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Local Players

The weekly gig circa 2019.


Rob Ewing & Friends

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Lavay Smith and Chris Siebert

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Le Jazz Hot

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Gaea Schell

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The Charles Unger Experience

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Flux is the only constant in life, and, in San Francisco, for better or worse, change sweeps aside familiar settings with merciless efficiency. There are few better antidotes for vertiginous disruption than a pulse-quickening riff, a seductive melody or a buzz-inducing groove. Above and beyond the essential role musicians play in making civilization civilized, they stand athwart capitalism’s churning creative destruction, providing an oasis of sonic succor. Each night, all around the city, musicians gather for weekly residencies in clubs, bars, restaurants and lounges, establishing a beachhead in the eternal struggle against alienation and entropy. However, regular gigs don’t tend to get much attention. The glitzy one-offs, the concerts featuring a touring act plugged into the ravenous corporate music biz, grab the limelight.

While the humble weekly gig may lack glamour, it’s the lifeblood of any scene, providing players with a stable source of income and invaluable opportunities to build an audience and develop new material. It’s walking into a bar feeling low and dejected, and experiencing an epiphany when a singer delivers a lyric that speaks to your mood like a text from God.

Trombonist/bassist Adam Theis, the co-founder and godfather of Jazz Mafia, has spent nearly two decades as a creative catalyst working in the Bay Area’s musical trenches, and he’s played in just about every kind of venue imaginable. A weekly hit is “so different than one big show you’ve worked on for six months,” says Theis, who keeps a running list of weekly residencies and jam sessions under the “community” tab on the Jazz Mafia website. “At a weekly gig in a bar, the music might be slamming, but it’s permissible to have conversations and interact. It’s a social thing. I know so many people in our community who have gotten married after meeting at one of these regular hangs.”

Here are some of the regular gigs happening in the Bay Area.


Rob Ewing & Friends
Woods Beer Co.
If the clarion sound of a horn catches your ear while strolling through Oakland’s Uptown, chances are, you’re within a few blocks of Woods Beer Co., a sleek and welcoming establishment where bands perform in a patiolike space out front, separated from Telegraph Avenue by only a low planter. Multi-instrumentalist Rob Ewing has played Fridays at the nightspot since early 2016, and, in recent months, he’s alternated between the instrumental dub combo Junior Reggae and experimental jazz quartet Sifter. “With three sets, you can really develop music over a period of time,” he says. “You feel like the street sounds are part of the music. When somebody drives by with a loud stereo, it’s part of the mix. Hearing the horns in the open air brings a bit of the New Orleans spirit we all love to downtown Oakland. Although we would never try to imitate those great bands out of Louisiana. It’s important to us to develop our own musical style—100 percent Bay Area locally grown.”

Lavay Smith and Chris Siebert
The Royal Cuckoo
A true neighborhood watering hole, The Royal Cuckoo is a bohemian Mission District haunt that’s also a cozy family affair. Vocalist Lavay Smith, accompanied on the bar’s mighty Hammond B-3 organ by her husband, Chris Siebert, has been performing Sunday nights since her brother opened the doors in 2011. Musician friends like pianist Tammy Hall, who lives in the neighborhood, often drop by and sit in. “I really use it as a workshop, bringing in new material and thinking about a theme for a big show coming up at the SFJazz Center,” Smith says. “Working with the Hammond organ is like having a big band behind you. I love requests, but I’m not a human jukebox. Tammy Hall knows every song. But if I know a song, I’ll sing it.”

Le Jazz Hot
Le Colonial
Walking through the unmarked door on Sutter Street and heading upstairs to the 721 Lounge feels like stepping back in time to an era when guys and dolls traded wisecracks over cocktails. Le Jazz Hot, the stripped-down hometown version of the acclaimed Hot Club of San Francisco, has performed Tuesdays at Le Colonial for the past 10 years, featuring Paul Mehling’s elegant Django Reinhardt-inspired guitar; Jordan Samuels’ propulsive rhythm guitar; and Sam Rocha on bass, cornet and vocals. “I love requests, but you might not recognize it,” Mehling says. “That’s one way we started putting a lot of Beatles songs in the repertoire. I love [our] night spot because that’s a night real San Franciscans go out, and there are fewer tourists.”

Ricky Aguilar Latin Jazz
Revolution Cafe
As the birthplace of the influential Chamber Music for the People movement, the Mission’s Revolution Cafe embodies San Francisco at its best, serving as a neighborhood social hub and incubator for audacious musical plots. For the last two years, percussionist Ricky Aguilar has held down the early Monday evening slot, filling the room with Afro-Caribbean grooves before the string players show up for the weekly classical revolution session. The session features an illustrious cast of musicians, including timbales master Louie Romero, who was at the center of the New York salsa action at Fania Records in the late 1960s, recording with Héctor Lavoe, Willie Colón, Rubén Blades and Celia Cruz. “Playing with Louie is a lesson in itself,” says Aguilar, who grew up in the Mission amid a highly musical family. “We’re playing lot of Latin jazz from Tito Puente; the Spanish Harlem Orchestra; Miles Davis; Hilton Ruiz; and some originals by our Cuban pianist, Eduardo Corzo. It’s become a real community thing, with artists and poets and Latin musicians coming out every week.”

Gaea Schell
Palace Hotel
Playing for an inherently itinerant audience makes it hard to develop a fan base, but there are other advantages to a regular hotel gig. Pianist, flutist and vocalist Gaea Schell has been a Sunday afternoon fixture in the landmark Palace Hotel for four years, performing duo with either Heshima Mark Williams or John Wiitala, two of the Bay Area’s most esteemed bassists. Some of the advantages are that tourists tip well, “and it’s great for developing repertoire and keeping my chops up,” Schell says. “It’s a beautiful room, and it’s also nice to play acoustically for people sitting and having a glass of wine. It’s a four-hour gig, so it’s important to pace yourself. You want to get into a meditative space to block out any chatting.”

The Charles Unger Experience
Mr. Tipple’s
One of only a handful of real jazz clubs in San Francisco, Mr. Tipple’s has quickly become a beloved nightspot since opening in December 2015. A bar and recording studio, the space starts to feel like an after-hours hang long before midnight. Saturdays for the past two years, the afterparty has been powered by saxophonist Charles Unger and his soul-drenched quartet, featuring pianist Sue Crosman, drummer Tony Coleman and bassist Vicky Grossi. A veteran player who held down a weekly hit at the now-shuttered Les Joulins Jazz Bistro for two decades, Unger knows how to tailor his music for the moment. “I keep it lively: soul jazz with a beat,” he says. “For me, it’s good having a long-term engagement. It keeps me on my toes and keeps material fresh. Visibility is everything in this industry. When people call me for gigs now, I say, just come see the band; don’t take my word for it.”

Howard Wiley and Extra Nappy
Madrone Art Bar
As a gallery, bar and performance space, Madrone Art Bar in the Western Addition often creates exhilarating synergy between the music filling the room and the artwork displayed on the walls. For the past three years, Howard Wiley and Extra Nappy have kept the room bouncing on Wednesdays with an ever-evolving repertoire of reimagined soul anthems, R & B hits and jazz standards. A brawny tenor saxophonist who’s been a creative force on the Bay Area scene since he was a teenager, Wiley has turned the Madrone residency into the city’s premiere musical hang for out-of-town cats. “Yosvany Terry was in last week to sit in, and Warren Wolf is going to have us on his new album,” says Wiley, referring to the Cuban saxophone star and SFJazz Collective vibraphonist, respectively. The irresistible draw is Extra Nappy, a loose and limber all-star combo featuring The Mars Volta former drummer Thomas Pridgen; bassist Michael “Tiny” Lindsey; and organist L.J. Holoman, who’s toured and recorded with the likes of Raphael Saadiq, Mary J. Blige, 50 Cent, Busta Rhymes, Nas and The Game. “It’s so great and so rare to have a home base these days,” Wiley says. “When I’m in New York and mention Madrone, people know about Wednesday nights. People from the neighborhood know us too. We’ve got no website, no records and people dancing every week.”

Brenda’s French Soul Food, Amnesia and Comstock Saloon
It’s not hard to find lead guitarist Dave Ricketts. His Gypsy jazz-inspired band, Gaucho, has played Sundays at Brenda’s French Soul Food the past six years and at Comstock Saloon Mondays and Fridays for seven. Since 2001, the group has held down the hump-day spot at Amnesia, which is how one of Gaucho’s tunes ended up in last year’s Winona Ryder-Keanu Reeves film, Destination Wedding (a CD bought at the gig found its way to the film’s music director). “At Amnesia, we were written into the contract when the owners sold the place to City Beer in 2015,” Ricketts says. “At Brenda’s, we play more of the New Orleans repertoire. [Amnesia is] where we hone our craft.”


Originally published in the February issue of San Francisco 

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