Over the past few years, a great deal of eager entrepreneurs have taken ownership of their dreams and popped up novelty shops and fine-palette foodie spots all over San Antonio. What's still missing are more locally owned music joints, at least according to San Antonio’s swinging-est Ph.D., Brent “Doc” Watkins.
I sat down with Watkins at the Pearl, just a few hundred yards away from his 3,500 sq. ft. underground jazz club which will open its doors to the public later this summer. The glimmer in his eyes as he spoke humbly yet proudly about the speakeasy-style club, or what he called the “inevitability of it all,” was undeniable.
“At first I wasn’t a fan of the idea. I never owned a restaurant, never worked in hospitality, never poured a single beer,” Watkins said. “I had no business opening up a club, and I resisted the idea for several years.”
It wasn't until a reputable local restaurateur encouraged Watkins to move forward with the idea that he finally believed he could do something that hasn’t been done in San Antonio in more than five decades.
In 1963, San Antonio jazz legend Jim Cullum, Jr. joined his pops on the bandstand along the River Walk – where you now only find spirits, and not the Dixieland kind – for what would become an institution for a community of true jazz-heads, sentimental souls, and new-age cats alike. The Landing closed in 2011, leaving a void that places like Carmen’s De La Calle and Luna couldn’t fill. Despite their own stellar approaches to defining San Antonio's music scene, they're not exclusive to jazz or open to live music every day of the week.
Lucky for Watkins, San Antonio is a city where good things happen to good people – mainly because of individuals just like him. The times may be changing, but the spirit of “get off the old road if you can’t lend a hand” is very much alive.
“One thing that I have learned, without fail, is that 99.9% of the population, if you ask them for help or advice, will give it to you,” Watkins said. “I asked every question I could to every person I could.”
According to Watkins, that generosity extended to his investors as well. Thanks to longstanding personal relationships they all felt confident that this project wasn’t based on a whim, but on Watkins' sincere passion and belief in something special.
“The actual fundraising process was not a challenge for me and I’m forever grateful for that,” Watkins said. “They believed it would be successful and supported me at every juncture.”
One investor recently opened up his country-fringe barn and stable-side property to Watkins and a select group of business supporters and friends for the Sneak Peek of what’s in store at Jazz, TX. Watkins stood before the gravel dirt bandstand alongside Jazz, TX General Manager Jake Corney and Head Chef Lorenzo Morales to offer his gratitude.
“We are so excited to welcome you to Jazz, TX, (which will be) opening up later this summer,” Watkins joked as his friends laughed with him about the opening date. “Yes, we will see you last November at our club.”
Watkins enticed the crowd to soak in the good vibes and enjoy the cocktails and bites that were but a smattering of what the club will offer when it opens its doors to the public in a few short months.
Summer songs from the evening birds seamlessly simmer away as the trumpet calls become the right stereo and the double-bass the left, drummer stirring the brushes to mimic the cool whisper of the wind. The majestic manes of the mares glisten softly and radiantly as the Friday night sun coyly crawls beneath the Spanish oaks, a rich contrast to the mahogany of the bass and the opaque black of the baby grand. Ladies in knee-length dresses reveal the nape of their necks as gentlemen in cowboy boots and pomade-coiffed hair impart their observations into their eyes and ears. An elegant take on a roaring '20s concoction is sipped silently as the homemade peach cobbler is consumed copiously, and the band takes it a step higher to be sure to catch The A Train. The piano man strikes the final chord and smiles triumphantly as he strides into the barn, the shining neon lights aglow in Jazz, TX.
Watkins began his jazz journey in San Antonio in 2009. His career quickly took off as his South Texas Jazz Project earned credibility through big band concerts at the Empire Theater, trio work at Bohanan’s and The Esquire, and even a smartphone app titled Jazz Tonight where jazz lovers can find gigs close to them in any major U.S. city.
“Greatness is achieved one day at a time through hard work,” Watkins said. “A lot of dreamers don’t get things done as they’re so focused on the far out vision and they forget they still gotta take care of business today.”
Watkins has managed to carefully balance his work as a bandleader, composer, and musician first and foremost, all while keeping a solid team around him to develop the business plan for Jazz, TX.
“My goal is to show up to work everyday and be the best pianist and bandleader that I can possibly be,” Watkins said. “I want to give a great product to my clients, entertain people, treat them well. There’s really nothing beyond that.”
This type of excellence is what Watkins vows to live by as the leader of Jazz, TX.
“The thing that is foremost on my mind most days is if our music is gonna be truly worthwhile as a product," Watkins said. "Will it keep people coming back? If people don’t come, especially at a location like this, then I’m doing something wrong.”
The question of a music cover at a restaurant doesn’t concern Watkins, as he believes that people don’t mind paying for something that is good.
“The people that complain they can’t pay the $5 cover are the same ones who will put down $100 to see Kenny Chesney – it’s all about what they want,” Watkins said, cracking a little smile. “I have to give them something better than Kenny Chesney, I’m pretty sure that won’t be hard.”
Watkins wants to go local, but doesn’t intend for the club to be a training ground for up-and-coming musicians.
“The groups that are coming in have to be good and polished, put together,” Watkins said. “They have to hold their product to the standard that I hold my music to.”
Watkins wants bands to take the jazz style seriously and bring it back to the genre's golden age. Therefore, prospective performers will have to prove themselves through a short set in professional posture in order to earn a spot on the stage alongside Watkins and his crew.
“Everybody’s gonna have a shot,” Watkins said. “We’re gonna have a really strong lineup, very unique and high-quality local musicians.”
Watkins, like many jazz musicians living in an age of electrifying pop culture consumerism, is a romantic and likes things that don’t make any sense. “I can’t get excited about a New York jazz club in San Antonio. I’ll go to New York for that,” Watkins said. “At Jazz, TX, on an average week night, you’ll hear anything from Latin jazz, to classic country Western swing, to big band, jazz, and blues.”
Watkins’ formula for success is one based on the authenticity and diversity of the city that has inspired this movement.
“San Antonio is a diverse city which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. It would be hard to go to a place in the city and say, 'This is San Antonio,’” he said. “That’s what I want to try and achieve with Jazz, TX. It’s truly a place that couldn’t exist anywhere else aside from San Antonio.”
Top image: Instruments lie at rest in an environment not dissimilar to that of Jazz, TX. Photo by Adam Tutor.