Jazz hot spots


POSTED: Friday, May 01, 2009

Local musicians are often among the hardest hit when the effects of our failing economy trickle down to the bar and nightclub level.

Sure, bartenders and cocktail servers lose tips and wages when shifts get cut and customers begin to pull back on going out for drinks. But when a venue decides to get rid of live entertainment, it's not just one person who loses the hours; often, there are backup musicians, sound engineers, door staff and security who also are affected by the loss of a gig.

That's why both bar owners and musicians need your support more than ever. This week, “;Barfly”; takes a look at some of the best locations from downtown Honolulu to Diamond Head for spending your hard-earned money while enjoying some of the best jazz stylings our city has to offer.


Jazz Minds Art and Cafe

1661 Kapiolani Blvd. / 945-0800

Seems pretty straightforward—in order to listen to jazz music, go to the venue with “;Jazz”; in its name. Just be sure to visit Jazz Minds Art and Cafe with an open mind, especially if you don't call ahead to see who is performing on a particular night.

Since the bar opened in 2006, owner Young Yi has been steadfast in her desire to offer live entertainment six nights a week. Faux brick walls adorned by a plethora of books and framed pictures, an abundance of couches and dimmed lighting all give this room a well-worn, comfortable feel. The crowd here also tends to be younger and more diverse than other venues in Honolulu.

Depending on the evening, the vibe here can swing more toward the funk end of the spectrum. Tonight's set by Friends of Adam is billed as “;hip blues jazz,”; while Maacho and Cool Connection will play reggae tunes on Saturday. Jazz purists will probably enjoy Groove Easy on Tuesdays, or ML Plate Lunch and the Bentos on Thursdays, while hip-hop fans will be well-served by the Deadbeats on Wednesdays and Tempo Valley every second and fourth Saturday.


The Dragon Upstairs

1038 Nuuanu Ave. / 526-1411

The Dragon Upstairs isn't about turning a profit, according to owner Hank Taufaasau. He considers it a labor of love that benefits serious jazz musicians and local residents who appreciate “;real”; jazz.

“;If you don't play jazz, you can't play upstairs,”; Taufaasau said last weekend. “;For me, personally, because there's not a lot of money in this, I tell musicians that I just want (them) to expand and grow.”;

Climb the stairs next to Taufaasau's other establishment, Hank's Cafe, and you'll find an intimate room that's dimly lighted and filled with plush seating. A half-dozen barstools are flanked by a few high tables near the bar, but you're better off grabbing a seat as close to the stage as possible.

That's where you'll find former Guam resident Santino Sgambelluri, a vocalist Taufaasau describes as “;really having the opportunity to do something special,”; on Fridays from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. On Saturdays, former Thursday night regular Satomi Yarimizo headlines a jazz quartet that often features big-name guest musicians. The Dragon Upstairs also offers live entertainment from 7 to 10 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays.

“;DeShannon (Higa) said it best,”; said Taufaasau, referring to another one of Honolulu's great jazz musicians. “;Without Satomi, half the jazz population in Honolulu would starve.”;


Backstage Jazz Room

1778 Ala Moana Blvd. / 947-8057

Honolulu's newest jazz club appears to take a few cues from other successful jazz venues both here and on the mainland, pairing a relatively cramped space and dim lighting with one of the local scene's most successful performers.

It was packed nearly to capacity last week Friday at the Backstage Jazz Room, located adjacent to Margarita's Beach Bar (formerly known as Snapper's) at Discovery Bay. Local jazz vocalist Ginai fronted a five-piece band that included Justin James on drums and a special guest harmonica player, with about 10 chairs pulled up to surround the stage. A small flat-screen TV showed a black-and-white James Dean movie while a single cocktail server—who was probably the best-dressed female in the room—made her rounds.

With the higher tourist-to-local ratio in Waikiki, kicking back at Backstage gives off more of a mainland vibe than its local counterparts. For every Japanese tourist dressed up for a night out, there are two or three others sporting a bad sunburn and shorts and slippers. Still, the newness and relative inaccessibility of this place might make it worth a visit for the more adventurous jazz fan.


More picks

» The Honolulu Club, 932 Ward Ave., 543-3900

After a brief hiatus in recent months, the lounge at the Honolulu Club is once again home to jazz music on Wednesday nights. “;Jazz Lives”; features no cover charge and live music from 6 to 9 p.m. weekly; call 543-3904 for next week's featured artists.

» Diamond Head Grill, 2885 Kalakaua Avenue, 791-5114

The second-floor restaurant at the renamed Lotus at Diamond Head has established itself as a haven for jazz purists on Thursdays. From 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. every week, musicians including Jim Howard, Dean Taba, Noel Okimoto and Steve Jones entertain those in the dining room; a $5 cover charge and $3 valet fee are in effect all evening. The Chuck James Jazz Cabaret will headline next week; the Honolulu Jazz Quartet will perform on May 14.

» Gordon Biersch, Aloha Tower Marketplace, 599-4877

Former Seawind vocalist Pauline Wilson kicked off Gordon Biersch's “;Jazz Wednesdays”; last month, and the new weekly event has enjoyed relatively strong crowds during its first few months of performances. Gordon Biersch's famous microbrews and validated parking at Aloha Tower Marketplace make this night even more attractive. Head down next week for a set by Rocky Brown and DeShannon Higa from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Wednesday; they'll be followed by Vernon Sakata and David Choy on May 13 and visiting artist Valery Ponomarev on May 20.