In the days before streaming services and smartphones, our music came over the airwaves from freewheeling live radio disc jockeys. “Not quite,” says Chaye Alexander, a Jamaican-born and Brooklyn-raised former radio disc jockey who now helms her own streaming smooth jazz and R&B station and the Meeting Street oasis known as Chayz Lounge. Turns out, commercial radio disc jockeys didn’t — and still don’t — have the liberty to play their favorite artists and genres or to break a newcomer into the local music scene. “Traditional radio isn’t a platform for independent artists,” she says. “It mandates that you have to play this, and you have to play that.”
Being told what to play and when was a bitter pill for an avid, lifelong lover of music. Chaye got her big break at the age of 17 when she was offered a live radio DJ role while DJing parties with her brother. “Just like that, I fell in love with the microphone,” she says.
The allure was finding ways to connect with her audience without seeing them face to face. “For me that’s music,” she says. “It was challenging to dip into the crates and see what I can pull out to touch someone who’s going through something be it love or a break up.”
What she hated was being pigeonholed by label marketing and playlists. So, she tried on television, creating a music-based public access TV show in Brooklyn that was eventually picked up in 13 markets and presented independent artists alongside stars of the time such as TLC, Boyz II Men, Melba Moore and Eric Benet. But Chaye soon realized television wasn’t the fit she was after either. “I’m a very behind-the-scenes person. I like to create an air of mystery,” says Chaye.
One morning in 2004 “somewhere in-between asleep and awake” she had an idea for a new venture — an internet radio station dedicated to music she loved and wanted on the air. The problem? It was 2004, a time when widespread internet was barely in its infancy. Napster had just been shuttered. Spotify was still on a virtual drawing board. iPods had click wheels.
“We were just coming out of dial-up,” she laughs. “First, I had to research it and figure out what it is and how it could be done. What was I going to call it? How do you have a station? How do you stream it and keep it streaming? How do you get it out to the masses?” By 2009, she had the answers and Chayz Lounge was born. “We planned it as a soft launch,” she says. “Apparently people had been waiting for something like it because it immediately took off.”
Chaye received so many messages from her listener community it wasn’t long before she began to plot her next venture — a brick and mortar music venue where listeners could get together and experience something that would touch their lives in a very tangible way. “Historically, jazz clubs either have good music, and maybe a decent ambiance and bar food, or it’s got good food, and the music is local bands,” she says. “I wanted to provide the whole experience — drinks, the food, the ambiance, the music, the staff, everything — in a world class way. Nothing left to chance.”
In 2017, after more than seven years of searching for the ideal location, the first iteration of Chayz Lounge opened in the back room at Nonnah’s to a jam-packed crowd that never abated. “It was small but that gave it a speakeasy feel. People liked that,” she says. It was quickly evident that Chaye’s dream was bigger than one room. “After a year, I started looking for my own place.”
After long days of picking through available (and sometimes astronomical) downtown properties, one day Chaye was compelled to go straight across the Gervais Street Bridge instead of turning right to head home. As she passed the unassuming building at 607 Meeting Street, she spotted a rental sign in the window.
“I got out, peeked in the window, and saw it was all walls,” she laughs. “I stood at the door looking down the hallway and called a friend. I said, ‘I think I found Chayz Lounge.’” She called the landlord on the spot and learned she’d just put the sign up. Within days, the lease was signed.
While Chaye has long since mastered running her streaming music station — now called Chayz Lounge Radio — operating a music venue and restaurant was an entirely new genre of work. “I didn’t fully understand all you have to deal with,” she says. “I’d never had to worry about staff, liquor, food, the cook, groceries.” What she did know is that she wanted that and more for Chayz Lounge. “When I’m in this room and see it packed full of happy people who are having a great time, it’s all worthwhile.”
Another thing Chaye appreciates? The neighborhood’s old school roadside monument — the WECO sign. “There’s so much history in that sign,” she says. “I can’t wait for its return because it speaks to progress. To see this one iconic thing and then to see it change for the better, it really gives you hope.”