Simon Rowe, co-owner of the new Keys Jazz Bistro in San Francisco’s North Beach, happily greeted the audience before vocalist Kenny Washington and his band took the stage on Friday just a week after the club’s Nov. 10 opening.
Seeing some repeat customers comfortably seated at tables in the modern yet cozy room (perfect for hearing jazz), Rowe gleefully welcomed back patrons and said, “This space is pure joy.”
He added, “This is a place for artists to practice their craft,” noting that his goal is for musicians, particularly local acts, to play frequently at a venue they can call home. He mentioned upcoming shows with saxophonists Noel Jewkes (aka Dr. Legato), Patrick Wolff and drummer Sylvia Cuenca.
Rowe, a keyboardist, will appear this weekend with his trio (Eric Markowitz on bass and Brian Fishler on drums) with special guest saxophonist Andrew Speight.
On Friday’s closing date of a six-gig booking, the delightful Kenny Washington Quartet served up a smooth, easy, at times smoking, set of standards. Washington, among the Bay Area’s best singers, and his excellent band of veterans – bassist Ron Belcher, drummer Deszon Claiborne and pianist David Udolf – breezed through a fun lineup that included the sweet “Honeysuckle Rose,” wry “Everything Happens to Me,” bluesy “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ but the Blues,” gorgeous ballad “But Beautiful” (dedicated to his friends in the audience, fellow jazz singer Nicolas Bearde and his wife) and an upbeat arrangement of “As Time Goes By.”
During the second set, pianist Rowe joined the group at Washington’s request, for an “Ahmad Jamal-style” rendition of “Moonlight in Vermont.” Initially slightly reticent, aware of the “gentle chemistry” of a finely tuned ensemble, Rowe said he did “easily” jump onstage and went on to have a ball.
In a separate phone interview, Rowe, a native Australian and jazz fan since he heard Louis Armstong play when he was a child, said, “I knew straight away what I wanted to do when I was 8 or 9 years old. I said ‘I’m going to be a jazz musician,’ and that’s what I’ve spent my life doing, from different angles.”
An educator as well as practitioner, Rowe isn’t daunted by the prospect of operating a club. Keys’ co-owner is Matt Mullenweg, the tech entrepreneur who developed WordPress (who plays sax); Rowe and Mullenweg both studied jazz in Houston.
Rowe established and curated performance spaces while teaching at Minnesota State University. He also ran a room called Studio 222 in Fargo, N.D., where, he said, “We created culture in a place that had not much jazz culture up to that point. We got it going and people loved it.” He spent five years on the St. Louis jazz scene as well.
A San Francisco resident, Rowe’s California resume includes directorships at the Brubeck Institute at University of the Pacific, and the Roots, Jazz and American program at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, which he founded.
Ever optimistic, Rowe isn’t concerned about competition: “I see everyone that presents music as part of the same mission. We fill a unique niche just as Mr. Tipple’s fills its niche, just as SF Jazz, just as Yoshi’s. We all work together to create a healthy ecosystem for working artists.”
Unlike some spaces, though, Keys’ tickets are $25, and most menu items cost less than $20. Rowe said, “I want this to be accessible enough so that people could come a couple of times a month because it’s not going to punish their wallet too badly.”
Rowe, once a trumpeter, counts himself a rabid jazz fan, with a list of favorite artists that could fill pages, including Armstrong, Chet Baker, Clifford Brown, Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw. He likes pianists Chick Corea, Bill Evans, Hank Jones and Herbie Hancock, classic organists Jimmy McGriff, Melvin Rhyne, Shirley Scott and Jimmy Smith, and the more contemporary Joey DeFrancesco and Larry Goldings.
Among the more pleasant aspects of co-owning Keys, he said, is being in the audience: “After running around the club all day filling holes with spackle and painting and sanding things and checking if there’s enough hand towel paper in the women’s bathroom, doing all those menial things, suddenly when beautiful music begins, I grab a glass of Perrier and I sit down and really just allow myself to soak into the music. There’s nothing like the joy of being in the moment with master musicians.”
Keys Jazz Bistro is at 498 Broadway, San Francisco. Shows, at $25, run Wednesdays-Sundays, with additional separate 11 p.m. late night performances most weekends. Visit keysjazzbistro.com.