Whether your hands are rhythmically capturing the groove of the time or holding onto you and your girlfriend’s cocktails while she dances along, you can’t help but feel the charismatic presence and passion of the three men nestled into the corner windows of SoHo Wine and Martini Bar, just a hip and shake from the common late-night downtown haunts. You’d almost think they came with the place, it just feels that right.
Red light playing cool on his cordial countenance, he laughs and says, “Can I just make up something cool?” I tell him just tell me why you started playing the drums. “The real answer is that when I was a kid, my grandfather played Spanish guitar and I spent a lot of time with him,” he said. “I used to tap the rhythm along with him while he was playing. He had a lot of buckets, I started banging along with him as he played, it really got me into music and that’s where it all I started.” I told him that was a damn good story, there was no need to make up anything cool.
John Fernandez, drummer and leader of Midtown Jazz Sound and Bad Banjo Brown, has been testifying to the percussive groove since his boyhood days and in 2005 decided it was time to do something official.
“Midtown Jazz Sound got started when I was in college, we just wanted to play outside the school jazz band, so we formed a group and went from there,” Fernandez said. “The original goal of the group was just to play some of the tunes, and as the years progressed, we’ve gained more experience and here we are.”
Soho, tucked around the corner from Empire Theater just across from the river on Crockett, plays hosts to a variety of people, and Fernandez gets to experience them all.
“This is one of the few places you can come see jazz downtown,” Fernandez said. “You get a lot of tourists, but about half locals, as well. We get to develop a rapport with the crowd.”
The relationship with SoHo began about five years ago, according to Fernandez, when Midtown Jazz Sound was playing gigs weekly. “It’s been steady now, and we get to do twice a week,” Fernandez said. “I would definitely say there’s a good friendship between myself, the crew, and the ownership here. They trust us enough to provide the right atmosphere.”
Swagger all in tow, this barman comes equipped with a sharp black fedora and a recipe for a mean Moscow Mule. “Their music really fits the bar,” said Eddie Martinez, General Manager at SoHo. “Where they’re at now they’ve really come into their own, very polished.”
In Martinez’s opinion, Midtown Jazz Sound and SoHo go hand in hand. “It only amplifies the atmosphere here,” Martinez said. “Jazz in itself is something I think that everyone across the board can enjoy.”
SoHo, according to Martinez, is a bar known for craft cocktails, and providing a relaxed atmosphere for you to enjoy the music amidst your conversation. “To find a proper musician is a gold mine,” Martinez said. “Jazz creates a mood, it is very organic and it’s going to pull at you.”
Martinez believes that live music only helps business, and gives the people of San Antone what they’re craving. “When you have live music, there’s always a deeper connection with the atmosphere,” Martinez said. “With the explosion of the craft cocktail industry, I think you’re going to see more live entertainment. There are trends that come and go, but jazz will always be around.”
All virgin-eyed and impressionable, they walk in akimbo to the rhythm of the music but unknowingly so. One with his jacket a size too big and face almost too friendly, the other form-fitted and slick, both with ladies maybe at their side or maybe not, it’s hard to tell. But however the pairing-off goes, they all are taken away with this thing called “jazz,” as if its revelation was part of the 21st century wave of the ever-changing musical dynamism. They huddle around the musicians as if they are celebrities in a remote village, eager to know everything about them and their instrumental counterparts. Such true zest and enthusiasm is welcomed and encouraged, especially when your grade depends on it.
“We had a project to get to, that’s why we’re here,” said Francis, a UTSA student on assignment from his Introduction to Jazz class. “Our teacher wanted us to learn about the instruments, the sound. I’m not mad that he gave us the assignment, really enjoying it so far.”
Francis, indicative of the type of audience member one might find at a Midtown gig in SoHo, listens to a lot of jazz but doesn’t know about the roots. “I don’t know the in-depth stuff about jazz,” Francis confessed. “Someday though I’d like to be able to play something, get into it and play an instrument. Saxophone specifically.”
While he normally listens to the rap side of music, Francis said he digs on the old-school rap that used jazz.
“I’m definitely enjoying myself tonight,” he said, as he made his way over to the piano man to inquire about something obscure to him, but probably rudimentary to the piano man.
The piano man. His name is Chris Villanueva, and he jumped in with Midtown about two years ago, a jazz man for nine in total. “If people asked, I’d tell ‘em we swing, come out cause we swing,” Villanueva said. “Swing as in they can move to the music, no matter if it’s bossa nova, samba, it means they’ll be shaking their head.”
Villanueva enjoys the exploratory process of the music, finding the band’s voice. “We’re always trying out new music, finding our sound,” Villanueva said. “Oscar Peterson, Herbie Hancock inspire me for sure.”
If you swing out to SoHo on Wednesdays or Fridays between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., you’ll find the boys of Midtown slammin’ away as if jazz were a new hip fad when cats played ‘til sunrise without breakin’ a sweat. “I just love playing music, it’s what I love to do,” Fernandez said. “I don’t get tired of it ever, even if I play the same song for 10 years, I don’t get tired of it.”
Fernandez feels at home playing at SoHo due to the trust between the establishment and the group, who really can grow their sound with that faith in their musicianship. “It’s always an open setting, we wanna be a place where people can come out and join us,” Fernandez said. “I used to go to the Landing to watch and sit in with Small World, it’s important to have a place that offers that.”
A call to action for any musicians out there, Fernandez is ready and willing to bring you in at SoHo. “The gig here at Soho is for any musicians, all are welcome to come out and do their thing, let’s play some tunes!” exclaimed Fernandez.
John Fernandez will be jamming with Bad Banjo Brown, a swing troupe that features the best of New Orleans and Dixieland music, at Sam’s Burger Joint for Swing Nite from 9-11 p.m. this Monday, Dec. 1. You can find the Midtown Jazz Sound from 10 p.m.-2 a.m. every Wednesday at SoHo, as well as at Luther’s on Fridays from 7-9 p.m.
*Featured/top image: John Fernandez on drums with Midtown Jazz Sound at SoHo Wine and Martini Bar. Photo by Jenna-Beth Lyde of Parish Photography.