Five months ago, the Jazz, TX neon blazed a trail that led to the Pearl’s first live music venue. The jazz club – featuring full-service dining, cocktails, and a dance floor – has attracted so many music lovers that the 100-plus capacity establishment rarely has a seat open, a problem that owner Brent “Doc” Watkins is happy to have.
The music venue’s blend of quality, service, and character has raised the bar for the local music industry.
“If we didn’t have really amazing people, this place wouldn’t be what it is,” Watkins said as people around him busily prepared the scene for the evening performance of Johnny P and the Wiseguys. “I feel very blessed to have these guys around, because they make life a lot of fun.”
Life has been fun but busy for Watkins and his team, as sold-out shows Thursday through Saturday have become the norm over the past several months.
“We’re a place that really wants to excel and do well, so people come back again and again,” Watkins said. “I love looking out over the restaurant and knowing half the people by first name, knowing what they drink, and what song they want to hear.”
Originally, Jazz, TX’s policy was to reserve half its seats and leave the other half for walk-ins, because Watkins envisioned the club as a place that local foodies and Pearl residents could check out on their evening strolls. But demand was so strong that the club changed its policy to accept as many reservations as its capacity allows.
“If you come to me a week out and say you want to buy a ticket for you and ten friends, I’m not going to say no,” Watkins said about the new policy. “If we tell them we only do 50% reservations and to take their chance as a walk-up, they’re not going to come.”
It might take people of the “old San Antonio guard” – patrons who are used to walking into a place and immediately getting a table – a bit to get used to the new reservation policy.
“People started calling about company parties, birthdays, and anniversaries,” Watkins said. “It would be foolish of us not to say yes.”
Watkins encourages everyone who wants to experience Jazz, TX to call ahead and make a reservation, saying his employees will do what they can to get people in, even if it means squeezing in a few standing room-only folks.
“If we were an elitist place, that wouldn’t be the case,” Watkins said. “People can sense that veneer, that mentality. I think the fact that we try so hard to accommodate is a big reason we’re full.”
Cover charges apply to the 8:30 p.m. show every night. Watkins and his staff generally allow a grace period of 15-20 minutes, so if patrons close out their tabs before 8:45 p.m., they typically won’t be charged the cover.
“Imagine if the bar at the Majestic Theatre were open to the general public every night before the show starts,” Watkins explained in an email to the Rivard Report. “Feel free to come by and have a drink, but you’ll need to pay in order to see the main show. Our concept is similar, but with the added benefit that there’s always a free show from 5:30-7:30 p.m.”
When nighttime performances are sold out, jazz enthusiasts can still experience the venue – perhaps even in a cheaper, more intimate way. The 5:30-7:30 p.m. set features happy-hour specials and no cover charge.
“It’s rare that you can’t get in at 6 o’clock,” Watkins said. “You could walk in and listen to Ruben V for free any Wednesday, drink water, and have no bill at the end of the night. He’s on a level with anybody that I’ve heard as a blues guitarist – super cool cat, humble, and hard-working.
“Keep in mind that not only is the cover charge in other cities – New York, Chicago, San Francisco, etc. – more than double what we charge, but it only gets you in for one set. … At Jazz, TX, the cover charge gets you in for the entire night. It’s an amazing deal, and I think San Antonians are beginning to understand.”
Ruben V, one of the leading names in blues guitar in San Antonio, plays more than 120 shows a year and has shared the stage with legends such as B.B. King and Buddy Guy.
“The reception has been great for me, and the sound works well too, because there are no other distractions,” Ruben V said of the establishment’s music-oriented focus. “Doc is a pro, and he expects the same from you and so we’ve become brothers through this. The partnership has definitely helped me spread my wings.”
Jazz, TX may have a distinct advantage over other music venues simply because of its location and offerings.
Luna, a live-music club in existence since 2003, is situated in a lower-traffic area on San Pedro Avenue. Luna charges $10 on Fridays and Saturdays, while Jazz, TX runs $15-$20.
While Luna offers tacos and similar fare at affordable prices, it does not approach the fine dining experience offered by Jazz, TX’s Executive Chef Lorenzo Morales, formerly of Arcade and The Last Word. Both venues do right by their audiences by providing an experience commensurate with what they charge at the door.
Sam’s Burger Joint, a heralded landmark that often features out-of-town artists, offers weekend show tickets ranging from $20-$40.
In Watkins’ mind, local artists can hold their own against the national acts.
“I cannot speak highly enough of the musical talent in SA,” Watkins said, explaining his nearly all-local approach at Jazz, TX. “One thing I wanted for the mission of Jazz, TX is to heighten [San Antonians’] respect for their own city, and to call attention from the outside of what we’re doing here.”
The humility and camaraderie that defines a great part of the local music community are hallmarks of the musical cadre that makes up the Jazz, TX lineup.
“Something about the players, this town – we have amazing players who are easy to work with, and they love playing music,” Watkins said. “A lot of musicians may get an attitude, but SA has some of the best guys.”
Since opening, Watkins has stuck primarily with local artists. However, occasional treats such as Sammy Miller and the Congregation from New York or blues legend Jimmie Vaughan, who recently performed at the club, are a taste of the type of musicians Watkins would love to bring in from time to time, groups that lure patrons to the dance floor.
“One of my favorite feelings is to play for people dancing,” Watkins said. “When the dance floor is packed on a Saturday night, it’s a ton of fun. That will never go out of style, getting dressed up to have a good time. When dancing stops, the music dies.”
For folks like Judith Shaedder and her husband of 53 years, the music is more alive than ever when they take to the dance floor.
“Dancing reminds us of when we were dating back in the ’60s,” she said. “We used to love to dance. This place has him [her husband] dancing again. It’s why we come. It has really brought us closer together.”