Coffee house says goodbye to weekly folk music jams

A much beloved fixture on the Ashland music scene for 15 years, Balkan Dance at Key of C Coffee House has been canceled, setting folk music lovers scurrying to find a new venue.

Since 1996, the narrow cafe on Sunday mornings has drawn standing-room-only crowds with the exotic sounds of mandolins, accordions, clarinets and strings playing Eastern European music as dancers hold hands and do steps around a central island of tables.

"It's been a long-standing tradition, noisy and rowdy and a big part of culture and community here," says Milton Bloombaum, founder of both the cafe and the drop-in musical event. "I don't know any place in Oregon or the nation that has such music. It's what you'd find in small European villages 50 years ago."

Bloombaum sold Key of C four years ago to Ardyce Hutmacher, who continued the tradition of music and dance, as well as free coffee and bagels for the skilled folk musicians. She sold it in April to Oliver Wald and working partner and chef Kelly Hay, who decided it wasn't a match with their vision of a full-menu Sunday brunch.

Dancers and musicians will hold their farewell gig from 9 to 11 a.m. Sunday, May 22, at Key of C, 116 Lithia Way.

Musicians have been researching several potential new venues, says Bloombaum.

Folk dancer Peter Scholom and owners of Grilla Bites on the Ashland Plaza say they've agreed to open doors for the event from 9 to 11 a.m. Sundays. Bloombaum says musicians will decide on that possibility at their final gig at Key of C.

"We're very sad," says Scholom. "We've been doing it at Key of C for 15 years. You shouldn't kick out the people who get you the most customers."

The informal group of musicians has performed at folk festivals as "Ashfodaba," short for Ashland Folk Dancing Band, with smaller sub-groups performing as Mastrave and Kalmiopsis Players.

The Key of C group always has been a "pick-up band," and the loss of its cramped home will be "the end of an era," Hutmacher says.

However, says Bloombaum, "The new owners have every legal and moral right" to shape their restaurant as they wish.

Bloombaum, with his wife, Laurel, started Key of C in 1987 after retiring from teaching at the University of Hawaii.

"It's an old tradition and is disappointing, kind of like losing the Fourth of July, but new owners are always going to change things," says accordionist Olof Soderback of Talent, adding that he's confident the devoted group will survive its rebirth in a new home.

Bloombaum says the popular event as much as doubled Sunday sales, but the new owners say they've found it to be a net break-even.

"The reality is, it brings a lot of attention but it doesn't (bring increased revenues)," Hay says. "We want to create a fun Sunday brunch with eggs Benedict, breads, pastries, yogurt and fruit and, eventually, champagne ... and dinner."

"We really hope the music continues and in a bigger space," Hay adds. "It has to feel right for us and it didn't."

As they did at Key of C, the eight to 12 musicians at Grilla Bites will push together tables in the center of the space, set up their sheet music (and large, standing bass) and play jubilant and sometimes haunting folk sounds from Slavic and Baltic lands, often accented with Yiddish, Greek, Scandinavian and Italian music, while members of Ashland's International Folk Music Club lead drop-in guests in their line dance circle.

"It's a wonderful experience, with great interaction between dancers and musicians," says club member Venita Varga. The club also meets at 7:30 p.m. Fridays for dancing at the Ashland Community Center on Winburn Way.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at

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