SOUTH BEND — Stephen and Mary Merriman have been on a mission to spread the culture of jazz since 2006. The origins of Merrimans' Playhouse began in December of 2006, when the couple started the Jazz Performance Series. Both are musicians themselves, who had been playing together at weddings, smokey bars, and other events where their performance was treated more as background music than the art they appreciated. Stephen described a feeling that had been building for years that the local scene was missing a piece of the music puzzle.
“What we needed was a place dedicated to presenting work that exists between the cracks of our culture,” he said.
Stephen, who grew up in South Bend, and Mary, who came from Michigan, would schedule a few performances a year, with both of them playing along with another invited musician. They discovered that there was indeed an audience for jazz. The performances, which were expensive to put on, were stopped for a few years. In the meantime, their piano repair business had grown, forcing them to move into a new building. In 2011, a space next to theirs opened up. They took the chance and rented the space to create the playhouse.
The name Merrimans' Playhouse was drawn from Minton's Playhouse in New York, where many of the foundations of modern jazz were established and the biggest names in jazz music would gather for jam sessions. The club helped build a multicultural spirit and a place for self-expression, one which the Merrimans are trying to build from and cultivate.
“If you've got something to say, here’s the opportunity to say it,” Stephen described.
It was in May of 2011 that their first paid performers would be featured. That group took word back to their home in New York City and the reputation began to spread in the jazz world. Originally expecting to have to play many of the shows themselves, Stephen and Mary discovered that their venue had become known in major cities around the country and even in other parts of the world. The playhouse became a convenient stopping point for musicians on tour, complete with lodging and meals provided by the Merrimans.
The original Merrimans’ Playhouse neighborhood location came from opportunity and financial viability, but they had always wanted to be in downtown South Bend. Stephen and Mary had always been looking and considering the idea of a new location, but with performances booked out for months, the time was never ideal. The shutdowns resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic gave them the time and opportunity to finally make the move. They spent one and a half years building out their new space in the Commerce Center building on Colfax Ave, with the assistance of grants, donations, and the graciousness of their landlord, David Matthews. They held their grand opening in July of 2021.
Settled into their new home, Stephen and Mary, along with the Merriman’s board, are continuing their work to make jazz accessible and affordable for everyone in the area, regardless of age, ethnicity, or prior musical interest. They believe jazz is a work of art that is meant for everyone.
“You don’t have to understand it,” Mary said. “Just come and hear it and experience it.”
Their mission continues in the form of multiple concerts and events each week, whether it be the weekly Tuesday Jazz Open Sessions, concerts highlighting jazz artists from the area, student jazz performances, their Chamber Arts Series, or featuring touring regional, national, and international jazz performers. You can learn more about Merrimans’ Playhouse and see their event schedule at merrimansplayhouse.org.