SF jazz club reopens two days after ’emotional and traumatic’ break-in

Musician and songwriter Damani Rhodes (left), with special guest Tongo Eisen-Martin, performs at The Black Cat in San Francisco on Wednesday, July 27. Photo: Nastasia Dusapin/Special for The Chronicle

Every night, Fritz Quattlebaum has the enviable opportunity to witness the power of improvisation in the flesh. As owner of jazz and supper club Tenderloin Black Cat, he’s hosted a slew of big names and rising stars with a flair for understanding as they go since the San Francisco venue opened in 2016.

Then his business was repeatedly robbed and vandalized on Monday, July 25 – requiring a different form of improvisation to ensure a performance by Sacramento multi-instrumentalist, producer and composer Damani Rhodes continued as planned on Wednesday. July 27.

Several hours before showtime, Quattlebaum told The Chronicle that postponing a show on The Black Cat’s schedule just wasn’t an option.

“The burglary was emotional and traumatic,” he said, “and the lack of proper response from firefighters (combatants) and police was inexcusable. But COVID did not overcome our resolve, and this incident does not won’t slow us down. Black Cat exists for one reason: to build community.

Patrons and customers come to sit at the Black Cat Jazz Bar. Many who came to the club for the Damani Rhodes experience had no idea that the venue had been robbed a few days prior. Photo: Nastasia Dusapin/Special for The Chronicle

Wednesday night’s performance saw a full house and no trace of the turmoil that has overshadowed Black Cat operations in recent days.

In fact, for the most part, ticket holders had no idea such an incident had even taken place. Sitting at a table near the front, friends Mikal Brown, 42, from Sacramento and Sophia Spencer, 42, from Oakland, both visiting Black Cat for the first time, were shocked to learn of the recent burglary .

“Oh no! Oh my God, no, I didn’t know that,” Brown said.

“We both mentioned that it was a surprise to see such a nice place in a neighborhood like this,” Spencer added. “We parked a block away, and when we got out and walked a few yards, it was a little sketchy, so we lucked out and found another spot just outside. But then you go down those stairs and it’s a whole different world.

On Wednesday, that world was dominated by the breathtaking Damani Rhodes Experience.

Anchored by titular Rhodes on piano and keyboards, the band also featured special guest vocals from current San Francisco Poet Laureate Tongo Eisen-Martin and Oakland singer Vadia.

Vadia, originally from Oakland, performs with musicians and Rhodes. Photo: Nastasia Dusapin/Special for The Chronicle

The latter, who is also married to Rhodes, almost brought the house down (in a good way, this time) when the band closed their set with a stunning and radically rearranged take of soul singer Wilson Pickett’s own cover of the Beatles classic “Hey Jude.” Vadia even asked the crowd to provide the required ‘na na na na’ backing vocals – a visceral moment of resilience for a club that just 48 hours earlier was looking at its darkest day since the COVID lockdown.

For Quattlebaum, that’s why the Damani Rhodes experience was so perfect to reopen the club and show that Black Cat’s heart continues to beat with rhythm and pride.

“Damani, Tongo and Vadia are the perfect artists to reopen Black Cat after this negative event,” he said. “Their message is one of the healing powers of music and art.”

After his first of two sets, Rhodes himself appeared delighted as he shared that playing on the site had been on his to-do list for some time.

Musician and songwriter Rhodes (left) laughs with his musicians during a show that club owner Felix Quattlembaum refused to postpone or cancel after burglaries two days earlier. Photo: Nastasia Dusapin/Special for The Chronicle

“I came to a show in October to see Casey Benjamin and Stout,” he recalled of his first Black Cat appearance. “When I walked into the venue and saw how intimate it was – you can hear everything, you can experience a show there in a different way – I knew I had to perform here.”

Asked if Monday’s burglary at Black Cat caused fears his show might be postponed, Rhodes said he only learned of the incident himself hours before the performance. It was fitting then, amid his maiden run on the Black Cat stage, that he just focused on the moment in front of him.

On this, Rhodes said the reality more than met his expectations.

” It was great. Everything is really intimate. I hear well. The communication between the guys is excellent. For me, it’s not just us who play. It is an exchange with the public. It’s this whole interactive experience that’s happening. That’s what makes it what it is.

Kassa Total: 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Thursday and Sunday, July 28 and 31; 7, 8:30 p.m. and 10:15 p.m. from Friday to Saturday July 29-30. $25 to $45. Black Cat, 400 Eddy Street, SF www.blackcatsf.com

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