On a chilly Thursday evening last November, a long line of well-dressed people stretched down a block of Broadway in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood. A sense of anticipation was palpable as the crowd waited to be admitted into the city’s newest jazz club, Keys Jazz Bistro, on opening night.
The excitement grew inside the club as drinks and hors d’oeuvres were served, and several people within earshot could be heard expressing their happiness at being out to hear live music for the first time since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Then, when the evening’s talent—the local singer Clairdee, supported by pianist David Udolf, bassist Doug Miller, and drummer Jim Zimmerman—started playing their first song, a sprightly modern interpretation of “On Green Dolphin Street,” the crowd fell to a hush and listened intently.
Keys is the brainchild of the pianist, Hammond organist, and educator Dr. Simon Rowe, originally from Sydney, Australia. A longtime California resident, Rowe has led his own ensembles and played with many jazz greats, from Dizzy Gillespie to Dianne Schurr. His academic credentials include past executive director positions at both the Brubeck Institute in Stockton, California, and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s Roots, Jazz and American Music program.
Sometime around the start of the pandemic, Rowe realized he was ready for a change of direction. Together with his business partner, Matt Mullenweg—co-founder of the website company WordPress as well as a saxophonist—he set out to open a new jazz club. “I’ve always cared a lot about this music and the cultural roots of it and about serving the artists who choose to make it their life’s work,” Rowe said. “And so for me, that was really the driving force. I had no idea that I’d be tap dancing for fire protectors and courting public health officials and all the nuances of actually renting commercial space in San Francisco and making it all work.”
“I walked into this one and immediately knew it was the place.”
After seeing how North Beach rallied in the early days of the pandemic, with musicians working around lockdown restrictions by performing in makeshift outdoor spaces, Rowe knew that he would want to open a venue in this resilient neighborhood, which incidentally had been home to famed jazz clubs like El Matador, the Jazz Workshop, and Sugar Hill in the heady postwar years. Following a protracted search, Rowe was about to settle on a space when his realtor showed him another possibility, vacant since the beginning of the pandemic, that was clearly better suited to his vision. “I walked into this one and immediately knew it was the place,” Rowe said of the 4,000-square-foot U-shaped venue. “I appreciated that we could greet people in one area and then usher them into a sacred space where there would be no competition for the nuances of the music.”
At the time, Rowe didn’t understand the serendipity of the space. It was only later, after he had researched its address, that he realized that the greeting room was formerly the site of El Matador, owned by the bon vivant Barnaby Conrad, where many jazz legends had played. But Rowe could sense right away that the venue would sound excellent. “As soon as I walked around the corner [to the listening room], I could feel there was a little bit of extra resonance, but it wasn’t overwhelming. And then I thought, ‘Okay, we’ll just need to take a little bit of this life out.’ The ceiling is interesting because it slopes out above the stage, so I could sense that it would naturally prevent an undesirable boxiness of sound from happening,” he said.
Keys’ programming includes music and dinner, with seasonal menus, four nights per week from Wednesday through Saturday. The listening room is intimate: 125 seats, none more than 25 feet from the stage, which is equipped with both a Yamaha concert grand piano and a Hammond B3 organ. Among the first shows were “The Horns of San Francisco,” with the Patrick Wolff Quartet and guests, and the Hammond B3 Organ Summit, featuring Adam Shulman and Rowe himself on organ, along with guitarists Kai Lyons and Dave MacNab, drummer Brian Fishler, and saxophonists Jesse Levitt and Andrew Speight.
With Keys, Rowe aims to serve the Bay area jazz community: The group Jazz in the Neighborhood, which advocates for fair wages for musicians, has an office space within the club. But at the same time, his mission is for the club to support the broader jazz world. “There are plenty of great musicians choosing not to make their homes in the mecca of New York but in places like St. Louis, Chicago, and L.A., and my vision is to create a home for them here in the Bay Area, because people are often not hired and treated with appropriate respect in their own communities,” he said.
On opening night, after many months of conceiving of and preparing to receive musicians, Rowe seemed relieved and ebullient as he announced Clairdee and her ensemble, then sat down to listen as a jazz fan. “That’s one of the joys I forgot about,” he later said. “In show business, you spend so much time making sure that everything’s right and sometimes you don’t get to sit down and enjoy. But it truly is amazing to look around the room and see people waiting for the next note to be sung or next note to be played.
“When I looked around the room and saw people transfixed and totally absorbed—no phones, no screens, no nothing—that’s exactly what I was imagining,” he continued. “And I couldn’t have been more thrilled to have seen and heard that.