When Jazz at Pearl’s, the venerable North Beach nightspot, closed its doors early in 2003, the San Francisco jazz scene took a long, hard look in the mirror. The resulting outcry was deafening. “It’s the end of live jazz in San Francisco,” declared the pundits, “the last real jazz club in the city is gone.” This wasn’t exactly true, but it was close enough, and dire enough, to get every musician, jazz fan and media outlet in the area up in arms. As the good book would say, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth.
But then a funny thing happened. Literally hours after the first edition of All About Jazz: San Francisco came off the press, also bemoaning of the loss of Pearl’s, word began to filter out that the club wasn’t quite so dead as it seemed.
Riding to the rescue were local singer Kim Nalley and her husband, magician-turned-entrepreneur Steve Sheraton. Nalley, you may recall, had also been given up as lost after she and Sheraton ran off to Switzerland in 2002. But the Alps were kind to Sheraton. After a successful run with the Lumiere Noire jazz club in Basel, the couple capped a triumphant return to the States by buying up Pearl’s.
Although the new club retains the name of original owner Pearl Wong, and still sits in the heart of North Beach on Columbus Avenue, this isn’t just a change in ownership. Today’s Jazz at Pearl’s is an entirely new and exciting venue that should go a long way towards squelching any fears about the state of jazz in San Francisco. Following a complete earthquake-proofing retrofit, the club has been reborn as a swank yet cozy spot that draws a smart, multi-ethnic crowd.
Dropping in prior to the 9:00 set on a chilly Thursday night, the first thing that hits a newcomer is the atmosphere. In a region crowded with restaurants offering jazz like a side dish, a real jazz club in the classic mold stands out instantly. Pearl’s is good and dark, with a color scheme dominated by black and a sort of rusty maroon. There’s no smoke of course (this being San Francisco), but the space possesses just the right blend of class and neighborhood character to put one in mind of the great jazz joints of yesteryear.
As the club’s friendly hostess leads you through the bar and into the seating area – a wedge-shaped, two-level room anchored by a stage in the far corner – the full effect starts to seep in. Big windows allow the lights and bustle of North Beach to roll by, while tiny tables crammed in every nook offer good views of both the street and the musicians.
While some big names have already appeared at the new club (Pete Escovedo opened November with a two-night gig), most nights feature the cream of local talent. Nalley herself is the headliner every Tuesday, while Mondays are reserved for the Contemporary Jazz Orchestra, a holdover from the original Pearl’s. On this night, Larry Vuckovich and John Santos front a quartet with bassist Jeff Chambers and drummer Harold Jones.
As the group burns through a full-length set of Latin and bop standards, another feature of the club is revealed: music completely fills this room, rumbling up through the floors and seats, drowning out all those annoying conversations (although there are fewer of these than you’ll find at most Bay Area venues). The wait staff keeps up a constant motion through the room, as do the owners, flitting from corner to corner, pausing for a word or two here, checking on the level of a drink there.
Meanwhile, not a minute goes by without a pair of pedestrians pausing on the street and peering into the window. More often than not, Santos spots them too, inviting them in with a subtle smile and nod. And in they come.
By the end of the first set, the room is filling up so quickly that Sheraton must scramble for menus. A few folks leave in search of the next haunt, but most stay. There will be two more sets before the entertainment ends, and there are additional musicians lurking in the house, some with instruments in tow.
Pearl’s is about as fine a place for a date as a jazz fan is likely to find. The dinner menu, like the music calendar, offers good fare at a reasonable price, with just the right touch of spice. While focused on appetizers and desserts, the menu also offers entrees in the $9 - 10 range, with full service until 1am.
With a great lineup, an inviting atmosphere, a solid menu and a prime location, the new Pearl’s definitely has the goods. Here’s hoping Nalley and Sheraton become as much of a fixture as Pearl Wong, Sonny Buxton and the original Pearl’s once were.
Jazz at Pearl’s
256 Columbus Ave (at Broadway)
San Francisco, CA 94133
open Monday-Saturday 7pm – 1am
first come, first seated