Two things you need to know before you go to the Red Cat Jazz Caf: Don't go if you're not pretty. Don't go if you can't jam.
The Red Cat (924 Congress, 713-226-7870) has a regular lineup of live music throughout the week, but today, like most Tuesdays, it's Jokes & Jazz, a mix of stand-up comedy, open mic singers and a house band. I'm here for the jazz. At least, I am if I can get a chair. I've already lost one table. I was just about to sit down when a guy in dreadlocks came over and pulled the table away from me.
"You can't sit here," he said, dragging off the table.
"You can sit over there," he said, pointing to a table on the side of the stage -- a table which, thank you very much, was directly behind a pole. Why he would think I would want to sit where I can't see anything, I don't know.
I'm making my way across the room and am just about to grab another chair when two extremely beautiful women walk up. "Oh, this is our table," one of them tells me in a "shoo fly" voice. "Yes," says her friend, "the hostess was saving it for us."
"The hostess told me I could sit anywhere there wasn't a green 'reserved' sign. There's no sign on this table," I counter.
"She was saving this for us," the first woman tells me again, noticeably irritated at having to repeat herself. "You can go ask her."
"Whatever," I shrug. I don't feel like getting into a tug-of-war over a table in a bar. I scan the room again and see that the guy in dreads has put the table he took from me back in its place and is seating three very nicely dressed women. He's all smiles.
I look at the two women sitting at my side. I look at the three women being fussed over by the guy in dreads. I look at me. Duh! They're all immaculately dressed. Coiffed. Polished, even. I'm wearing jeans and a bulky sweater, my giant reporter's bag/purse/overnight suitcase slung across my shoulder. I admit I look slightly ragtag, but the ten-dollar bill I gave up at the door for the cover charge wasn't ragtag at all. It was crisp and new.
I finally find a seat near the window, behind the pole, under the speaker. I'm almost sitting out on the sidewalk, but the place is full, so I settle in. I look around some more. This is the first time I've been in the Red Cat. It's really nice. Huge expressionistic paintings of musicians line walls of exposed brick. A red-and-black diamond pattern from the floor tile is repeated on the seat backs. The circular bar glows at the far end of the room. But it's the ceiling that's most notable -- it's lined with huge, rib-like, half-circle wood beams that make it look like we're sitting in the belly of a beast. A beast, apparently, that eats only pretty people.
On stage, the house band starts up with the Earth, Wind and Fire classic "Reasons." I spend most of the set looking out the window over to the Twelve Spot, a bar just across the street from the Red Cat. I bet they wouldn't care about my baggy sweater, I mumble to myself. Three young guys reluctantly come over to my table, taking the chairs farthest away from me. They start that hard neck jerk thing that jazz fans do when they really like the music.
"Say hello to Michael Ward," the bass player tells us. We all clap and I stand up, trying to get a look at him. The Michael Ward that I know about is a jazz violinist from New Orleans. I look for him, but don't recognize anybody.
Around 10 p.m., it's time for the open mic section. First up is Tasheba Bryan. She looks comfortable on stage, like she belongs there. "If you've been here the last couple of weeks, you know that I love Anita Baker," she says, as the band starts Baker's "Sweet Love." I hold my breath as Bryan hits her first few notes. As simple as this song sounds, it's anything but, and I've seen really good singers stumble on its sweeping chorus. Bryan, however, is on sure footing, her voice clear and full. "I'm in lo-ov-ve," she sings. From the smiles on everyone's faces, so is the audience.
Bryan sounds like a pro. While she's singing on an open mic, there's nothing amateurish about her. That, I'm guessing, is true for lots of folks in the Red Cat on Tuesday nights. Beauticians who can jam like Beyonc, letter carriers who sound like Luther Vandross. Of all the open mics in town, this has got to be one of the most intimidating. The Red Cat's open mic is Houston's version of the Apollo.
I walk up to Bryan after her two-song set. "You sounded great," I tell her.
"Thank you," she grins and shakes my hand. Bryan, I notice, doesn't seem put off by my baggy sweater.
"Are you gigging around town?"
"Well, I'm trying to get something going," she says, still grinning. "But until that works out, I'm coming here on Tuesdays.
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"I just love to sing," she goes on. "I really want to make it my career, but it's kind of hard. I was a music major at TSU, so I..."
A slightly drunk fan wanders up to us. "I really like your singing, hey," he slurs at her.
"Well, thank you," she smiles at him.
I nod at Bryan and walk away. Gotta give the girl a chance to work the room.