Backpacking solo across the western eurasian landmass before the pandemic, I was lonely and discombobulated. Ordering beer was “nog een biertje alsjeblieft” one day and “další piv prosím” the next. So in each city, surrounded by new sounds and new faces, I went to jazz clubs. Jazz was jazz wherever I went, and jazz clubs were jazz clubs. They were “my corner of the world,” in the words of French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, familiar places where I could orient myself.
And then I came home, suddenly a stranger and sojourner in my hometown. Once again, a jazz club became my safe harbor: Revelers Hall, in the Bishop Arts District. I began going there every Thursday night to reorient myself to Dallas.
When Amy Cowan and Jason Roberts opened Revelers Hall, in 2019, the 50-seat speak-easy joined a modest host of jazz bars and clubs scattered across North Texas that regularly program music—not to accompany food and drinks but rather to be accompanied by drinks and food. Kevin Butler, Revelers’ music director, books bands for every night plus weekend afternoons. It might be Peruvian folk or Balkan brass, but most nights it’s jazz. Vinyl is played for punctuation.
When the city shuttered all bars, dining rooms, and theaters on March 16, I figured Dallas’ small jazz scene would go extinct. So I called Butler, who’s also the leader and tuba player for the Revelers Hall Band, to get his take. As a music venue employee and a freelance musician, he has a foot on both sides. I threw out the names of the couple of jazz venues I knew. Small, huh?
On the contrary, Butler told me. Our jazz scene is probably the largest and the strongest in the South, outside of New Orleans. The problem is awareness. “Anybody I know who isn’t a musician doesn’t really have any idea about it or any kind of indication that it’s going on,” he says.
It helps that we have UNT’s vaunted jazz program and Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. “Dallas has some of the most talented acts that I’ve ever been around,” says Phil Joseph, the trombonist for the Revelers Hall Band.
Which brings up the question: how can a city surreptitiously have one of the largest and strongest jazz scenes in the United States?
The answer is culture, according to Sergio Pamies, who, until a recent move to Cincinnati, was a jazz piano professor at UTA. Even though you’d probably need to go to New York to find better jazz than ours, Pamies says, Dallasites don’t typically think about going out to avail themselves of it.
“That affects the venues,” he says. “There are just a few jazz venues per se. Then there are other places where we go and play jazz that are not just venues per se. I mean, that might be 70 percent of the places where we play.” In other words, North Texas has a few dedicated jazz venues like Revelers, including the Balcony Club in Lakewood, Sandaga 813 in Expo Park, and Scat Jazz Lounge in Fort Worth. The majority of places where you can enjoy jazz, however, are “not just venues.” They are wine bars in Denton and Lakewood, cafes and lounges in Deep Ellum and Far North Dallas, and steakhouses and grills in Denton. What we need, Pamies says, is more jazz bars and clubs that foreground music and elicit attentive listening. Which was a great idea until bars became illegal. And yet, the lack of jazz bars and clubs might be the very thing to save our jazz scene.
on a friday night in may, a cool wind ruffles the pecan trees. The setting sun colors everything a liquid gold. A Revelers Hall bartender sells hot dogs and drinks from a silver Airstream parked in the driveway of AJ Vagabonds, the outdoor gear and clothing store Cowan and Roberts also own, at the corner of Eighth Street and Bishop Avenue. The band plays on the baby blue-painted porch.
As soon as Gov. Greg Abbott began reopening the economy, Revelers started hosting concerts at AJ Vagabonds as well as inside Revelers, wherein the band and bartenders work while the guests sit spaced out inside as well as outside, on a parklet. Across downtown, the Free Man, a Cajun cafe and jazz venue in Deep Ellum, opened at 50 percent when it was allowed, offering live music nightly.
Both the Free Man and Revelers have restaurant licenses. And although some “not just venues” remained closed out of deference to the pandemic, the irony shouldn’t be lost on us. That the very thing cramping Dallas’ jazz scene before the pandemic—the lack of traditional jazz bars and clubs—was the very thing allowing it to bloom again, even as traditional bars and clubs were shuttered.
As Shelley Carrol—a Dallas-based saxophonist who has played with Sheryl Crow, Pink Floyd, and the Duke Ellington Orchestra in New York, Milan, and Tokyo—told me in late April, “It’s been a roller coaster. I mean, now it’s going down and down.” Back at Revelers, Roberts and Cowan had no capital, having purchased new tables for their anniversary celebration, which was the weekend before the shutdown. A month later, in mid-April, they received the PPP and EIDL loans, which they used to release a menu of cheese boards that they’d planned to launch back in March.
Meanwhile, many jazz venues started livestreaming concerts. Sandaga 813 began hosting SoulJazz Thursdays Under the Stars, with a food truck, live music by Natural Change, and a $10 cover charge. Revelers, on the other hand, attempted a parking-lot concert, which the city code department quickly nixed, citing a lack of proper permits. So they switched to front-yard gigs. You pay the Revelers Hall Band to come play on your lawn or porch and you enjoy the jazz from a safe distance. These proved so popular that Joseph, in early May, believed they’d continue despite reopening. Which introduces the biggest question of all: what will Dallas’ jazz scene look like going forward?
“We’re watching a few fronts,” Cowan says, starting with governmental regulations. “Then we have the customer psychology factor,” she says. Will people fear cozy places where they’re dancing and drinking together? It’s possible, at least until we have a vaccine, which might make outdoor concerts a bigger player. “Hopefully, fresh air, sunshine, pretty sunsets, spring temperatures” will tempt people back out, Cowan says. This certainly was the case at AJ Vagabonds that night in May.
Right now, the problem for venue owners is that running at 25 or 50 percent capacity isn’t financially feasible. Do they program less music or pay the musicians less? It’s bad news for musicians either way. Butler thinks it would be helpful if the TABC relaxed certain laws and the city closed streets in Bishop Arts and Deep Ellum, allowing people to spread out while drinking and enjoying music. Pamies says that jazz venues deserve direct government aid.
“I don’t understand why the government here doesn’t support these venues,” Pamies says, calling jazz “the music of the United States” and the “true American art form.”
Whatever the next few months—the next year, the next two—hold, the only thing for sure is that jazz isn’t going anywhere. “Even if a bomb dropped now, the people that could play would still play,” Carrol says.
Which makes sense, especially right now, because the genre is apropos to our situation: hopeful when you need it, sad when you don’t expect it, and bravely moving into the unknowable terrain ahead. I have a friend who dislikes jazz; he wishes the musicians would just play the right notes. But that’s not the point. In fact, it is the opposite of the point. Jazz is a way of saying the unspeakable, and its nebulous future reflects our own.
“It’s just one big question mark,” says Sean Smith, a business partner at Sandaga 813. “Everything, right now, has a big question mark.”
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