By Cathy Cassinos-Carr
Jazz has deep roots in Sacramento. For 44 years, the city played host to a massive jazz festival, traditionally held over Memorial Day weekend in Old Sacramento and drawing, at its peak, more than 100,000 attendees. But changing times and changing demographics led to declining numbers, forcing the event’s closure in 2017.
While smaller festivals have sprung up — the Hot Jazz Jubilee, scheduled Sept. 1-4, is one — there’s been nothing of its magnitude to take its place.
Sacramento also lacks a club dedicated to jazz, suggesting this uniquely all-American art form is all but dead in the River City. But there’s a movement underway to keep the music alive, spearheaded in part by a conglomerate of restaurant owners who have recognized the need and filled it by adding jazz to their menus on a weekly-or-more basis. The effort, they say, has resulted in a trifecta of dividends: It drives in business, gives old pros and young lions alike a place to play, and fills a void for local jazz fans.
Here are three Sacramento venues dedicated to the mission.
Twin Lotus Thai: Dinner and a show
It may not be jazz-only, but it’s jazz mostly — and that’s why local longtime jazz vocalist and radio personality Beth Duncan calls Twin Lotus Thai “the closest thing we’ve got to a jazz club.” Their calendar has a jazz-heavy roster of shows being performed by some of the area’s top musicians, including restaurant owner Joe Gilman himself.
Given Gilman’s status as one of the region’s most prominent music educators (currently at American River College and Sacramento State) and pianists — his résumé includes stints with Bobby Hutcherson, Henry Mancini and other heavyweights — you’d think it would’ve been jazz first, food second when he and his wife, Kai, opened Twin Lotus Thai at 8345 Folsom Blvd. in March 2022. But no.
“It was strictly intended to be a restaurant, a family business,” he says. But when business remained slow after the first month, Gilman knew he needed to take action. Music was the obvious choice. “I thought, ‘Well, I’ll grab my keyboard and a singer, we’ll play some tunes on a Saturday night and see if that brings in more business.’”
A social media announcement was all it took. “The next thing I know, I’ve got 80 people who want to come,” Gilman recalls. It was a good kind of problem: The interest was there, but the space wasn’t. The restaurant’s capacity maxes out around 48. The fix? Do two shows a night.
No longer “Gilman and a singer,” Twin Lotus’ music offerings have expanded to include everything from trios to larger bands performing a wide range of music. “We have to make this enjoyable for the lay public,” Gilman says. To that end, they’re doing a little something for everyone, from folk to Americana, soul and R&B. There’s even a monthly poetry night.
Still, jazz is the primary focus, and there’s clearly an audience for it — even when the music isn’t mainstream. “Even when we’re doing reasonably hardcore jazz, like Thelonious Monk or Wayne Shorter, we’re getting 60-65 reservations,” Gilman says.
Part of the draw is the caliber of performers Gilman brings in, thanks to his vast network of colleagues. When “girl from Ipanema” Astrud Gilberto died this summer, Twin Lotus paid tribute with an evening of Brazilian music, gorgeously performed by renowned local guitarist/educator Steve Homan and his wife, Francesca, on vocals; drummer Tony Dey, once a member of Linda Ronstadt’s band, rounded out the trio.
Such ambitious efforts by some of the area’s most acclaimed musicians are common at Twin Lotus. Upcoming shows include bassist Jonathan Stoyanoff tackling the music of jazz luminary Jaco Pastorius (Sept. 17) and vocalist Vivian Lee’s tribute to the great Billie Holiday (Sept. 30).
While the restaurant is open daily, music is mainly reserved for weekends, with two shows on Saturdays and Sundays (5 p.m. and 7 p.m.) and typically, one show on Fridays. On “Two-Tune Thursdays,” vocalists are invited to perform two tunes while accompanied by Gilman (aka “Dr. G”).
The Twin Lotus experience is very much “dinner and a show,” as Gilman notes, differentiating it from much of the bar and nightclub scene. “Most of the time when you go to hear music, it’s a band playing in a corner while people are having a drink, talking and relaxing,” he says. “This is different.”
SacYard: Serious musicianship in a casual setting
While the setting couldn’t be more casual — it’s a beer garden, with a sprawling patio, a collection of communal tables, and brews aplenty on tap — there’s some serious jazz happening on Wednesday nights at SacYard Community Tap House at 1725 33rd St.
Things kick off at 6 p.m. with an hour-long set from the house band, followed by a two-hour jam session, an open mike-style free-for-all that draws a multi-generational mix. On a recent Wednesday, a parade of younger players took the stage alongside such local legends as Beth Duncan, a force on the Sacramento scene since the ‘80s. The current house band is fronted by guitar virtuoso Barry Finnerty, a Bay Area transplant who has played and recorded with a veritable who’s-who list including Miles Davis, the Crusaders and the Brecker Brothers.
Having such credentialed players in the mix is serving SacYard well. “We’re starting to get a reputation as far as music is concerned,” says Dan Thebeau, who owns SacYard with wife, Melody. While different styles of music are featured on other nights, jazz night has been a staple since June 2021, according to Thebeau. It’s been a roaring success, he says, drawing an estimated 200-300 customers on a typical Wednesday night. Not all of them come specifically for the music, admits Thebeau. But there are many regulars, he says, and some true fanatics.
“What’s kinda cool is there’s a group of older folks in their 60s or 70s who are really into it, and are there every Wednesday night,” he says. Jazz is sometimes featured on other nights too: On the calendar recently were the 18-piece big band Herdin’Cats and Jacam Manricks, a former New Yorker who has toured the globe as a celebrated saxman, educator and recording artist.
With its 3,800-square-foot urban Biergarten, plus fun eats and drinks including a rotating array of food trucks, SacYard appeals especially to those who want to hang outdoors with family (dogs included) and friends. But even when the weather goes south, Thebeau says, the music doesn’t stop.
“If it’s too cold or it’s raining, we bring it inside,” he says. “We’ve got music 52 weeks a year.”
Jazz night at Jet’s: Where the action is
Thursdays are jazz nights at Jet’s American Grill & Bar. Like SacYard, Jet’s opens each show with a performance by a local band. But instead of a regular house band, Jet’s features different groups week to week — and the evening’s format varies as well, according to events coordinator Terry Harry.
“Sometimes we’ll have one band that plays for an hour and then a jam session, sometimes we’ll have two bands back-to-back, sometimes one band will play for three hours,” he says. On a recent visit, a group called the Mondei Quintet had its debut, delivering a tasty mix of originals and covers (notably Joni Mitchell’s “Help Me”) before opening things up to a jam.
A modern restaurant with a hip vibe offering everything from vegan Korean BBQ tacos to nacho cheesesteaks, Jet’s (the namesake of Jet Bonanno, who owns-operates with his brother Trent) opened in its current Midtown location at 1226 20th St. in December 2021. In early 2022, jazz night was launched.
Why jazz? Bonanno points to several factors. “Sacramento used to have a big jazz festival every year, plus several of our local schools have some of the top jazz programs in the country, so we realized jazz was a huge thing in this city,” he says. Giving young musicians an opportunity was a major driving force, Bonanno says. “We love booking kids from Rio Americano and Jesuit [his alma mater], both which have really strong jazz programs, and other area schools. For many, it’s the first time they’ve done a real gig in front of an audience, and not just for their family and friends. There are so many talented musicians in the area who need a place to play.”
In addition to high schoolers and alumni, Sac State students often show up at Jet’s, Harry says, as well as “older cats in their 60s — the local jazz veterans. We have a wide range of ages, and a wide range of styles — pretty much all subgenres of jazz.” Fusion, funk, and jazz-pop seem to be most popular with Jet’s mainly young crowd, he says. “That’s when I’ve seen more energy in the room.
And all that jazz
Live jazz can also be found at these and other local venues.
Clubhouse Sports Bar & Grill, 5150 Fair Oaks Blvd., Carmichael. Cunha Big Band, first Tuesdays from 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. (916) 979-1422; sportsbarclubhouse.com
Elk Grove Presbyterian Church, 8153 Elk Grove Blvd., Elk Grove. Jazz and Blues Hour, first Sundays at 4 p.m. (916) 806-9476; elkgrovepresbyterian.com
Ettore’s Bakery & Restaurant, 2376 Fair Oaks Blvd., Sacramento. (916) 482-0708; ettores.com
House of Oliver, 3992 Douglas Blvd., Roseville. (916) 773-9463; houseofoliver.com
Midtown Stomp, 2534 Industrial Blvd., West Sacramento. Swing dancing and lessons every Friday night, often with live bands. (916) 649-3269. midtownstomp.com.
(The) Side Door, 2900 Franklin Blvd., Sacramento. (916) 442-8282; thesidedoor.net
Straw Hat Pizza, 2929 Mather Field Rd., Rancho Cordova: Jazz most Sundays. (916) 363-5050; strawhatpizza.com/rancho-cordova/
Torch Club, 904 15th Street, Sacramento. Jazz sessions every Sunday at 8 p.m. (916) 443-2797; torchclub.net
Two Rivers Cider Company, 4311 Attawa Ave., Sacramento. Acoustic jazz on second and fourth Thursdays, 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. (916) 456-1614; tworiverscider.com
Xochimilco Authentic Mexican Restaurant, 4904 Auburn Blvd. Sacramento. Live music, predominantly jazz, Wednesdays from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. (916) 349-9495; mexicanzest.com
September jazz festivals
Sept. 1-4: Hot Jazz Jubilee, DoubleTree by Hilton, 2001 Point West Way, Sacramento. hotjazzjubilee.com
Sept. 17-18: Meadowview Jazz and R&B Festival, Meadowview Park, 7760 24th Street, Sacramento. sacculturalhub.com
Sept. 30: Elk Grove Fall Jazz Festival, noon – 7 p.m., Laguna Town Hall Amphitheatre, 3020 Renwick Ave., Elk Grove. eventbrite.com
This story is part of the Solving Sacramento journalism collaborative. Solving Sacramento is supported by funding from the James Irvine Foundation and Solutions Journalism Network. Our partners include California Groundbreakers, Capital Public Radio, Outword, Russian America Media, Sacramento Business Journal, Sacramento News & Review, Sacramento Observer and Univision 19. Take our reader survey.