Article by Ralph A. Miriello
For nearly 20 years, the City of Atlanta was home to the jazz club Churchill Grounds. Located downtown next to the Fox Theater until it closed on July 31, 2016, Churchill Grounds was the brainchild of Korean immigrant Sam Yi. To this Jazz Hero, running a jazz club is more than a business — it is a calling.
Born in Seoul, South Korea, Sam came to the U.S. as a child with his parents, who arrived in California on a work visa to join the Army Corps of Engineers. When Sam was 11, his family relocated to Nashville, Tennessee. His earliest recollection of jazz is as a youth hearing his mother’s Nat King Cole trio records.
As one of few Asians, unable to speak English fluently, in a school enforcing desegregation by busing in a mix of black and white students, Sam did not find his new environment easy. Eventually, due to his affable personality backed up by his skills at the martial art Tae Kwon Do, he gained peers’ respect.
By 1980 Sam and his family had become naturalized citizens of the United States. Yi attended a private Christian high school. He received a scholarship to the University of Tennessee where he studied engineering, economics and business. Exploiting his bilingual ability, he became a buyer for Pier 1 Imports in Atlanta. Recreationally, he started hanging out with hipsters who were into Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk. It was his discovery of John Coltrane’s album with vocalist Johnny Hartman that turned him into the enthusiast he is today and launched his dream of running a European style jazz café.
Yi learned the restaurant/bar business from the ground up, for five years waiting tables, bartending and eventually managing Café Intermezzo in Buckhead. He opened his own café, named for his love of Churchill-style cigars and coffee grounds, on May 1, 1997. Atlanta had recently lost Just Jazz, a premiere venue, and Yi was able to book local piano legend Johnny O’Neal at his new club for a six-night-a-week trio residency. With O’Neal came the community of musicians, aficionados and casual listeners.
After O’Neal moved to New York, Yi kept the momentum going, attracting top-notch regional talent and occasionally out-of-town stars on tour. He provided seasoned Atlanta-based musicians with a home to test new material before receptive audiences, and younger ones with opportunities to sit in and hone their skills. He enabled mutually beneficial, creative, symbiotic relationships in a warm setting that made Atlanta a better place, and the community responded by happily attending, a cycle of mutual reinforcement.
For the past two decades Yi has indefatigably dedicated himself to Atlanta’s jazz world, often at the expense of his finances and personal life. Undeterred when Churchill Grounds was forced to close, he continued, presenting pop-up jazz jam sessions at Mason Tavern in Decatur. Now he’s agreed to become a partner there. Win-win for Atlanta and our Jazz Hero!
— Ralph A. Miriello