On a Friday night below a twirling disco ball, pianist Gerald Clayton unleashes his fingers along the keys. Longtime collaborators Harish Raghavan and Justin Brown join on stand up bass and drums as the three usher in the night’s festivities.
“It’s just good to be in a room full of people,” Clayton sighed during a break, the room clapping in agreement.
The Black Cat is as powerful a West Coast jazz outlet as they come. Hip hop star Talib Kweli came in last month. Trumpeter Theo Croker led in August. Saxophonist Kenneth Whalum will hold it down in November.
The Tenderloin needs no introduction. It’s an area rife with stressful sights and misunderstood maladies. But it’s also become a thriving club, bar and eating hub. Thanks to restaurateurs like Ravi Kapur of the Michelin-starred Liholiho Yacht Club, the neighborhood has been gaining in some positive attention.
Compared to most, the neighborhood has not faced gentrification. According to Randy Shaw, director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic and author of “The Tenderloin,” as of 2018, nearly 40% of the area is off the speculative real estate market because of strong protections for single-room occupancy hotels, supportive housing and rent control buildings.
This means there is less likelihood that skyrise apartment complexes with cute cafes on the first floor will take hold. COVID has made this possibility even less likely. According to The City’s data, the Civic Center and Tenderloin still see San Francisco’s highest COVID rates — between 78 and 108 new cases a day.
Still, the neighborhood is playing its own kind of music again. The pandemic may have hit the neighborhood hard, but business owners have held fast through the closures and the confusion. Looking into the winter, Tenderloin bars and clubs, especially those which musicians call home, are feeling optimistic.
The low notes
Justin Trujillo, who was born on Geary Boulevard, has wanted to own the Geary Club since he first started hanging out there in the early 2010s. By February 2020, he had worked with then-owner June Russell to purchase the joint, San Francisco’s second smallest bar. Then the plague took its toll that March.
“It was always one of my favorite bars, and I’d been a regular for well over a decade,” Trujillo says. “I had such high hopes for Geary Club.”
Rob Ready, founder of the bar and theater PianoFight, at 144 Taylor St., has been spending time in the Tenderloin since 2007, when he came to produce comedy and other live shows. Last year, no surprise, was his most challenging.
“It got gnarly,” says Ready. “The Tenderloin was forgotten about for the first six months of COVID.”
In 2007, he stumbled into managing a theater off of Mission and Sixth streets, and in 2014 he was able to launch PianoFight across the street from Cutting Ball Theater. There, in PianoFight’s two theaters, he hosted more than 50,000 guests a year. Pre-COVID, of course.
The Black Cat has a longer history. The club-restaurant first existed on Eddy and Mason between 1906 and 1921. When restaurateur Fritz Quattlebaum walked into the basement of a Chinese restaurant on the corner of Eddy and Leavenworth, he felt there was an opportunity to bring the legacy into the 2010s. Quattlebaum opened in July 2016 with all the intense love of jazz he had cultivated in New York, the other city he calls home. He and his partners reopened this year on Aug. 4 at 400 Eddy St. It was the club’s fifth incarnation.
“I shut down the club a week before the city mandate,” Quattlebaum said of the early days of COVID.
Unlike restaurants and cafes, bars and nightclubs had no pandemic lifeline in the form of delivery apps or to-go orders. It was even harder in a neighborhood like the Tenderloin, which can feel unsafe.
From his home in Russian Hill, Quattlebaum watched things change in the neighborhood. He remembers a photo running in the New York Times depicting the Tenderloin’s hard times during COVID. He saw Black Cat in the background of the shot. It was an emotional moment.
“There we were,” Quattlebaum said. “It was the totality of it all.”
Ready, who lives in Chinatown, felt like The City’s response in the Tenderloin was insufficient.
“It felt dangerous,” Ready said. “Not just for me, but for the folks in those tents and the folks in the buildings the tents are in front of.”
Seeing the Waymo Jaguars roll through the neighborhood in front of so many suffering people was distressing for Ready. He felt it showed The City’s real priorities: the wealthy and well-heeled. Not long after, UC Hastings and five fellow plaintiffs sued The City for failing to ensure safe conditions.
Trujillo says the Tenderloin became a “ghost town” for the majority of the pandemic. In early summer 2021, a new tune began to emerge.
Call and response
On June 12, the mayor and the six plaintiffs announced 70% of the tents inventoried in a June 5 census of the neighborhood would be removed by July 20 and replaced with safe camping sites, such as the facility now in front of City Hall. People were also relocated to shelter-in-place hotel rooms.
Ready says the lawsuit and the mayor’s reaction to it made a difference. He reopened PianoFight on July 16 with help from friends and family. If it went well, they would have an eight-week lineup featuring acts like the Neo Futurists and Killing My Lobster. Within a week, they realized it wasn’t possible.
“One of our staff members tested positive for COVID,” Ready remembers.
They canceled the whole run and kept the bar shut.
Before the city mandate in August, the Black Cat announced proof of vaccination would be required to attend. It was a condition to work at the bar, too. Social media posts denounced the club for being too strict, Quattlebaum says.
“My view was people can make their personal choices, but we have the right to control our environment,” Quattlebaum says. “We could’ve done six feet [distancing]. But that’s antithetical to our experience. I knew we would open when it was time to open.”
The City’s flexible approach to outdoor drinking and eating was a boon for the Geary Club. Trujillo reopened on June 15.
“The parklets were a game changer,” Trujillo says. “We could hold only 20 people inside, and now we can double that.”
Quattlebaum wants to reopen stronger than before. He wants success for the neighborhood. He says the “maskless mayor” incident at his bar the night that Tony! Toni! Toné! played and Mayor London Breed was filmed joyously dancing was manipulated and misunderstood.
He has brought in Eric Forbes, former sommelier of Foreign Cinema, to pick the wine. He has brought in Olu Gartin, longtime manager of the Blue Note jazz club in New York, to handle operations. He has brought in longer residencies for visiting musicians, to play more music and have some more security.
“The Tenderloin got such bad press during COVID,” Quattlebaum says. “But from the day we reopened, the space has been largely filled. There’s a sense of hopefulness through music.”
Black Cat, 400 Eddy St., features Kenneth Whalum on Nov. 3-7 ($25-$35), Tiffany Austin on Nov. 10 ($20-$30) and The Julius Rodriguez Quintet on Nov. 11-14 ($25-$35). Visit blackcatsf.com/all-events for details.
PianoFight, 144 Taylor St., is open for select shows in November and December; starting with two shows on Nov. 11: interactive comedy in “VENT!” at 7 p.m. ($20-$25) and Kurt Weitzmann’s “60 Years Underground” at 7:30 p.m. ($20-$30). Visit pianofight.com/show-calendar.