J&J’s Pizza To Stop Hosting Shows For Good As Temporary Basement Closure Turns Permanent.

Forget that it’s cramped. Accept that it can be a furnace in the summer. And do your best to tune out the persistent creaks from the ceiling.

The basement at J&J’s Pizza, also known as the Ol’ Dirty Basement, has been a longstanding fixture in Denton’s creative scene. It’s a room that’s intimate, alive and unbridled; the lack of creature comforts just reinforces the idea that you’re there to enjoy the performances, not the decorative niceties.

News circulated just a few months ago that the basement at J&J’s would be temporarily off-limits, so that it could be renovated. Those plans have now changed: After August 13, the Ol’ Dirty Basement is being permanently shut down.

“We’re really bummed out… [the loss of the basement] really blindsided us,” says Jessie Ham, who oversees booking for the space.

Jaime Ham, the owner of J&J’s Pizza (and husband of Jessie), had been working with their landlord for months to ensure that the renovations would make it a better venue for hosting future shows. Matt Farmer, already an employee at J&J’s, had been asked to take on the booking and management of the upgraded basement, which was set to include plumbing, and better temperature control.

But barely more than a week before it was due to close for construction, the Hams received the notice from their landlord that the basement would no longer be a viable music space, and would no longer be under their control. A new tenant will be moving into the basement in the indeterminate future. J&J’s pushed back, but couldn’t convince the landlord to reverse their decision.

It’s important to note that J&J’s Pizza itself is not closing. Their last basement show may be August 13, but the upstairs pizza shop will still be up and running on August 14 — except for, well, August 14 is a Sunday, and they’re closed Sundays. But, point is, they’re not going away. You can drop in for lunch on August 15, and still enjoy the same quality food and cheap cans of beer they’ve always offered.

Says Jessie: “We want to make sure people know we’re still open. I’ve already seen people posting on Facebook in response to the news, like, ‘Oh no, I really liked their pizza.’ We’re still here! That’s what we really want people to know — that the restaurant is still here, and that we fought hard to keep [the basement] open for performers.”

The Ol’ Dirty Basement has never pampered artists or audiences, but it’s earned the respect of Denton natives. In a Facebook post announcing the loss of the basement, J&J’s aptly referred to their booking approach as “hands-off.” For more than 15 years, it provided an optimal space for local bands looking for a venue that wouldn’t siphon their DIY vibe, and has generally been a haven for local artists. That interest in helping Denton’s own has sometimes meant sacrificing a little bit of efficiency in the kitchen.

“John Welsey Coleman III used to work at J&J’s and would play shows for us,” Jessie says. “He’d be doing dishes, then run down the stairs with soap on his arms to play, then have to run back up to finish work.”

He wasn’t the only one with divided responsibilities. Back in 1998, when J&J’s was just starting to put on shows, Slobberbone bassist Brian Lane also had to walk away from a shift at the pizzeria to perform with his band mates.

Coleman III, who now lives in Austin, will headline the final basement show at J&J’s on August 13. A show had already been planned for that date, but it was intended as a send-off for the basement’s construction-mandated moratorium. The show will now be a curtain call for an establishment suffused with over a decade-and-a-half of local music history. In addition to Coleman III, the bill will also feature performances from Chris Flemmons, Amanda Newton and a new project from Theater Fire band member Sean French.

J&J’s has been able to bring in quality acts over the years, and has routinely provided free shows. Jessie speaks fondly of her memories of seeing artists like Sarah Jaffe, Slobberbone, Coleman III, and Theater Fire — among countless others — play the downstairs venue.

The Ol’ Dirty Basement also welcomed comedy; the inaugural Denton Comedy Festival recently concluded two days of shows there, and Language of Laughter has put on multiple showcases in the subterranean spot. Nationally recognized comics Neil Hamburger and Shane Mauss have performed down there, too.

This isn’t just the severing of part of their business; the loss of the basement cuts deep for the Hams.

“I saw shows there in high school when it was still a Mr. Gatti’s,” Jessie says.

The basement was one of the first places where she could go to connect with Denton’s music scene, and it’s hard to miss the pride in her voice when she talks about having had the chance to extend the venue’s legacy as a performance space.

With the basement gone, she’s hopeful that Denton’s underground music scene will continue to enjoy community support. The scene may need the help — Rubber Gloves is gone, and so is Hailey’s. Venues around Fry Street now have oh-so-trendy apartment complexes looming over them, and that influx of new neighbors has been credited with an uptick in noise complaints that have had a chilling effect on live music in that area. The town’s not bereft of places to enjoy live music, but several of the venues you might have recommended to someone even a year ago have either stopped putting on shows, or disappeared entirely.

But, again, J&J’s Pizza will still be with us — the upstairs part, anyway. As for the Hams, they plan to move forward by putting more energy into their restaurant. Meanwhile, they can only wait to find out who’ll be taking up residence beneath them.

“We hope it will be a great place that will serve Denton well,” Jessie says. “[But] we don’t know what’s happening, and we’re bummed.”

Cover photo by Lauren Rushing.
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