Jazz on the Downlow Around the Bay

Andrew Gilbert on November 2, 2017
Jazz is alive and well at the Black Cat

With more than 300 concerts on the calender for the 2017–2018 season, SFJAZZ is far and away the dominant jazz presenter in the Bay Area. But as in most artistic endeavors, diversity is a boon when it comes to creativity, and the region offers dozens of other (albeit lower-profile) spaces to experience the music up close and personal.

Strangely, San Francisco’s most important SFJAZZ alternative seems content to remain on the downlow, quietly presenting some of jazz’s most exciting young artists with a minimum of publicity. Located in the heart of the Tenderloin, the Black Cat is proudly old-school. The downstairs music room has the feel of a speakeasy, complete with well-dressed audiences who often seem more interested in each other than the musicians on the bandstand.

Last Saturday, the conspicously attractive staff was decked out in Halloween costumes, as were many of the patrons, adding to the room’s typically convival vibe. On stage, Detroit saxophonist De’Sean Jones and Los Angeles vibraphonist Chase Jackson led the rip-roaring collective sextet KNMDK (Knowmadik) through a set of hip-hop inflected jazz funk, joined on occasion by Oakland sculptor and expert freestyle rapper Gavin Grant. 

De'Sean Jones

It was the second show of a five-night run for KNMDK, the kind of opportunity to settle into a room that’s almost disappeared in the Bay Area (and just about everywhere else). And KNMDK’s residency is hardly an exception at the Black Cat.

The club has forged strong ties to some of the most interesting young players on the scene, like New York trumpeter Theo Croker, who’s played several extended Black Cat runs in the past two years. In an era when musicians struggle mightly for out-of-town gigs, the Black Cat has become a verdant oasis, presenting emerging artists like vocalist Sami Stevens, saxophonist Ken Fowser, Israeli bassist Or Bareket, Chilean guitarist/vocalist Camila Meza, and pianist Emmet Cohen for multinight engagements.

The club isn’t neglecting Bay Area artists either. Various ensembles affiliated with the Jazz Mafia, the expansive umbrella of players arrayed around trombonist/bassist Adam Theis, are a regular presence at the Black Cat, as are the great jazz and blues vocalist Denise Perrier, trumpeter Geechi Taylor, pianist Walter Earl, and many other top-shelf Bay Area artists in jazz and beyond. The booking policy is relatively wide open, with straight ahead jazz, jazz funk, jazz rock, R&B-inflected vocalists, hip-hop jazz, and soul jazz organ combos all thrown into the mix.

The club has been particularly attentive to Bay Area-raised artists looking for a hometown gig, like East Bay-reared New York saxophone star Dayna Stephens and Berkeley-raised guitarist Will Bernard. Vibraphonist Chase Jackson, a product of the vaunted Berkeley High jazz program and Oberlin Conservatory, returns to the Black Cat for a four-night run Nov. 8–11, celebrating the release of his new album Lay of the Land, with his KNMDK bandmaters De'Sean Jones and Aaron Janik (on tenor sax and trumpet, respectively), keyboardist Ian McArdle, bassist Giulio Xavier Cetto and drummer Mike Quigg (the Nov. 10–11 line up swaps in bassist Owen Benjamin Clapp and drummer Dru “Druvvy” M LE, and adds vocalist Courtney Knott, a fellow Berkeley High alum).

Word about Black Cat gigs tends to spread via the musicians on social media, which means it is all too easy to miss an opportunity to see a treasured player or an artist generating a serious buzz. But the Black Cat is hardly the only venue that is less than vigorous about promoting shows. One trick to finding the best jazz gigs is knowing that the music bubbles up in all kinds of unlikely spaces, from pubs and cafés to books stores and instrument shops.

Here are 10 more essential Bay Area jazz spots:

Music in the stacks at Bird & Beckett | Credit: Angela Bennett

Bird & Beckett Books and Records 

653 Chenery St., San Francisco, (415) 586-3733
A cozy room that recently celebrated 15 years of presenting top-shelf, Bay-Area improvisers.
Recommended gig: Vibraphonist/composer Dan Neville celebrates the release of his new album Tenerife with harpist Destiny Muhammad, flutist Rebecca Kleinmann, pianist Grant Levin, bassist Shimpei Ogawa, drummer Pepe Jacobo, and special guest violinist Anthony Blea. Saturday, Nov. 4 at 7:30 p.m.

Magic on the Steinway at Piedmont Piano

Piedmont Piano

1728 San Pablo Ave., Oakland, 510-547-8188
There’s nothing like listening to jazz sitting next to an $80,000 Steinway.
Recommended gig: New York’s Less is More Trio featuring vocalist Kate McGarry, guitarist Keith Ganz, and Gary Versace on piano and accordion makes its Bay Area debut. Sunday, Nov. 12 at 7:30 p.m.

The Sound Room | Credit: Richard Friedman

Sound Room

2147 Broadway, Oakland, (510) 496-4180
An intimate venue created as a space for attentive audiences.
Recommended gig: Trumpeter Erik Jekabson leads a quintet featuring fellow Berkeley High grad Dave Ellis on saxophones, pianist Matt Clark, bassist John Wiitala, and drummer David Flores. Saturday, Nov. 18 at 8 p.m.

On stage at Café Stritch

Café Stritch

374 S. 1st St., San Jose, (408) 280-6161
The South Bay’s leading jazz spot can get loud, but the family-run venue is devoted to jazz.
Recommended gig: Leading her long-standing Experiment in Truth quartet, powerhouse jazz vocalist Rene Marie is fearless on topics erotic and political. Tuesday, Nov. 14 at 8:30 p.m.

Savanna Jazz

Savanna Jazz

89 Laurel St., San Carlos, (650) 453-3683
Since relocating from the Mission District to the Peninsula, Pascal Bokar’s club has enlivened the Silicon Valley jazz scene.
Recommended gig: Equally commanding whether he’s playing funk, fusion, or post-bop jazz, Bay Area guitar master Barry Finnerty should be far better known. Friday, Nov. 17 at 8 p.m.

Kuumbwa offers jazz up close and personal

Kuumbwa Jazz Center

320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz, (831) 427-2227
With a four-decade track record presenting the world’s greatest jazz artists, Kuumbwa is an invaluable gem in a tough business.
Recommended gig: Bill Frisell’s Beautiful Dreamers with violist Eyvind Kang and drummer extraordinaire Rudy Royston explores the guitarist’s love of bright, shimmering melodies. Friday, Nov. 17 at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m.

A performance at the California Jazz Conservatory

California Jazz Conservatory

2087 Addison St., Berkeley, (510) 845-5373
A vital component in the Bay Area’s jazz education scene, the school presents an array of top local and traveling improvisers Friday–Sunday.
Recommended gig: A Bay Area jazz hero since the early 1960s, tenor saxophonist Noel Jewkes plays with his Legato Xpress septet. Saturday, Nov. 17 at 8 p.m.

Café Pink House

4577 Big Basin Way, Saratoga, (408) 647-2273
A charming spot in the South Bay that’s become a vital outlet from some of the best singers and instrumentalists.
Recommended gig: When he’s not teaching the region’s most promising teenage saxophonists, tenor master Dann Zinn writes enthralling music for players like piano star Taylor Eigsti, bassist Zach Ostroff, and drummer Mark Ferber, all members of the Dann Zinn Four. Thursday–Friday, Nov. 16–17 at 7:30 p.m.

The historic 7 Mile House

7 Mile House

2800 Bayshore Blvd., Brisbane, (415) 467-2343
The former stagecoach stop hosts a regular rotation of veteran jazz players who thrive in the relaxed atmosphere.
Recommended gig: A 7 Mile House mainstay, well-traveled trumpeter Dave Bendigkeit leads the Keepers of the Flame with bassist Chris Amberger, drummer Akira Tana, and pianist Dave Udolf. Tuesday, Nov. 21 at 7 p.m.

Club Deluxe

1511 Haight St., San Francisco, (415) 552-1555
Jazz used to feature more prominently on the music calendar, but Deluxe still offers a generous helping of swing and a lively neighborhood feel.
Recommended gig: Barrio Manouche has honed a beautiful new take on Gypsy jazz by infusing Django Reinhardt’s sound with a bracing dose of flamenco. Saturday, Nov. 11 at 6 p.m. and Saturday, Nov. 18. At 10 p.m.