SF's The Black Cat Returns With A Lineup of Jazz Heavyweights

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Trumpeter Theo Croker kicks off the Black Cat's Jazz@theEDGE Festival with a three-week residency.  (Courtesy of the artist)

Six decades ago, in the spring of 1961, the 34-year-old trumpeter Miles Davis settled into the Blackhawk with his quintet for a two-week run—a relatively short engagement for a big-name act at the Tenderloin jazz club. The music recorded during the closing weekend, released on two classic albums, captured the ever-inventive Davis for the first time live in an intimate club setting, stretching the forms of familiar standards and jazz tunes.

Throughout the long months of the pandemic, Fritz Quattlebaum has had Miles Davis on his mind, and not just because his jazz club, the Black Cat, is located around the corner from where the Blackhawk operated from 1950–’63. (The only trace left of it is a plaque from the Uptown Tenderloin Historic District.) Before COVID struck, the Black Cat had already earned national attention as a singular West Coast outpost for rising New York players. Pandemic closures forced Quattlebaum to rethink his venue from the kitchen to the bandstand, and listening to Miles Davis helped.

“What struck me is not just how timeless his music is, but how each of his bands brought together great musicians and elevated them by giving them the freedom to create,” Quattlebaum said. “That’s what we’re doing at the Black Cat. We’re coming together to create one experience, so that every facet of the operation harmonizes with the music.”

It’s easy to dismiss restauranteurs talking about creative synergy as puffery, but there’s no gainsaying the unprecedented series of residencies that Quattlebaum has booked to celebrate the Black Cat’s pandemic survival and reemergence. The club’s JAZZ@theEDGE Festival, which runs August through October, presents three of the music’s most celebrated young trumpeters in extended 15-night residencies.

Theo Croker, who divides his time between New York, Los Angeles and several other cities, leads off Aug. 4–22, followed by New Orleans-reared, New York City-based Maurice “Mobetta” Brown on Sept. 8-25. Ferguson, Missouri-raised, New York-based Keyon Harrold, a Grammy Award-winner who recorded a live album at the Black Cat in 2019, headlines Sept. 29–Oct. 13.

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The residencies embody Quattlebaum’s commitment to expanding the Black Cat’s purview as a creative forum, a mission fully embraced by the artists. “That venue has a special power,” said Croker, 36, who’s played about a dozen Black Cat engagements since the club opened in July 2016. Quattlebum actually brought Croker in to check out the space before leasing it, and the trumpeter sensed “a special magnetism in that room. I’ve found it to be very creative, and I’m really excited to share it with some of my contemporaries.”

A multi-week run is unheard of on the contemporary American jazz scene for artists with less name recognition than Chick Corea, though it wasn’t unusual back in the day of the Blackhawk, when jazz stars like Dave Brubeck, Ahmad Jamal, Thelonious Monk and Shelly Manne recorded live albums at the club. Quattlebaum booked the trumpet-centric lineup partly in homage to Davis, and partly to acknowledge the central role that trumpeters have played in putting the Black Cat on the map.

“The trumpet always has been and shall continue to lead the way in this Black American music, all the way back to King Oliver and Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge, Dizzy, Miles and Woody Shaw,” said Croker, who is the grandson of trumpet legend Doc Cheatham.

But the Black Cat gigs are a different breed than the old Blackhawk engagements. All three of the JAZZ@theEDGE trumpeters are multifarious artists steeped in jazz, and they’re also deeply engaged with kindred currents in African-American music, particularly hip-hop and R&B. Unlike the Blackhawk days, when bandleaders settled into a room with their working combo, the Black Cat residencies are designed to showcase different musical facets and relationships, with each headliner joined by an evolving cast of collaborators over the course of the run.

Croker opens his residency with a bicoastal band featuring Bay Area bassist Giulio Xavier Cetto, New York drummer Jonathan Barber and Los Angeles pianist ELEW (a.k.a. Eric Lewis), a former member of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra who’s gained a widespread following with intricate “rockjazz” arrangements of rock hits. Los Angeles saxophonist Braxton Cook joins the proceedings on the weekend.

The second week Coker performs with a trio featuring Chicago pianist Michael King and vocalist China Moses, an under-recognized talent who happens to be the daughter of NEA Jazz Master Dee Dee Bridgewater. His closing week showcases vocalist Alita Moses (no relation to China), a rising force who won the 2014 Shure Montreux Jazz Voice Competition in Switzerland.

“The extended residency gives him an opportunity to play with cats he doesn’t get to play with, to create different vibes and bands,” Quattlebaum said. “And it gives us the chance to see some amazing young players. Mobetta is bringing in the saxophonist Patrick Bartley, who just played with Jon Batiste at the Village Vanguard. We’re giving the artists a chance to bring together musicians they want to play with.”

It’s not only the musical presentation that’s changing at the Black Cat. Quattlebaum’s new team includes general manager Olu Gartin, who spent a decade in the same position at Manhattan’s flagship Blue Note Jazz Club before the pandemic, and former Foreign Cinema sommelier Eric Forbes as assistant general manager. The new executive chef is Yainiel Negrón, fresh off his recent gig as sous chef at the Proper Hotel.

The Black Cat is hardly the only San Francisco jazz venue that’s back in action. Mr. Tipples has been presenting shows for months, and the Royal Cuckoo, vocalist Lavay Smith’s home base, reopened with music on June 15. Club Deluxe picked up where it left off in March 2020 with a superb roster of regular combos, and Bird & Beckett Books & Records has added live audiences to its ongoing livestream program. SFJAZZ just announced that its new season will kick off in September, with over 300 concerts featuring tabla great Zakir Hussain, harpist Destiny Muhammad and many more.

The Black Cat attracts a conspicuously younger audience compared to many Bay Area jazz venues. Photo: Eric Wolfinger

While the Black Cat concentrates on serving up artists from out of town, lots of Bay Area artists are also on the bill. Throughout the JAZZ@theEDGE Festival, Sundays are designed as jam sessions where local players can sit in and forge or renew relationships with the resident artists. It’s all part of fostering a healthy jazz ecosystem for Quattlebaum, who describes the Black Cat as “a musical ministry.”

“It’s beyond a passion project. Music has such a way of inspiring and helping people,” he says. “This is what I want to give to our community. It’s a place I’ve longed for all my life.”

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JAZZ@theEdge Festival kicks off on Aug. 4 at the Black Cat and continues through Oct. 13. Proof of vaccination is required for entry. Details here