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Staying Cool at Joe Carmouche's Legends Jazz Cafe

Houston's new downtown jazz digs

On the official list of Things That Are Cool, playing a mean jazz guitar is right near the top. Specifically, it's directly above "catching a rattlesnake with your bare hands" and directly below "punching a guy in the face who's been acting like a douchebag at a party."

It's a distinction that Joe Carmouche's Legend's Jazz Cafe (1004 N. San Jacinto) owner and guitarist Joe Carmouche is proud of (and was also unaware of until we made it up brought it to his attention.)

"There's an actual list? That's interesting. I'll tell you what," says Carmouche, "I'm truly happy to be able to play and make a living off of it, but [being that high on the list] is great."

Carmouche has been a fixture on the Houston jazz and R&B scene since 1979 — that is, when he wasn't chasing down criminals; Carmouche served with the Houston Police Department for 21 years before retiring last summer. As a musician, he has four full-length CDs to his credit; has played with the likes of Joe Sample, Kirk Whalum and Kenny Burrell; was awarded a Certificate of Congressional Recognition for his musical accomplishments by Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee; and is known to his pastor as his church's Minister of Soul. (Although the clear crown jewel in his illustrious career is his 2005 nomination for Best Jazz Artist by the Press.) But even with all that, Carmouche has never attached his name to a venue before, and he appears to be taking the venture more than a tad seriously.

"It's really fun. It's...it's a dream that's been realized," he says. "I've been planning a venue for three years, and when this place became available I had to grab it. We're working to make it great."

"This place" is, quite literally, a room. It's just big enough (about 20-by-40 feet) to not quite qualify as a dive, yet small enough (capacity: 50) for customers to feel cool about knowing where it is. It's tucked neatly off of I-10 on North San Jacinto (next to several of Houston's finest bail bondsmen) and has quietly become a low-budget but swank haven for mixed professionals mostly ranging in age from 30 to 50.

Inside the nondescript venue, you'll find a standard collection of jazz bar essentials: dim light, a somewhat lacking bar, 12 tables, some paintings provided by a local artist (Charles Washington), the Coltrane poster and that's about it. Carmouche expects to add a kitchen in June, to be manned by current Friday-night Cajun-buffet provider Alan Mallett. Even so, what's lacking is excusable, as the wonderful jazzy substance makes up for it.

"Joe is the best," says bartender Veronica Rose. "It's a completely different vibe when he's performing here. He can read the crowd in a split second and knows exactly what to play to get them into it. It's really something special."

Indeed it is. Carmouche's guitar skill, which he puts on display every Friday and Saturday night, occasionally lends credence to the rumors that the Skybar (3400 Montrose) veteran was born with 14 fingers. (He wasn't, and we checked. That's the kind of hard-hitting reporting The Nightfly is famous for.)

But even on Carmouche's nights off — Wednesdays and Thursdays — there's no shortage of cool, as local musicians like Woody Witt, Andrew Lienhard and Mark Sellers effortlessly strum on and hammer off.

You might just walk out having decided to buy a jazz guitar, because, "Hey, it can't be that hard, right?"

Last Call

Now that you've become the next Wes Montgomery, you can put your newfound guitar chops to the test at these other Houston jazz hangouts: Cezanne (4100 Montrose) — it's only open Fridays and Saturdays; expect a straight-ahead jazz sound and mild smarminess; Ruggles (5115 Westheimer) — jazz on Saturday nights and at Sunday brunch; do your best to avoid sitting too close to the stage because it's loud as shit; Downing Street Pub (2549 Kirby) — jazz on Sundays and Tuesdays; absence of a cover charge is made up for with an excess of smoke (humidor on site).

 
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