After Dinner: San Antonio’s New Gentleman of Jazz

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Bekah S. McNeelBy Bekah McNeel

The scene is set: tinkling silverware, deep leather chairs, the chatter of an upscale downtown crowd. Craft-cocktails in hand, a Friday-night crowd unwinds to the plaintive notes from the trumpet. Then, just as the band strikes up their next tune, someone in the corner lets out a raucous, “YEEHAW!”

It could only be one place; it could only be one band. Every Friday and Saturday night at Bohanan’s Bar, South Texas Jazz Quartet does what few other bands (and even fewer jazz bands) can do. It draws a crowd of artists, musicians, cowboys, architects, moms, and accountants to swing and sway as they sip martinis…or beer.

The band’s regular weekend gig draws San Antonians into the invigorating, affecting, and ultimately entertaining experience of hearing four amazing jazz artists simply having a ball. It’s all summed up in the moment when Brent Watkins takes off on a piano solo and grinning trumpeter Logan Keese peers into the baby grand piano to watch the magic happen.

Brent Watkins doing what he does best.

When it comes to nightlife, it is my experience that young, urban professionals want something crafted. Not some canned playlist pumped through blown-out speakers, and— there’s really no other way to say it— they want the option of something classier than the blue neon lighting of a generic “lounge.” More atmosphere, less…spandex.

If I had a penny for every person who said that the music scene played a part in their decision to live in Austin, then I’d have enough pennies to live there too. Not so with Brent Watkins, the mastermind behind South Texas Jazz, the consortium of musicians that includes several bands: Doc Watkins and his Hat Creek Seven, Autumn Lowber, The River City Stompers, Los Modelos, the South Texas Jazz Orchestra and the South Texas Jazz Quartet.

Brent and his wife Jessica are Oregon natives, brought to Texas by the University of Texas at Austin where Brent earned his PhD in performance piano. They expected to fall in love with Austin, the live music capital of the world. To their surprise, it was Austin’s southern neighbor San Antonio that stole their hearts.

“San Antonio was just a little more authentic, you know? Austin was a little bit of a disappointment to me. I went to 6th street expecting to find live music a la Stevie Ray Vaughn. Instead…we just found that it was over saturated and the gigs don’t pay well…” Brent says.

In contrast, San Antonio was a huge city that loved music and readily welcomed fresh talent.  “Not a lot of musicians have figured that out yet, so there was a lot of opportunity,” explains Brent. The welcome that he felt from the community in and around downtown was a deciding factor in establishing South Texas Jazz.

These are no lightweights when it comes to jazz. Dave Woodard and Pierre Poree are all New Orleans veterans, who found their way to San Antonio after Hurricane Katrina, only to find themselves smitten with the friendly city. Tyler Jackson is regarded as the best jazz banjo player in the nation in his age group.  If these guys are anything, they’re the real deal. Real musicians, real souls.

Brent Watkins: passionate about Jazz.

From the jubilant Ray Charles classic, “Hallelujah, I Just Love Her So,” to the nearly doleful Tom Waits’ “Picture in a Frame,” there’s no doubting the depth behind the music. These are family men, artistic entrepreneurs, and seasoned musicians. They know love and pain as well as they know melodies and groove.

Watkins sets the bar high for the kind of musician he wants to work with. In an industry plagued with the reputation for flakiness, Watkins insists that his band members show up on time…in suits…that are clean…and pressed.  “I’m taking a page from Duke Ellington on that. He had to fight against racial stereotypes, so he insisted that his band show up looking nice, act professionally, etc. Now we’re fighting the stereotype of musicians as being late, lazy, and just a mess. I want us to be a class act.”

And they are.

Even during the daytime, these are not languishing musicians holding out for stardom. Watkins is a music director for a local church. Jonathan Card is the principal of the local firm Urbanist.  After Hurricane Katrina, trombonist Dave Woodard used his construction prowess to restore historical homes to their antediluvian grandeur, a skill he’s brought with him to San Antonio. (For an example of his handy work, come visit our custom guest bathroom.) That kind of work ethic earns some cred in a town with deep roots in ranching and military service.

The musician and artist Brent Watkins (Photo courtesy by South Texas Jazz website).

People also love the approachability and acceptance they find in San Antonio, and these guys are wholly that. The South Texas Jazz band members seem to revel in being regular guys and musicians. Between sets they’re more than happy to have a beer and talk about pets, kids, and “that one time, in Houston.”

As word of their quality catches on, they’ve expanded their regular schedule to include Thursday nights at Luna, and a monthly gig at Sam’s Burger Joint. All three regular venues show off a different segment of the group’s wide range of talent. This is not just a Sinatra cover-band.  It’s fun, it’s hip, and it goes beyond the stereotypes of jazz, reaching somewhere deep into jazz history when it was rebel music. Music for those who wanted to play on their own terms. Kind of like what indie rock was before indie became the new pop.  At Luna, Watkins flexes his artistic and maybe even experimental muscles the most, as the clientele at Luna comes expecting to hear high-end jazz. At Sam’s, the 8-piece known as Doc Watkins and his Hat Creek Seven provide the fuel for San Antonio Swing Society’s Swing Nite.  Be warned though, Sam’s is a great chance to catch the eight-piece, but come early because the place fills up and the crowd is serious about swing.

At this point it’s fair to say, and some have already said, that the San Antonio jazz tradition pioneered by the legendary Jim Cullum has found an heir apparent in Brent Watkins. While Brent blushes and declines to comment on the comparison, saying only that he’s “flattered,” jazz fans in the city should be thrilled. The beat goes on, as they say.

San Antonio’s brand of nightlife is not going to be Los Angeles, Nashville or Athens, Georgia. It’s not going to be Austin, nor does it want it to be. We can have it our way: talent, approachability, and pragmatism with a healthy amount of irreverence and self-deprecating humor. (To wit:  When I asked Brent to explain why he chose San Antonio over Austin, his first response was telling, “Better folklore. Better tacos.”)

All that said, when we visit those cities known for their cultural scenes we should take note. Venturing into the revitalization of downtown, what happens after dinner is going to be a huge factor. Will the professional and creative atmosphere keep up after 10pm? I think South Texas Jazz is part of the answer to that. True talent worth staying up late to hear.

It’s hard to find good music. Even harder to find it without pretension. South Texas Jazz is the antidote for naysayers of San Antonio and jazz alike.  Brent Watkins takes this seriously. “I’m with Ernest Hemingway on this one. An artist must be honest, true, and have conviction. So if you’re an artist and you don’t love where you live, then go where you want to be,” says the Beacon Hill homeowner. He goes on to explain that music is rooted in place and time, and his goal is to make music that is true to San Antonio as it is today.  There is such a thing as really good music that appeals to everybody. And it doesn’t have to try to pretend that it belongs in New York City or San Francisco. Listening to South Texas Jazz doesn’t make you feel like you’re anywhere but where you are. It just makes it really nice to be there.

Bekah McNeel, a native San Antonian, works for Ker & Downey promoting luxury travel. She is a founding member of the web-based philanthropy Read the Change.

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