Cabarets and clubs make beautiful music
by Josh Klipp
In the 1940s and ’50s, San Francisco – particularly the Fillmore and North Beach – pulsed with so much beautiful jazz it became known as the “Harlem of the West.” Billie Holiday sang at the New Orleans Swing Club on Webster at Post. Ella Fitzgerald blew the roof off The Long Bar on Fillmore between Post and Geary. Louis Armstrong listened to Charlie Parker at Jimbo’s Bop City at 1721 Fillmore (now Marcus Books), a popular after-hours jam joint. In fact, celebrity guests at Bop City had their names painted on chairs, and the A-list included Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, George Shearing, Miles Davis and an arms-length more.
And while all good things come to an end (including the closure of popular North Beach joints Pearl’s, Moose’s, and Enrico’s in the last decade alone), San Francisco jazz never died. Like any force of nature, it simply reinvented itself, albeit perhaps a little harder to find. Look carefully though and you’ll see it.
Like Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Secret Garden, it exists behind vine covered walls, obscured in whispering fog, floating through open windows like melancholy notes from Chet Baker’s horn at the old Black Hawk. So don your fedora, pull over your trench coat, and venture into unexplored neighborhoods, through unopened doors, across new or ancient thresholds and into the fresh sounds of San Francisco jazz. Once you discover your new favorite old haunt, raise a toast to all who’ve come before: a silent invocation to the once and future Harlem of the West.
Biscuits and Blues: The staircase down to San Francisco’s blues club at 401 Mason Street is a porthole to the deep and gritty South – complete with Southern cuisine, but minus the rifle racks and Duke Boys (sorry guys). Make it double-feature Fridays – Lavay Smith and her Red Hot Skillet Lickers, Friday November 23; and blues singer John Nemeth, Friday November 30. While neither has any overt connection to queer folk, this is some of the sexiest music you’ll ever hear, no matter who you love. www.biscuitsandblues.com
Bliss Bar: A neighborhood bar with queer friendly swank in the heart of Noe Valley, escape the 24th Street stroller derby and wind down your weekend with class. Bliss’ Sunday Jazz series features some loverly Bay Area talent. Check online listings. Every Sunday afternoon 4:30-7:30pm, $10 cover, 4026 24th Street. www.blissbarsf.com
Blush! Wine Bar: No need to wander far for smooth vintage and stringed jazz at this niche conveniently located at 476 Castro. Every Thursday features the Avatar Ensemble, 7-10pm, no cover. Cheers! www.blushwinebar.com
Le Colonial: Tucked away at 20 Cosmo Place, this intimate spot features Vietnamese food. In a throwback to days gone by, proper attire is requested. Monday 7-10pm is Le Jazz Hot, featuring The Hot Club – San Francisco’s brand of rare gypsy jazz. It’s a cozy destination for proper queers who like their jazz a little plucked and twisted. www.lecolonialsf.com
Comstock Saloon: First, pay homage to San Francisco’s queer past with tapas at Bocadillos, 710 Montgomery Street, site of the old Black Cat Bar where the echoes of José Sarria may serenade as you nibble. Afterward, amble past the old jail that once held brave and screaming queens, and head over to the Comstock Saloon at 155 Columbus. Enjoy a nightcap worthy of the swoon-iest Barbary sailors as soft jazz floats down through the rafters, alighting onto a wooden bar top steeped in memory. www.comstocksaloon.com
Condor Club: The country’s first topless bar bears photos of Carol Doda that would make a Castro queen blush with pride and envy. This little corner of San Francisco history also has live music Friday – Sunday, 3-6pm, no cover. And the best part – the band stand features a stripper pole. (Indeed, I’ve worked it while mashing up Sinatra’s “Lady is a Tramp” and Beyonce’s “Single Ladies”). Be brave. Check out my band, Josh Klipp and the Klipptones, Sunday November 18, 3-6pm, corner of Broadway and Columbus. It will be worth your trip to the heart of North Beach. (FYI the tops start flying off at 6pm.) Yelp Listing
Preservation Hall West: Promising to bring New Orleans-style jazz to San Francisco, there is no jazz or blues scheduled in November. But stay-tuned as this new venue may yet live up to its name. 777 Valencia.
Rassella’s: Located at 1534 Fillmore in the heart of San Francisco’s historic jazz district, this now near-institution has featured the Bay Area’s own Grammy Award-winning and nominated artists Tracy Chapman and Ledisi. Enjoy authentic Ethiopian cuisine and bask in the whispers of Fillmore’s ghosts while SF’s best play live. The online calendar is out of date, but the music never is. www.rasselasjazzclub.com
Revolution Café: For the queer hipster set, direct your attention to the Revolution Café, located at the corner of 22nd and Bartlett just across from the Make Out Room and scene of Stay Golds of yore. Music seven nights a week, never a cover. Recommended performer: Howell Devine, a gritty rural blues trio with farm boy looks. Sunday, November 4, 8:30-11:30pm. www.revolutioncafesf.com
Rouge: Smothered in red velvet and dripping chandeliers, this spot at Broadway and Polk is best avoided on weekends unless you enjoy your martini with a side of drunken Marina-ites en masse. But Thursday promises Happy Hour 5-10pm, Nick’s Crispy tacos, and live jazz 8-10pm. www.rougesf.com
The Rrazz Room: Located in Hotel Nikko at 222 Mason Street, this sophisticated but intimate venue’s downfall is its embarrassment of tantalizingly queer-angled artistry. A favored venue of local and famed chanteuse Veronica Klaus, and jazz and R&B bands and vocalists, it’s a little pricey, but performances are worth the coin. Recommended: Lady Rizo, Wednesday November 15. I caught her live at NYC’s The Darby, Prince’s after-hours haunt. Do not miss this show. Also: November 11-21, Wesla Whitfield – purist old school class. www.therrazzroom.com
Savanna Jazz: The walls of this joint are covered in images of jazz greats. Live music features an incredible six nights a week. I can’t help but recommend my own group, Josh Klipp and the Klipptones, Friday November 2, 7:30-11:30pm, $8. I’ll be the eye candy, but the real showstopper is co-vocalist and Bay Area novitiate, Emily Day. 2937 Mission Street. www.savannajazz.com
Top of the Mark: A Judy Garland haunt and famed for its 100 Martinis menu, this spot opened in 1939 and holds its share of San Francisco lore. While much of the entertainment features funk, pop, or smooth piano jazz, local jiving and wailing rousers Stompy Jones start your three-day weekend every Thursday night, 7:30-11:30pm, $10. 999 California Street. www.intercontinentalmarkhopkins.com/top_of_the_mark
Yoshi’s (San Francisco): Elegance and marquee entertainment dominate 1330 Fillmore Street, an address shared by the Jazz Heritage Center. Pre-show sushi is optional. Recommended performer: Sony Holland. This stunning chanteuse once sang on the Fisherman’s Wharf and is now a Bay Area favorite. She and her silken voice grace the stage Sunday, November 18, 7pm, $20. The Oakland Yoshi’s also books great local and touring jazz and R&B talents. www.yoshis.com
Zingari Lounge: This Italian restaurant, wine bar and jazz club with lush views is located at 501 Post Street. Recommended performer: Amanda King, a straight-ahead jazz chanteuse who has entertained at the Castro Street Fair and whose style has been compared to Ella Fitzgerald and Ann-Margaret. Tuesday November 6, 7:30-11:30pm, no cover. What better way to celebrate the president’s re-election? www.zingari.com
- Mango’s Ripe
- Sandra Bernhard @
Marines Memorial Theatre
- Beach Girl 5 @ Trigger
@ Red Devil Lounge
- Rachael Sage
@ Cafe DuNord