Paul Knight

Jazz clubs usually bring to mind dim lights, linen tablecloths and softly clinking martini glasses, not to mention steep cover charges and/or pricey two-drink minimums. Houston has plenty of those places. But jazz has another side — a spontaneous, free-swinging and earthy one — and there's no better place to see this than King Biscuit's no-cover Tuesday-night jam sessions. Some of Houston's best players descend on the homey Heights bar and cafe not for the money (but please tip), but for the sheer thrill of improvisation and collaboration. Before it got all cultured and highbrow, jazz was party music, and here it still is. But if it makes you feel better, go ahead and order that Manhattan.

They were dancing as fast as they could over at Houston Ballet this year. And we mean both onstage and off. Not only did they just wrap up their 40th anniversary season with a fabulously fun La fille mal gardée, but the troupe is also making remarkable headway on the $53 million Center for Dance. The six-story building boasts nine studios for rehearsals and classes, executive offices and a black box theater. When it opens next spring, it will be the largest center in the country devoted just to dance. It's hard to say whether the topping-off ceremony in March was the high point of the season or Artistic Director Stanton Welch's version of Petipa's 19th-century classic La Bayadère. It was pure spectacle, with great dancing — and live snakes. It doesn't get much better than that.

Bimbo's is a ramshackle old cabin-like structure set among a grove of Christmas light-draped oak trees in the middle of nowhere on the far northwest side of town. There's seating on the front porch, but you don't have to sit out there to legally light up as Bimbo's is beyond the city limits and not subject to Houston's antismoking statute. Once inside, you'll likely find a bulwark of leather-clad bikers pounding Buds and Millers and occasional sidecars from the full bar like there's no tomorrow. They will probably also be singing to each other, to jukebox tunes like Dr. Hook's "Cover of the Rolling Stone." Meanwhile, the barmaid and another employee will be trying to reassemble the pieces of the night before: which of them, if in fact it was either one of them, took whom home, and what happened after that? And there is some priceless graffiti here, such as the one my wife found scrawled on the wall in the ladies' room: "Don't eat hot wings then pussy!" That's the kind of hard-won advice bikers go out and live for us so we don't have to.

In these contentious times, it's downright refreshing to see a band that seems willing to reach out across the great divide. Tax the Wolf's name not only nods to the iconic status of los lobos both within the young quintet's Mexican-American heritage and the annals of indie-rock (Wolf Eyes, Wolf Parade, Peter & the Wolf, etc.), but the ever-present issue of rendering unto Caesar. Whether Tax the Wolf's moniker has helped raise the group's standing among Houston-area Tea Partiers we have no idea, but we imagine it certainly can't hurt. More important, it's an accurate reflection of the music they make: catchy, mysterious and vaguely threatening.

Many of us grew up hearing the slogan "Reading is FUNdamental." Well, the Cool Brains!, InPrint Reading Series for Young People didn't invent the saying, but they certainly do embody it. Cool Brains! has brought reading and language fun to thousands of kids by hosting established as well as up-and-coming authors for readings and discussion sessions. Recently, the series featured René Saldaña Jr., the creator of the newly launched series of children's books starring Latino Mickey Rangel, a fifth-grade sleuth who's out to solve The Case of the Pen Gone Missing.

Jason McElweenie must have a thing about clowns. "They're children of the devil!" vows the Houstonian of six years. A couple of the Canadian native's recent Warehouse Live concert posters have featured the grease-painted harlequins — and not the benign jack-in-the-box/Bozo variety, but sinister-looking clowns like something out of the imagination of Stephen King or even John Wayne Gacy. The downright evil-looking gap-toothed rodeo tramp adorning a pack of cigarettes on his Reverend Horton Heat/Cracker poster is probably our favorite. But besides clowns, McElweenie has a knack for off-kilter interpretations of Norman Rockwell-esque Americana in general — creepy old houses (Little Joy), cigar-store Indians (Tricky), sailor-suited cherubs (Fishbone), seedy roadside motels (Passion Pit) — in his visually striking, lushly colored artwork.

Billed as "Your Country Sports Bar," George is still, well, gay, so you're as likely to see the occasional drag queen as much as a nice Stetson. Either way, the minute you walk into this laid-back neighborhood joint, you'll feel welcome. And while we enjoy the darts, pool, the juke, the flat-screen TVs and the somewhat-cramped patio out back, it's the courteous bartenders who really set the place apart for us. You're not just another customer/tip at George, you're part of the family. With great prices even outside of the extra-long happy hours, a relaxed atmosphere and a down-home feel, George is destined to become one of your favorite neighborhood haunts — no matter where you live.

Screenwriter Johnette Duff was at a film industry conference when someone told her a secret: Keep your costs low by shooting at just one location. Duff took an elevator down to her next meeting, and by the time the elevator doors opened a minute or so later, she had the concept for Up & Down, a movie that takes place inside a hotel elevator. Shot in Houston with an almost entirely Texan cast and crew, Up & Down follows the exploits of a hotel assistant through the course of a year as he chases the girl of his dreams, copes with drunk conventioneers and deals with his boss's wayward daughter. The film had a premiere at the River Oaks Theatre a few months ago and is currently making the rounds on the festival circuit.

When ranking gentlemen's clubs, there are many factors to consider: How much is the cover charge? Is there a free buffet? What are the boobs like? How many boobs are there at any given time? Are these the kind of boobs I can't see anywhere else? Michael's International has astonishingly positive answers to all those questions: The cover ranges from $4 to $8, the buffet is free, expansive and quite tasty, and there are at least three stages featuring some of the best-looking adult entertainers in Houston. (We're not sure of the exact number of stages, as we got whiplash last time we were there, and it made surveying the entire huge place impossible). There's ample parking, and you don't have to deal with the traffic that comes with hitting the strip clubs in the Galleria area. It's off the beaten path, but it's well worth it.

Bigger is usually better, but not when it comes to this year's Best Museum winner. The Pearl Fincher Museum of Fine Arts, the only fine arts museum in the area that's located outside of the museum district, might be small, but it's having a big, big impact. Recent exhibits include "Here & Now: The Runge/Howard Collection," which featured several works by Houston artists such as James Surls, as well as internationally recognized painters such as Joan Miró and Max Ernst. Another well-received exhibit was "A Sense of Place: Selections from the Bobbie and John Nau Collection of Texas Art," which featured works by important Texas artists from the 1850s to 1990s. In addition to touring exhibits, the Pearl has also made good use of the private holdings of collectors in the region, often bringing rarely seen works into the public spotlight.

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