There are certain times in our lives where it seems that everything we’ve done in our past, everything we’ve worked so hard to achieve comes together to prepare us to succeed at the creation of something truly special. In Portsmouth, the stars have aligned for brothers Michael and Peter Labrie and the phenomenon they’ve created in opening Jimmy’s Jazz & Blues Club.
Everything about this swanky new club, which opened on September 30, 2021, is sheer perfection. From the magnificent, multimillion dollar historic restoration of the bones of the 1905 former 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 stunning and expansive walls, to finding the finest culinary team and seasoned talent booker, Jimmy’s has done everything right and then some.
This project may have been five years in the making, but it’s backed by a lifetime of dreams that have finally come true for these two hardworking restaurateur/developers. Growing up in an entrepreneurial family with real estate holdings 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, picked up construction debris and did whatever else it took to learn the family business from the bottom up.
It wasn’t until 2009 that the brothers’ paths merged. Peter had notebooks filled with restaurant ideas going back to junior high school. “We didn’t open the River House on Bow Street in Portsmouth until I was in my 30s.” The Labries also own the Atlantic Grill in Rye. Through both venues, they’ve supported music and the arts, sponsoring concert series in the area at Prescott Park and the Seacoast Science Center. Prior to his work in the hospitality industry Peter was in software sales and even flew planes in Alaska for a time.
Michael had a technical background in theater including lighting design. From high school to college and beyond, he was running facilities and presenting concerts in gymnasiums and performing arts centers with Huey Lewis, the Motels, the Kinks and more. When he tired of being on tour, he followed in his father’s footsteps and went into real estate. But Michael started to miss 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 developed. The man said the price was too much and hung up. He called back twenty seconds later asking if they’d be interested in a real estate swap—the Route 1 building for the old YMCA in the downtown. The Labrie brothers explored the building the next day. Sake Japanese Restaurant was still operating in it. The upper three floors hadn’t been inhabited since 1959. The brothers instantly knew it was what they were looking for. Michael, the creative visionary behind the space, says a jazz supper club immediately came to mind.
Transforming an old YMCA building with a former gymnasium as its main performing space had its own challenges. The Labries said the building itself dictated much of what would happen. They incorporated as many of the old features as they could, while focusing on light and creating environments. Peter found a photo of the bay windows on the front of the building in the Library of Congress. Artisans crafted replicas off-premises with exact detail down to the filigree. The windows were later installed with large cranes.
The wall in the sky bar on the back of the building boasts the original brick walls and restored windows. The Labries brought in several consultants to address the acoustical engineering of the space which had sound bouncing off massive windows, large walls of glass, brick, and pocket areas throughout. Even the luxurious bathrooms are adorned with stunning panels of marble repurposed from the former laundry of the YMCA. Hundreds of historic items were found during the construction phase. Many are on display in the club and a book showcasing the items is also in the works.
The Labries have created a space with versatile, multiple uses. Neutral grays allow the spectacular art collection—purchased by Michael in Miami almost two decades ago—by abstract, expressionist artist, Sam Stetson to pop, while allowing the space to be subtle enough as a backdrop for weddings and corporate events. The green room is a luxurious setting that beckons musicians to want to come back and doubles as a stunning bridal suite for wedding parties.
The brothers have also invested a considerable amount of money in audio and video technology, not only to be used on their large screens throughout the club, but for archival purposes and future recording releases, as well. They are working on high quality streaming as an added revenue source for the artists and have their own YouTube channel up and running. They have superb teleconferencing capability, which is used by their corporate clients for hosting worldwide meetings.
Suzanne Bressette, who handles the booking for Jimmy’s, was a real find. With concert-promoting roots in the industry in rock, blues, and jazz going back to Lansdowne Street in Boston, and New York City, Bressette has put together an incredible lineup of not only some of the greatest legends from both the jazz and blues worlds and beyond, but also has an eye for showcasing up-and-coming talent, as well. Bressette says, “Social media has been an incredible asset for us. We’ve worked hard to grow our database to over 35,000 followers, reaching out to them regularly, educating them about the artists performing on our stage.”
Michael says, “I’m a jazz guy. Peter is a blues guy. That’s the fun part of this. We have such diversity in our programming. One night it’s a jazz trio, then classical, then someone like Paul Nelson is rocking out on our stage. The music changes nightly, which allows us to attract a diverse audience. Night after night we are seeing new faces. People are driving hours to get here, or flying in from Chicago, or New York, spending a weekend in Portsmouth. Local businesses across the spectrum, from restaurants, to hotels and inns, to high end clothing stores have stopped us in the streets to thank us. Opening Jimmy’s has been a real economic engine for this area.”
Peter, who sourced the kitchen operation says, “We are a true dinner theater. Our chef worked for the best restaurant group in New Orleans and moved back to the area as we were opening. People come two hours before the show to enjoy our delicious food and phenomenal wine selection. As the staffing pool improves, Sunday jazz brunches will be added, featuring regional jazz artists. We’re really excited to add a jazz brunch and additional new programming into the mix.”
I have no doubt the Labries' father, Jimmy, a Portsmouth legend in his own time, is smiling down with pride for what his sons have accomplished. “Our dad and brother were both named Jimmy, so we honored the two of them in naming the club after them. Dad died in 2016, just before we purchased the YMCA building. Our brother died in 1986 in a tragic motorcycle crash. Our dad grew up in Portsmouth, but we didn’t have the opportunity to hear much about his time here until his friends began sharing stories with us during the process of this project. We always say that we slept in Rye, but we grew up in Portsmouth. We love being a part of this community.”
135 Congress St, Portsmouth, NH, 888-603-5299, jimmysoncongress.com