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Birth of the Cool

NoDo has embraced live jazz. But is the relationship a love supreme?

With a stogie in his hand and a lot on his mind, entertainment director Dave Marcellin makes sure things on stage are as cool as the name of the Red Cat Jazz Café (924 Congress). As a veteran club consultant/keyboardist-for-hire, Marcellin draws on his nightlife experiences to make this new venture click. "I've been in America for 29 years," says the Trinidad-born Marcellin. "I've been playing every day, every night. That's my thing. I grew up playing in the clubs."

The recently opened restaurant/ lounge/love-in is the latest venue to inject local and national jazz artists into the downtown sphere. Lump it in with Sambuca Jazz Cafe (909 Texas), Paesanos Lounge (213 Milam) and occasional outlets like the Mercury Room (1001 Prairie) and Last Concert Cafe (1403 Nance), and you've got a mini-jazz renaissance sneaking in the back door of NoDo's DJ-dominated house. But let's get real here: Folks don't put on their best leather and crowd up downtown on Friday or Saturday night to hear these cats play their latest riffs. Could it be that, despite all the new venues, jazz really isn't getting the proper love from the hip and trendy?

"That's a very, very good question," says Marcellin, "because the crowd is slightly unruly downtown, because they come by to socialize, press flesh, network -- they're not about music. But the musicians I will hire, that you will see coming here, have to be geniuses. They have to understand everything about the entertainment world as to how to please an audience. I will not have a band that turns their back to the audience and just keeps playing, even if it's the greatest music in the world."

Face forward, eyes straight ahead: The formula for musical success at the Red Cat Jazz Café
Deron Neblett
Face forward, eyes straight ahead: The formula for musical success at the Red Cat Jazz Café

Proprietors insists jazz helps to lure customers, even if those patrons don't seem to pay it any mind once they're inside. The music certainly has kept Sambuca -- the Houston outlet is one of six cafes in the Dallas-based chain -- jumping the past couple of years. "We get all different types of customers," says Sambuca general manager David Foreman, ever the diplomat. "We get people here that are just extreme jazz enthusiasts. We get people … that come here just for the food and the entertainment. We get people that come here just to be seen. We got a very well-rounded clientele."

With so many NoDo jazz outlets to choose from, you have to wonder if anyone will continue to wander into the more familiar clubs such as Sullivan's Steakhouse (4608 Westheimer) or the Montrose twin shot of Cezanne (4100 Montrose) and Scott Gertner's Skybar (3400 Montrose). When discussing his competitors, Gertner, a noted vocalist and bandleader himself, sounds about as agitated as one of his contemporary jazz pieces, which is to say not at all. He believes that since each venue offers a distinctive vibe -- his Skybar is a smooth-jazz outlet -- clubhoppers are more willing to sample the various sensations. "It's just a matter of what moves you at that time," confirms Gertner. "Some people might be going over there, but some days they might come back over here. They'll go back and forth."

The way Gertner looks at it, this town is big enough for everyone. "There's enough people to go around," he says. "The more nightlife, the more better it is for everyone." Gertner also sees a positive side effect to this proliferation of jazz clubs: Musicians may be open to playing them without prejudice. Of course, just the idea that somebody might be too elitist to perform at a place boggles the mind of Sambuca's Foreman. "I've never heard that in my life," he says. "In the entire time I've been here, almost two years, I've never heard that once. In fact, I think the only time I've even read anything like that was in the Houston Press."

Could it be because we're the only ones asking?

Last Call

Let's all wish a belated happy birthday to the hardworking DJ Sun. The ubiquitous spinner recently celebrated the occasion with a party over at Privé (910 Westheimer). If you'd like to give him a present, we suggest you offer him your presence. DJ Sun would like nothing more than for you to attend his "Soular Transit Authority," the funky grooves mix he does every Tuesday night with fellow spinmaster DJ Ceeplus at The Hub (312 Main). We at Nightfly Central will consider this gratuitous plug our gift to DJ Sun, who shamelessly smooth-talked us into it. Why do we feel so cheap and easy?

 
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