If Spike Lee ever chooses to do a streaming reboot of his 1990 cinematic jazz odyssey “Mo’ Better Blues,” he’ll have Black Cat in the Tenderloin ready to go as an ideal nightclub location. Housed in one of San Francisco’s livelier neighborhoods, the venue has bars on two levels, nightclub tables and a bandstand space this is both hip and intimate.
“I wanted to create a space that was a cool place for people to hang out and have a good time together and enjoy music,” said Black Cat founding partner Fritz Quattlebaum. “And rather than just creating a strict music venue, I wanted it to be something broader and a more immersive experience. So we’ve focused on the drink element and having good food.”
Opened in July 2016 and operating post-lockdown Wednesdays through Sundays, Black Cat has grown a reputation for chic drinks and elegant dining. The main draw, though, remains its music. Locally based artists are booked regularly, and touring musicians typically play multi-night stands. Headliners at the SFJAZZ Center have been known to swing by after their gigs to catch their friends and even sit in on a number or two.
“People have said playing Black Cat has changed their lives,” Quattlebuam said. “We give them three, four or five days to come in and just have freedom and time. We give them that license to completely just do it, to create and experiment. And a lot of bands go on to record an album after they leave here.
“It also gives artists a chance to explore San Francisco a little bit, to find a favorite café and just to settle in — to have a life, really,” he said. “Every night the chef makes a nice meal for the band, too, and they really appreciate that. So we just try to take care of them.”
Up through the mid-2000s, artists were booked for up to six nights in a row at Yoshi’s in Jack London Square. SFJAZZ still gives a multi-night booking, but mostly for crossover successes such as trumpeter Chris Botti and the cosmopolitan chamber folk-pop ensemble Pink Martini. Otherwise, its Thursday through Sunday runs are largely for established musicians.
“The emerging stars, we really focus on them,” Quattlebaum said. “Most of these cats have played with some of the biggest names not just in jazz but in the music world.
“(Alto saxophonist) Braxton Cook told me on the first night of his residency that it was his band’s first time ever playing any place for more than one night. And I hear this time and time again, especially from younger musicians.”
A textbook example of a Black Cat artist is Jason “DJ Logic” Kibler. The early 50-something Bronx native is arguably the highest profile turntablist-as-band member to come out of the ‘90s jam-band scene. Merging the world of hip-hop, jazz and rock, he’s recorded and performed with everyone from Jack Johnson, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Soulive to the String Cheese Incident, the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra and Living Colour co-founder Vernon Reid, who’s also been Kibler’s mentor.
DJ Logic will be leading a band featuring bass guitarist and local hero Reed Mathis, along with drummer Billy Martin. “I’m also going to have a horn player, a trumpeter or a saxophonist,” Kibler revealed. “A little brass is always good, right?
“I’ve heard the Black Cat is a great venue, so I’m excited to get back out to San Francisco,” he said by phone from his home in the Bronx. Kibler has a history with each featured musician as well as the region, so it’ll be a reunion on several levels.
He’s toured extensively with Medeski, Martin + Wood, the ‘90s jam-band organ trio and Billy Martin’s best known musical outlet, and either appeared on or remixed several of the group’s recordings.
Mathis and Kibler have played together in a variety of contexts, including DJ Logic & Friends concerts in Denver and Nederland, Colo.
“We always have a good time playing with each other. And Reed knows about and plays all kinds of music,” he said. “We go back and forth talking about jazz stuff and hip-hop stuff, about (the singular cosmic jazz bandleader) Sun Ra and (producer-songwriter) J Dilla.”
For the DJ Logic Black Cat sessions, the bandleader will technically be a part of the rhythm section. But the musical roles aren’t as well defined as in a typical jazz small group.
“Me and Billy Martin will go back and forth on some things,” he said. “And Reed will probably loop some bass lines. And whoever the horn player will be will add their element. It’s definitely going to be improvised with a lot of rhythms going on. We’re just trying to make something very special and unique with everybody playing a part.”
On previous trips to Northern California, DJ Logic has performed with saxophonist Karl Denson at the Fillmore, as a member of the Miles Electric Band at the SFJAZZ Center, and with bassist Christian McBride at the Monterey Jazz Festival. But a headlining gig, let alone a three-night residency, is notable for both the DJ-producer and the venue itself.
Black Cat was in the news this summer for unfortunate reasons, though, when it was robbed repeatedly in late July. Sound equipment, instruments, drinks and food were stolen, and the organization has since reached a little over 40% of its $50,000 fundraising goal.
“What do you do? You just come back,” Quattlebaum said. “Being at the corner of Leavenworth and Eddy is always a fight. But that’s where we we’re supposed to be, so we just bounced back the next day.
“Otherwise, if you let impediments like that stop, you just get nowhere. That happened early on a Tuesday morning, and we opened on Wednesday night. It was actually a beautiful, beautiful concert.”
Black Cat extends the jazz-in-the-Tenderloin legacy established by the Black Hawk, which was open from 1949 to 1963 and located less than two blocks away at 200 Hyde St. Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane and Billie Holiday all performed there, and live albums by Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck and Mongo Santamaria were recorded there.
The pandemic has challenged Black Cat as much as any venue or eating establishment, particularly since there are no outdoor dining or performing options. But Quattlebaum remains both optimistic and enthusiastic.
“The Black Cat is as much of a cultural institution as the (San Francisco) Ballet — probably even more so in the sense that it reaches people in a different way and in a different demographic,” he said. “I’m on the board of the ballet, so I’m involved with both. They’re trying to get people to come back, too, and draw in younger audiences. At least that’s not an issue here.
“The one thing that’s really been wonderful about Black Cat is it’s just such a diverse demographic. And everybody comments on that when they come here — guests and artists alike.”
If You Go
DJ Logic featuring Billy Martin & Reed Mathis
Where: Black Cat, 400 Eddy St., S.F.
When: 7 p.m., 9 p.m. and 10:45 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $35 to $45 on Friday & Saturday, $25-$35 on Sunday
Contact: (415) 358-1999, blackcatsf.com