-hoppier and the bartenders surly.
I came across some reviews on the net about MJQ Concourse recently. The funniest and saddest thing is the praise given to the place, with a near total lack of knowledge of the origins. Ultimately that’s a better thing — maintaining the separation maintains the beautiful idea that MJQ once was for those who knew it.