Weeknight Jazz Along the Lakeshore

Dakota Lee sings at the What Not in June 

By Ann Smith

Performer Michael Hulett (right) joins Rick Slachta and the rest of the band for a number at the What Not.
Performer Michael Hulett (right) joins Rick Slachta and the rest of the band for a number at the What Not.

 In Fennville there’s a weekly jam session that does not need more publicity. I made my first visit to The What Not Inn on the most miserable May 1 on record — 40 degrees with vicious, windblown rain. It was a Monday, when most restaurants are slow or closed off-season. Pulling up to the What Not, I discovered that 64 other cars were there already. The place was packed.

For 16 years, Monday night has been jazz night at the What Not, all year round. (At Sandy Point Beach House in West Olive, it’s Thursdays, and all year, too — more on that in a bit.) 

The same musicians have anchored the What Not jam session that entire time. Wally Michaels of Holland is on keyboard. On bass, Rick Slachta, also of Holland. Saugatuck native Jack Wilkins plays the drums. 

It’s anyone’s guess who’ll sit in with them in a given week. Could be three horn players. Could be a music professor with his vibraphone (as in early May). Periodically, a professional jazz vocalist visits from Chicago to sing with the trio. Not long ago, a dancer with New York performance credits a mile long walked in, unfolded a portable dance floor, and tap-danced with them as they played jazz standards. 

The What Not band out front.
The What Not band out front.

Michaels is the point person for who’ll be called up, says What Not manager Anne Drozdowicz (who declares enthusiastically that Monday is her favorite night to work). Folks who want to sit in for a number or two speak with him before the evening kicks off around 6 p.m. with some instrumental jazz. “He knows musically and professionally how people play, and maybe which people would perform better with ours. Sometimes someone will just walk up and start playing while someone else is playing, and that’s fine. Our biggest challenge is we love having the music — but do plan to order so you don’t take up a table all night just to play.”

The Monday night shindig is also billed as an open mic. The dining room of this smallish roadhouse is sprinkled with people who want to sing as well as listen. Some select standards of the 1940s and ’50s. Others choose more recent tunes, but the band can infuse some swing even into songs by Carole King. 

The What Not band: (left to right) Wally Michaels, Rick Schlacta and Jack Wilkins.
The What Not band: (left to right) Wally Michaels, Rick Schlacta and Jack Wilkins.

Lynnette Baker drives up from Kalamazoo several times a month. “There’s no place like it. It’s a great place for a singer. Wally’s amazing — he can play in any key,” says Baker. 

At the What Not the music is loud and tables are crowded. If you’re a chatty person, the band and other patrons will chat right back, and shortly it will feel like all your cousins are in town. Drozdowicz attributes that, in part, to the fact that she and her colleagues ask parties to share tables on busy nights. “Real estate is very tight. Sometimes we have standing room only on the dance floor. But people are very willing to join other groups on a Monday because they know that. A lot of people have made new friendships.” 

Maybe, though, you’d prefer to enjoy jazz over dinner or drinks but also carry on a conversation. If so, Sandy Point Beach House may be the place for you. The house bands, each of which plays on a particular Thursday each month, set up in one of the dining rooms, as at the What Not, but it’s a big room with high ceilings. Amps are at a level that allows diners to converse, but with enough kick that patrons at the adjacent bar can hear the music fine. 

(left to right) Michael and Kaitrin Drost and Terry O’Brien at Sandy Point.
(left to right) Michael and Kaitrin Drost and Terry O’Brien at Sandy Point.

A family jazz combo from Grand Haven is in the rotation of musical artists who perform at Sandy Point on a particular Thursday of each month. (So is Wally Michaels.) The Drosts are guitarist Michael (a Grand Valley State University jazz professor), soprano Kaitrin, their son Josef on bass, and Kaitrin’s uncle Terry O’Brien on baritone, tenor and soprano sax. Their airy, modern renditions of jazz standards are an agreeable fit for this establishment with white slat walls, big windows, huge tents for summer, and a pricier menu. 

The What Not Inn
2405 68th St., Fennville

Sandy Point Beach House
7175 Lakeshore Drive, West Olive

For jazz night details, see Facebook pages.

Summer brings more jazz to the lakeshore — at some venues, sprinkled through the week, and at others with a dedicated night. Here are two that feature mid-week jazz throughout this summer.

• Lake Bluff Grille in Muskegon:
jazz on summer Tuesdays, 5-8 p.m.

• Boatwerks in Holland:
 jazz on summer Thursdays, 5-8 p.m.