Jazz is alive and well and cool in Martinez!

"Wendy DeWitt and Friends"
L to R: Macy Blackman, Wendy DeWitt, Kirk Harwood & Nancy Wright
Photo Credit : Charles F. Jarrett dba: Megaline Photographic Design

In recent weeks I have been sharing information with you about entertainment venues other than the typical theatre production companies that I have been specializing in for the past 24 years as I have received inquiries about places to go to sit back, have a cool one and listen to some good old fashioned music without all the formality of theatrical drama.

I have just spent a most enjoyable evening in a funky little place in Martinez that specializes in providing the very best in Jazz and Blues entertainment at a better than reasonable cost. If you love the soulful sounds and romantic rhythms present throughout the wide world of Jazz, then I’m sure you’ve heard of venues that specialize in music for the Jazz aficionado; places like Yoshi’s restaurant in San Francisco, The Dynamite Dancing Society in Half Moon Bay, and many other discrete little cafés, bars and restaurants that liven up the evening with the sound of Jazz. Regardless of where you have been around the Bay, there is a good chance you’ve never heard of “Armando’s” in Martinez. Well, with a name that starts with “A” it ought to be at the top of your list, not necessarily because of its alphabetical positioning, but because Armando’s has got to be about the best value for a Jazz lover in the entire east bay area.

In the process of checking out free public entertainment that is coming up at the Todos Santos Plaza in Concord, I called my friends Jim Ocean and Kathy Dupler (http://www.communityconcerts.com/) who promote music throughout the entire Bay Area, specifically to gather some updates on local music happenings. In the process of discussing Concord’s 22nd Annual Music and Market Series in Todos Santos Plaza Thursday and their phenomenally successful performance by Orquesta Borinquen, Bay Area Salsa Kings Jazz performance on this past Thursday, I was shocked to discover that “that” group drew a crowd in that park estimated to be around 5000 people. Jim asked me if I was aware of all the music happenings in downtown Martinez this summer and he put me in contact with Leanne Peterson who promotes the “Main Street Martinez” programs in Martinez (www.mainstreetmartinez.org/php/TuesdaysBluesdays.php ) that include a new summer music series called “Tuesdays Bluesdays” that happens every Tuesday evening with live, free music to entertain you while you browse the local shops, the farmer’s market, restaurants and local bistros, between 6 and 8 p.m.. Leanne asked me if I have ever been to one of their locals favorite Jazz venues by the name of Armando’s and I had to admit that while I had not actually been in the place, I had driven past it and was curious about the sweet sound of music coming through their open front door in the evening. Sometimes we get too busy doing the same old things.

Well, the time had come to check out “Armando’s”. I called the owner, proprietor and jazz aficionado Roy Jean to make arrangements to check it out. I went this past Saturday evening and have found a new place to dwell when I’m in the mood to come under the spell and the magic of JAZZ!

Each evening Roy schedules a different group, each with a different style and sound to provide his audiences with a multifaceted and multi-dimensional experience. We were indeed fortunate to discover “Wendy DeWitt and Friends” who were “on” that evening, and who provided an absolutely sensational evening of music. Just as if we were at a friend’s house sharing an evening of informal music with our “Friends” and neighbors, Wendy and her friends made us feel really special as though we were guests who had happened to “drop by” their place and were entertained with really cool sounds on our eager ears. Not too loud, not to brash, just plain fun made the evening last and last. Wendy is also known as the Boogie Woogie Queen, a lady who can certainly deliver da rhythm and da sound like no one else around! Wow! Can this lady sing and titillate the ivories and leave you begging for more!

Her group of friends this evening included Macy Blackman on horn and piano, Nancy Wright on Saxophone and Kirk Harwood on drums! Ms. DeWitt has appeared with such notables as Marcia Ball, Charlie Musselwhite, Otis Rush, Maria Muldaur, and Jimmy Thackery and many others. New Orleans style R&B and jazz pianist and vocalist and instructor, Macy Blackman, has performed in Philadelphia and now resides in the Bay Area. What a voice, what a horn, what a pianist. This guy has it all in spades!

Saxophonist Nancy Wright is a key performer in her own right, having performed beside John Lee Hooker, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Albert King and Albert Collins, to name a few! What a sweet sound this lady can blow!
Joining them is premier drummer, Kirk Harwood, who plays drums with plethora of percussive sounds, moods and levels of touch. Kirk has played with or accompanied such greats as Huey Louis and the News and The Grateful Dead, Norton Buffalo (Lovin’ in the Valley of the Moon/Desert Horizon albums) and many other premier groups. What my wife and I appreciated perhaps most of all was the fact that the band had the sound level absolutely pegged perfectly, perfectly enjoyable. Far too many bands think they have to make an impression by buffeting your brains with a sound so loud that you can’t hear anything for a week following the performance!

In an interview with Roy Jeans this past week, Roy says that very shortly he will celebrate his fifth year in operation as a legal jazz club (licensed for beer and wine), following his first year as a private party club for jazz lovers. Roy is not a musician but is first and foremost a guy who has hung out in bars and clubs with similar entertainment for years. He recognized that there was a need for a place for those who were desirous of listening to music, first and foremost, rather than a “meet market” to find a date, to get lucky or to connect and network. People who come to “Armando’s” are there simply to enjoy the music! Since there was nothing on this end of the valley, he decided to experiment with this little two story “hole in the wall” place in old downtown Martinez. Originally, Roy simply saw this venue as a place for his many band friends to simply hang out and “Jam” because they didn’t really want to play in bars (having to compete with the talkers and stalkers). Roy rented the building, built a stage and invited his friends to come. They invited their friends and their friend’s friends and the rest was history; an accidental commercial Jazz club was born! While lots of groups of professional bands have regular “gigs” on Fridays and Saturdays, Roy envisioned his place as a Thursday’s only club, so that he could get good bands on a night when he wouldn’t have to pay a fortune for them because they were not committed to regular Thursday evening performances anywhere. The name of this club officially is “Armando’s Thursday”, but then the demand and response brought major bands to his club on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays. Mondays are unusual in that those nights are generally set aside for Blues Jams, Jazz Jams and special activities. Doors open at 7:30 and the music starts generally at 8 p.m. until 11 p.m..

The cover charge generally costs $10 per person plus whatever your drinks cost, should you wish to purchase any. Monday night Jazz Jams and Blues Jams, song writer’s competitions and open mike evenings only have a $3 cover charge. Open mike evenings encourage patrons to step up to the mike and share their talent with an audience willing and eager to accept, on a come what may, friendly acceptance basis

The “Armando’s” website is located at www.armandosmartinez.com/ where you will find the calendar of performances coming up in the near future. “Armando’s” is located at 707 Marina Vista Avenue in downtown Martinez. If you take the Marina Vista off ramp from highway 680 just before you cross northbound on the Benecia Bridge, and follow that street all the way into downtown Martinez, it will take you right past “Armando’s”, which in on the north side of the street. At this time, the city of Martinez is in the middle of a huge improvement project, placing utility poles underground, right in front of the jazz club, which looks very messy. If you turn right at the first corner after you pass the club, on Estudillo Street, there is plenty of parking within half a block of the club. Or you may do as I did, venture a few feet further into the Martinez Amtrack Station parking lot and park where there is plenty of parking and good lighting, and only walk 50 to 100 feet further. You can contact the club at (925) 228-6985.

The crowd is local, the dress is casual, the ambiance is funky-fun and friendly with colorful posters, graffiti and artwork on chairs and tables. “Armando’s” provides a very funky and fun atmosphere. This is a great low cost evening, even with drinks at $6 each (they gotta make some money somehow). I can’t wait to go back again.

Don't forget “Tuesdays Bluesdays” starting next Tuesday!

Also, before we leave the Martinez scene, let me remind you again to think about “Tuesdays Bluesdays” starting next Tuesday the 10th , featuring the band “Sneaky Pete!” and continuing on Tuesday the 17th with “The Delta Dogs” and bringing the series for August to a conclusion with the charismatic and greatly sought after musician, Carlos Reyes, on August 24th. Again check out the Martinez website at www.mainstreetmartinez.org/php/TuesdaysBluesdays.php. If you follow my theatre review suggestions on a regular basis and go to the Town Hall Theatre in Lafayette, you will probably remember the guy who generally gives the curtain speech, Lafayette Town Hall board member, Dennis Erokan. Well, he and his brother Johnny Erokan are key members of “The Delta Dogs” and will be performing in the August 17th show in Martinez.

Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey celebrate P.T. Barnum's 200th Birthday!

Other entertainment that calls out for grandparent and grandchildren alike annually here in the Bay Area is the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey shows that will be coming back to the Oracle Arena in Oakland (August 11th – 15th) and in the HP Pavillion in San Jose (August 18th -23rd). I have reported on this adventure filled entertainment spectacular each of the past two years after seeing the first of the two shows. This year, I don’t want you to miss an opportunity to purchase tickets for the show that will work best logistically for you and your family so I am recommending it before I actually attend.

This year’s production is called “Barnum’s FUNundrum!” and features 130 performers from 6 continents around the world. When you add 100,000 pounds of powerful, earth-pounding pachyderms, you have a lot of colorfully dressed elephants parading for your pleasure in our local arenas! Trampolines, high-flying aerial trapeze artists, rapidly flipping gymnasts, death-defying motorcycle riders and much, much more, will make this evening of circus a terrific investment in family entertainment, an evening that will be long remembered by the little ones. This once in a life-time event celebrates the 200th anniversary of the birth of the original, legendary P.T. Barnum himself, one of the greatest showmen in the world. When he created the “Greatest Show on Earth” he set in motion a tradition of huge, spectacular circus productions and this newest generation of the Barnum experience is a very colorful and highly choreographed event.

Both venues have shows on similar schedules with both shows opening on Wednesdays, with performances on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 p.m., with Saturday performances at 11 a.m., 3 p.m., and at 7 p.m. in the evening. Then on Sundays, there will be performances at 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. at the Oakland Oracle arena, but with an extra show on Sunday at HP Pavilion at 11 a.m., 3 p.m., and at 7 p.m. in the evening. Ticket prices range between $15 and $65 each, and with a special Circus Celebrity pass in the amount of $105 each, which includes a special VIP seating setup. All opening night tickets are only $15! Call Ticketmaster at (800) 745-3000 or order your tickets on line at http://www.ticketmaster.com/ .