There is nothing else quite like Jazz, TX in San Antonio, a classy, modern speakeasy-style jazz club located in the cellar of the Bottling House (now a food hall) at the historic Pearl Brewery. You might think a jazz club of this caliber is only for those who remember those bygone days of the crooners and big bands, but it is not. Jazz, TX appeals to a wide range of people, from young couples in love to groups of friends. That is almost surprising until you get a taste of their “fine jazz” and “serious food.”
Jazz, TX is the brainchild of owner Doc Watkins, who is a well-known jazz artist, singer, and piano player. Watching him gracefully lead the band and smile, in what can only be described as pure joy, is half of the enjoyment for guests.
“It goes back to when I was a kid and used to listen to live jazz records, and I always loved the feel and vibe of a live record… You could hear the band, ambiance of the place, and the energy of the crowd,” Doc said. “I always wanted to go to venues like the ones I heard on the records. When we started talking about the possibility of opening up a venue, I knew what I wanted to create, so the genesis of Jazz, TX goes back many years.”
His musical style runs the gamut and includes jazz, classical, blues, and Texas swing. Guests get the opportunity to experience this diverse range at Jazz, TX, at least on the nights when he takes the stage. For those who have not yet made it out, he also co-hosts a weekly radio show called Live at Jazz, TX, which airs Saturday nights on Texas Public Radio.
He received his Master’s and Doctoral degrees in Music Performance from the University of Texas at Austin. He has toured throughout America, Europe, Canada, and Russia, and has had the honor of playing at Carnegie Hall, not once, but twice.
Music and Cocktails
When Doc moved to San Antonio in 2006, he soon met an up-and-coming young bartender by the name of Jake Corney, at arguably the fanciest steakhouse in town. Doc played piano and Jake whipped up incredible cocktails. “When I met Jake, he was at the forefront of the cocktail renaissance,” Doc said. “A huge lightbulb came on for me at that time…All those things of importance (service, care, food, and drink) instantly connected. What we were trying to do with music, he was trying to do with cocktails.”
Doc planted the seed then about someday starting his own jazz club and asked Jake if he would be interested. “He’s a brilliant pianist,” Jake said. When he started playing jazz at Bohanan’s, I made him some delicious libations. He said, ‘You know what, I want to have a jazz club one day, and I want you to be the bartender there.’”
Fast forward a decade. “Doc gave me a call one day,” Jake said. “At the time I had a company and was making large format ice. He wanted me to be the general manager], but I turned him down four times because I know what it takes. He said ‘Just give it a shot.’ So I started doing it, and I love it.”
They now run one of the coolest joints at the most preeminent destination in San Antonio. So, what should you expect?
“It’s an infusion of food and music and cultures that revolve around different music,” Jake said, who is indeed the general manager. Incredibly, Jazz, TX truly does hit on all levels, from the live music to the cocktails, as well as the cuisine, service, and décor. It is a rare example of the magical experience when everything is just right.
The musical offerings vary throughout the week, with trios and smaller groups playing on weekdays, and big, multi-piece bands playing on the weekends. Doc makes an appearance about three times a week. The rest of the musicians are primarily local, although Jazz, TX occasionally features touring bands.
“Doc does all the music planning, and they get larger and larger as the week goes on, and the energy goes up from there,” Jake said. “We don’t just play jazz but do a number of different things: mariachi bands, opera singers, country artists. We’ve had really renowned jazz players, acts from [Los Angeles and New York]. Doc has a big band almost every Saturday, and twice a month, we do salsa. We mix it up. It’s a lot of fun.”
A Jazz History
If you are shocked that San Antonio offers such good music, you should not be. According to Doc, the Alamo City has significant influence on music, but people are not as aware of its influence as they are of Austin’s; such is the plight of this talented city, which seems to be the underdog of Texas.
“In Texas in the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s, jazz was kind of self-contained, especially in San Antonio,” Doc said. “We had jazz musicians like Don Albert from New Orleans meshing with Bob Wills (of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys). There was this really indigenous style of South Texas Hill Country music; jazz meets country meets western swing meets folk music, not to mention the Latin component. At Jazz, TX, we’ve tried to create an environment that honors all of those music traditions.”
True jazz enthusiasts might appreciate that Doc kicks off the night with a lesser known Bob Wills song, Home in San Antone.
The Happy Hour show during the week is a fantastic deal (cover-free), and a great way to kick-start your evening. However, nothing tops the main show on the weekends. They also offer a midnight set, with only a $5 cover.
As for Jake, he hails from McAllen. He has a background working in fine dining. While working at Bohanan’s, he trained under Sasha Petraske, the legendary mixologist and founder of Milk & Honey, a New York City cocktail bar. He taught Jake how to make pre-prohibition-style cocktails that will knock your socks off.
Although he passed in 2015, Petraske is renowned for inventing the modern cocktail culture. “It was amazing to learn from someone who was the best,” Jake said. “So many of the things he taught me you just don’t see anymore. Learning to make a drink is half the battle. The other half is hospitality – the experience you provide someone else… making their day a little brighter.”
When it comes to cocktails, evidently, it is all about the details. Given the opportunity, Jake could write a dissertation on what makes a perfect cocktail, from the proper water dilution, temperature, and ice. “Here, we use large format ice,” he said. “It’s one of the things Sasha was adamant about.”
The challenge of serving a group of people cocktails, all equally measured and chilled, is more difficult than one might imagine. “When everyone gets a cocktail in hand, it’s the best I can give them,” Jake said. “The moment you give it to them, it’s about them being able to look at each other, be with each other and ‘Cheers!’ That’s what we provide here at Jazz, TX.”
The drinks are easily on par with the best bars in this city, in any city. You might try a Pearl Park Swizzle (made with brandy, Gran Classico, lemon juice, butterfly pea tea syrup, absinthe, cherries, and mint) or a First Fig Swig (made with vodka, cream, amaretto-honey- fig jam, and mint). Whichever you choose, beware, because you will want another, and probably another after that.
However, Jazz, TX is about so much more than just the drinks, or even the music. “One thing that stands out here is the comradery,” Jake said. “The industry can be kind of riddled with competition. A lot of bar people in Austin don’t mesh well, whereas, in San Antonio, when Sasha came in, we all got together.”
Jake referred to the San Antonio Cocktail Conference, in which he has been involved from the beginning. The days-long event gathers the best bartenders from around the United States for tastings, seminars, and epic parties. The best part is that their fun supports children’s charities.
Food and Events
Undeniably, Jazz, TX provides a holistic experience with dinner being a must, although you might be perfectly content with their truly scrumptious appetizers.
The menu, which changes seasonally, is designed to offer a little taste of everything, such as small plates, entrees, and desserts. Guests might choose their signature Brisket Tacos, Blackened Snapper with a lobster cream mushroom sauce, their Osso Bucco (which sells out quickly), or an unbelievably delicious Texas Pecan Pie.
So what is next for Jazz, TX? They always have something interesting in the works. They released a new Christmas album, and no doubt, have new music on the way for fans or folks who cannot make it to San Antonio.
The event space, Jake also pointed out, is available to the public during the day for private meetings and events. They put a lot of effort into the décor, but it came together so beautifully that it seems effortless.
Small French porcelain tables pepper the space around the stage, and there is just room enough in front for a few dancers, which are exciting to watch. A beautiful picture of a Texas Hill Country sunset is the backdrop to the band in this candlelit room, complete with a chandelier and an old wood bar top made out of semi-truck beds. The floor matches what you would find in old band halls. “You see these imperfections going on, but it’s a really nice, clean, positive atmosphere,” Jake said.
The imperfections are artful, and all part of a carefully curated experience that takes you back to the original jazz clubs and what it must have been like so long ago.
“I hope people leave saying that they had a really great time,” Doc said. “That means they will have enjoyed the food and drinks, loved the music, laughed a little bit, danced a little bit. Our intention is to give you the kind of time you’ll tell your friends about and come back again and again.”