The Glam Diva Behind the City's Jumpingest Joint
Kim Nalley Owns the Room - page 1 of 1
With red-hot Jazz at Pearl’s, a glamorous former Deadhead has created the classiest nightclub in town.
By Mark Schapiro
A Tuesday night on Columbus Avenue, and a man in a western suit swings a woman half his age, with a nice slink to her dress, around a tiny dance floor. Some funky piano, the punctuating blasts of a trumpet, the steady rolls of an upright bass, and the sultry voice of Kim Nalley fill the club. Even on a cold weeknight, Jazz at Pearl's is packed, a mix of shaved heads and graying longhairs, poker-faced aficionados studying the musicians' moves, couples at the red banquettes edging the dance floor tapping their fingers on the tabletops. The dancers, the jazz buffs, the couples, the single guys nursing a drink at the bar—everyone is rapt, listening to the beats of 1952 in a club whose interior conjures 1935 and has been one of the nation's hottest jazz locales since 2003.

Nalley nods to the players, then she steps from the foot-high stage onto the floor and heads straight into "Stormy Weather" without a microphone for the last number of the set. With her smooth skin and gleaming black bob, in her tight, full-length black evening dress and string of plump pearls, Nalley is dazzling. You could hear an olive drop into a martini. No one except Nalley is moving as she glides across the floor, giving a friendly glance to one regular, a nod of the head to someone else. Part songstress, part hostess, the thirtysomething Nalley, with her stylish, brassy elegance, owns this crowd.

"Can't go on / Everything I had is gone / Stormy weather / Since my man and I ain't together / Keeps rainin' all the time." Her voice is sinewy, deep, a touch guttural as she wraps it up, and then the whole place springs back into action, applauding loudly, nodding, smiling.

Nalley makes her way through the club's little shaded-lamp-lit tables and up a few steps to the bar, where a glass of cognac awaits her. The bartender knows her drink. It's on the house—it's her house. Nalley and her husband, Steve Sheraton, have been running Jazz at Pearl's for almost two years now, and in the process they've rejuvenated the San Francisco jazz scene.

They seem like figures from another age: Nalley, glamorous, garrulous, dramatic, like a diva of the 1950s; Sheraton, a professional magician and former one-man vaudeville act, who with his slightly oversized suits, his wry humor and dry, crackling voice, emanates showbiz of an even earlier era. Both have a thing for a by?gone time when swing came easier, the light seemed softer, the men were as cool as Sinatra, the women as classy and brash as Lena Horne. "And everyone," says Sher?a?ton, "was dying to have a good time."

Sheraton, a Swiss national, is the im?presario; Nalley, a fixture in the Bay Area jazz scene, knows the talent and the clubs from the inside because she's played in dozens of them, including the original Pearl's, where she was a regular before the couple took it over.

"Kim understands musicians because she is one," says pianist Dave Mathews, not the rocker Matthews but a regular Pearl's backup man, a pianist with a trademark blend of honky-tonk and jazz honed over 20 years on the road with Etta James. "She gives you a drink, trusts what you play, makes you feel at home."

"Musicians are the front line," Nalley explains. "You have to treat musicians like gold. If they're having a good time, they'll make sure everyone is having a good time."

Music, like magic, takes you places you don't expect. Six nights a week, Jazz at Pearl's features top musicians drawn from the deep pool of jazz talent in the Bay Area and well beyond. An average Tuesday night with Nalley onstage might feature Mathews along with veteran trumpeter Allen Smith, who's played with everyone from Benny Goodman to the Jackson Five, and world-renowned drummer Akira Tana. On other nights, you could happen onto Roy Obiedo's steaming Latin jazz, Huston Person's vintage sounds, or passing-through national acts like pianist Rachel Z, on a break from touring with Peter Gabriel. With such a diverse mix of performers, Jazz at Pearl's draws a broad clientele, from longtime hipsters to a younger crowd with a taste for funk or sophisticated rock, who can hear their favored sounds in the free-range riffs of many of the regular musicians. The low cover charge makes the club a good place to take a chance on something new. You can have a good meal before or after the show, too.

Condé Nast Traveler noticed Jazz at Pearl's before its first anniversary, dubbing it one of the world's top 30 new bars. After 15 years of playing other people's clubs, Nalley knows how to create a vibe for both musicians and music lovers. Treat the musicians well—pay them on time, serve them good food and drink, offer an opportunity for other musicians to drop in and jam—and the best will come. Bring the best, and the audiences will follow.

The Bay Area boasts the second-highest rate of jazz CD sales in the country. It's also host to no fewer than five traditional jazz societies, some clubs, and several jazz festivals. But the San Francisco heyday that Jazz at Pearl's evokes is long gone. In the forties and fifties, the Fillmore district was filled with dozens of clubs featuring legendary, mostly African American performers, from Duke Ellington to Dexter Gordon. In the fifties, North Beach began filling with jazz clubs like the Cellar, the Jazz Workshop, and Keystone Korner. But the redevelopment wrecking ball destroyed the Fillmore scene (though it's slowly on the rebound), and striptease clubs, not to mention changing times and tastes, bumped jazz out of North Beach. Since then, San Francisco has been less generous with jazz venues. Disappointment has followed every resurgence, with a host of clubs closing down in the midnineties. The cognoscenti nail Jazz at Pearl's as the place that's reclaiming the mantle.

From the thousands of hours she's spent listening to and learning from the best, Nalley has great reverence for her predecessors in jazz. In her singing, she's worked to celebrate and expand upon what they laid down. (On one recent Saturday night, the lines wound up Columbus and down Broadway for Nalley's sold-out tribute to Nina Simone.) As the club's mistress, she's intent on opening a space for other musicians, the only surefire way, she feels, to nurture talent into genius.

"Think about the days of Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday," she says. "They were not big stars in their time, not Britney Spears or Madonna. But they were famous in the underground; everyone inside the know knew. Nowadays people could have Billie Holiday right in front of them, and they wouldn't know. We're here to give those musicians a place to play."

It almost didn't happen. On April 21, 2003, a raucous wake marked the closing of the venerable but not particularly popular club, whose septuagenarian owner, Pearl Wong, and booker, Sonny Buxton, after 14 years of running the place, were ready to pack it in. Victims of a rent hike, they were tired of struggling to walk the line between art and commerce. Throughout the night, the place blew open as San Francisco's finest jazz musicians dropped in to say good-bye. "Jazz is dead," denizens groused (not for the first time) as they grabbed a smoke and some air outside the packed club, just below Broadway across from City Lights and Vesuvio.

Unknown to almost everyone inside the club was that Sheraton and Nalley were negotiating to take over the lease. In the nineties—not long after she hit the Bay Area following the Grateful Dead—Nalley had not only sung at Pearl's but hung out there after the shows she did somewhere else.

"I'd come by, grab a drink, talk to Sonny and Pearl," she says. "They were my home away from home." As the revelers were paying their respects, Nalley and Sheraton were clinching the deal. By September, a kind of reverse wake marked the occasion as dozens of pals dropped in to play and to celebrate. The newly rehabbed club, the name embellished into the full-blown Jazz at Pearl's, was back in business.

We're sitting outside Café Claude, one of Nalley's favorite hangouts. In two hours she's going to be onstage. On Monday nights, she frequently sings with the outstanding 17-piece Contemporary Jazz Orchestra; Tuesday nights, she performs with one small local combo or another. Right now she's defying a drizzle in favor of a smoke, a plate of escargots, a champagne cocktail. "When people say, ‘Jazz is dead, and this is a revival of jazz,' I always say, ‘Hey, these musicians didn't go anywhere; they've been in San Francisco.' It's not like I performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on half the bass players," she says with a mischievous laugh.
When she's not onstage, Nalley is down-to-earth, easy to laugh, saucy, savoring a career that was a childhood fantasy. It's certainly a long way from her roots in New Haven, Connecticut, where she grew up in a housing project "on the wrong side of the tracks" and attended Catholic school on a scholarship. "I was a very motivated student," she says. "But they always told me I was not very good at relating to my peer group. Well, my peer group was everybody getting pregnant at 14, getting shot at, syringes and used shells littering the place where we lived." Instead, she watched "a lot of those Ginger Rogers movies" and "dreamed of traveling, performing, drinking champagne, eating escargots."

Nalley's father was a part-time Black Panther and wasn't around much. Her mother is part Italian and part Native American, and Nalley has grandparents on both sides who were raised on reservations. "One of my pet peeves is I don't like the term African American. Hey, my family was here when you got off that boat!" she exclaims. "We were very New England; my mother and grandmother were very proper. But I'm not talking WASP New England. Think Lena Horne."

Music was definitely in the air. Nalley's great-uncle, Reggie Jackson, who was one of the Tuskegee Airmen, the black pilots who broke through the color line during World War II, later played drums with sax master Dexter Gordon and became a renowned jazz photographer. "There wasn't much money," Nalley recalls. "The only time we'd go out to dinner was to McDonald's. But everybody'd go out on the weekend to music clubs in New Haven. The ladies"—her mother and grandmother—"would get dressed up to go to these divey bars, and I'd sing scat with my grandmother, like this..." She's suddenly riffing bebop. When Nalley talks about music, it's hard to keep her from singing—not that one would want to—phrases from her favorites: Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington.

Though the family was poor, Nalley studied music as a teenager, immersing herself in classical piano and opera. But after a brief stint at College of Holy Cross in neighboring Massachusetts, she skipped town. "I realized I was going to be into music, and I was spending too much money going to school when I could be learning a lot more on the road, singing, learning my music."

That's when her path took an unexpected turn—into the free-for-all improvisations of the Grateful Dead. In the Dead's music, she heard the spirit of complexity and surprise and the appetite for good rollicking grooves that she'd found lacking in her classical education. For two years she followed the band around the country, one of those "hippie chicks, selling crystals, spirit bags, anything to hold your mojo." It was a fine, dislocated time, being a Deadhead, singing on the side and visiting "every major city in America."

In 1990, trailing the Dead's comet, Nalley landed in the Bay Area. Attracted by the beauty, the musical history, and the University of California at Berkeley, she stayed. Even now, having traveled into the higher echelons of jazz, she shows great affection for the band that unwittingly lured her west. "You listen to the Dead, those long solos, improvisations. Their music is never the same. That's jazz!"

Nalley enrolled at UC Berkeley to study history and contemplate a career in law, but many of the classes she ended up attending were not on campus. In 1990, Nalley met the man she credits with giving her a true musical education: B.J. Papa, a seasoned sax and piano player at the center of the North Beach jazz scene. He invited her into the jam sessions that often unfolded into the predawn hours. "B.J. basically schooled me for free. I'm jam-school educated. B.J. taught me all the important things in life."

As she describes some basic lessons from his singers' survival school, she shifts into the man's gruff music veteran's growl: "?‘If you're good, you get two turns at the mic. You do some scattin', and the second tune you're gonna do a ballad. You're gonna do "My Funny Valentine." I don't care if you don't like "My Funny Valentine"; the people, they like "My Funny Valentine," and the band, they know "My Funny Valentine," and you're gonna play it.'

"B.J. set me on the true jazz path," she continues. "Like before, you're doing a couple of Sade tunes and you're thinking that's jazz. Then you learn other tunes. B.J. remembered when the standards first came out. He taught me what a jazz singer is and her function inside the band. The voice is the first instrument. And the jazz singer is the conduit between the audience and the musicians."

Performing at clubs to help put herself through school, Nalley began singing jazz with a trio on Tuesday nights at the old Alta Plaza club in the Fillmore. It was a mildly illicit operation: the club didn't have a cabaret license, so none of the performers could use microphones. Nalley just belted it out, and her riveting voice and captivating stage presence rapidly developed a following. Even when she's singing the classiest jazz standards, you can still hear the rough blues in her voice.

Eventually, Randall Kline, founder and director of the San Francisco Jazz Festival, was paying attention. "Jazz singers," notes Kline, "are often considered second-class citizens by musicians. They can be tough on singers; there's the sense they haven't worked as hard to get their chops. But over time, Kim started getting their respect."

Nalley started reaching a wider audience in the late nineties when she began singing with the local Johnny Nocturne Band, whose nine members play a mix of jazz and blues. Says sax player John Firmin, aka Johnny Nocturne, "She's kind of old school, stylistically, like Helen Humes or Ivy Anderson. She's Harlem in the 1930s, Cotton Club kind of stuff, early Dinah Washington."

Jazz critic Phil Elwood caught Nalley performing with the band and is widely credited with giving her the coverage (in the then San Francisco Examiner) that propelled her career. "Kim bounced off every form of jazz and blues and pop singing, and she has the voice to do it," says Elwood. "She really won me over."

Later, when Seattle's Teatro Zin?Zanni set up its antique wooden, mirror-lined tent on the Embarcadero, Nalley was its first chanteuse, the singer who opens the show. For several weeks last winter, just for fun, she became Madame ZinZanni, the presiding diva of this dinner-and-circus spectacular.

"To play that role, you have to be the alpha woman," says artistic director Norman Langill. "You've got to own that tent. Kim Nalley knows how to sell a song big; she can really belt it out. We want Madame Z to have that feeling: ‘Come on in and leave your troubles behind.' In real life, Kim has that feeling."

The Grateful Dead's comet may lead to San Francisco, but the lengthy contrails of American jazz lead inevitably to Europe. The list of American musicians who polished their chops and made their mark across the Atlantic is long and distinguished, from Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday to Dexter Gordon to Miles Davis. In 2001, soon after the release of Nalley's CD with the Johnny Nocturne Band, Million Dollar Secret, she hit the road, playing clubs and festivals in Germany, France, Switzerland, Austria, and elsewhere, on the trail, she says, "of all those great disaffiliated black jazz musicians."

It was while touring that Nalley met Sheraton, who had caught one of her gigs in his hometown of Basel, Switzerland, where he was running an art house cinema and bar, the Lumière Noire. Sheraton, then in his early thirties, had worked as a magician for more than a decade on the international circuit, including several monthlong stints in Las Vegas. In the rarefied world of magicians, his tricks have a certain renown.

As it happened, a magician who was opening for Nalley at the time was using one of Sheraton's tricks (he'd bought it on When the magician and the singer landed in Basel, the magician wanted to meet Sheraton, and Sheraton wanted to meet Nalley. After the show, "there were some very long hours of espresso and grappa," remembers Nalley. "Right there, it was a marriage of minds and creativity. Not only a physical thing, though that helped."

Sheraton has a similarly fond recollection, somewhat different in the details. "I saw this incredible woman, this great singer, in a skirt and open-toed heels, no tights, the full California thing, in the height of winter—there was snow on the ground! And I thought, ‘Wow, this chick is cool. I want to marry that woman.'?"

Nalley moved to Switzerland and Sheraton added a small jazz club to the Lumière Noire. Sheraton ran the club; Nalley was mostly on the road, singing and recruiting talent. While she was in Vienna for a gig in early 2003, the phone call came from Pearl Wong, who was giving up Pearl's. Did Nalley want it? "I called Steve in Basel," Nalley says. "He jumped on the next plane, and we both came out here and tried to figure it out."

Now, in her own club, Nalley does everything from the legal paperwork to dealing with health inspectors to finding and paying the musicians. Sheraton oversees the day-to-day operations, from the lights to the sound to the menus featuring dishes such as paella and a superb chicken with peppers and chorizo, along with some of the tastiest tapas in the city. He designed the interior to conjure his favorite habitat, a smoky nightclub, going so far as angling the lights to play off the tobacco smoke he imagined swirling through the room, just like in Europe. Alas, the cigarette smoke was forced onto the sidewalk, and Sheraton had to make some last-minute adjustments to San Francisco's nicotine-free club scene. You'll usually find him leaning on the bar in a fine '40s zoot suit, sipping a scotch, soaking up the music with a big grin on his face, or checking his BlackBerry, which gives him a pint-sized picture of the club's seating chart as patrons come and go.

And he likes to spend time in the basement, below the stage. This also happens to be the kitchen, just now filled with the fine aromas of the food to be delivered to the houseful of patrons upstairs. His favorite spot is just off a dark little hallway that, according to local legend, used to be "a secret cache for booze during Prohibition," he notes gleefully.

He still has a bit of the carny in him. He's still got that magician's bug, too, seated at a small table covered with a red velvet cloth that you can imagine once covered an egg or displayed one of his card tricks. Tonight, though, on display are a clutch of receipts, a cup of black coffee, a half-full bottle of grappa.

The music of the Contemporary Jazz Orchestra blasts through from upstairs. Sheraton smiles a loopy grin, tilts his head up, and tugs that little red cloth as if it's instrumental in delivering the sound streaming down through the ceiling. "That's jazz up there," he says happily. "It's chaos, but controlled. Magic is the same. But magic hits you here." Sheraton points to his head. "And music hits you here." He points to his gut.

"Jazz," wrote New Yorker music critic Whitney Balliett, "is the sound of surprise." And like the music itself, Nalley and Sheraton's trajectory to Jazz at Pearl's has been full of unexpected digressions and improvisations.

Upstairs, seated in the prime corner table at her club, Nalley greets well-wishers stopping by to say hello: a critic from the Chronicle, a couple of English tourists who heard about the place back home, an NPR producer who's already recorded some live sessions at the club. So much has happened since that phone call from Pearl Wong. Besides Live at Jazz at Pearl's, the new CD due out in September, what's next for Kim Nalley? Any more worlds to conquer?

Nalley pauses before answering, reflective. "To me, I am already a success. I got out of a situation where everybody was getting pregnant at 14 or someone's getting beat up to where I am now. I do what I love; I enjoy a wonderful singing career. Having a jazz club and a great marriage is just icing on the cake. If I did nothing more with my life, I would feel very, very successful."?

Mark Schapiro is editorial director of the San Francisco-based Center for Investigative Reporting and, needless to say, a major jazz fan.

Other Fine Ways to Hear Jazz
Listen for it, and the sound of jazz is all over the Bay Area. A selection of where to go for some of the best, from a little-known club to a neighborhood street fair to your radio dial.

BRUNO'S Check out the side room in this 1950s-style restaurant-bar, where the jams can go on until 1:30 a.m. and some of the city's strongest musicians, such as bass-man-about-town Marcus Shelby (June 4) and jazz-funk-hip-hop band Felonious (June 25), play on the tiny stage. Diners don't pay the $5 to $10 cover charge, and there's no drink minimum. 2389 Mission St., S.F., (415) 648-7701.

ENRICO'S SIDEWALK CAFE Take in the evening air on the patio of this North Beach institution, or sit inside with a meal while popular locals like sexy Lavay Smith, with a trio featuring veteran trumpeter Allen Smith (every Monday in June), perform. No cover charge. 504 Broadway, S.F., (415) 982-6223.

FILLMORE JAZZ FESTIVAL Jazz takes over Fillmore Street every July 4 weekend (this year July 2 and 3), with topflight bands and singers among the art and craft booths and food vendors. Locals like Kitty Margolis and Kim Nalley have appeared onstage, and it's always free.

JAZZSCHOOL A premier music school by day, a venue for stellar jazz (with snacks) on weekend nights, and a fine way to pick up on rising stars. On Sunday afternoons and weekend evenings, the Bay Area's best music students mix with the pros in a relaxed and supportive atmosphere. Cover charge varies; no drink minimum. 2087 Addison St., Berkeley, (510) 845-5373.

KCSM, 91.1 Here at 91.1 FM, get turned on to jazz players you've never heard of and hear classics from those you have, with knowledgeable DJs and guests in between. An excellent place to start and sustain a jazz education.Check the website calendar for Bay Area jazz events.
SFJAZZ FESTIVAL One of the top jazz festivals in the country; the spring season, which extends into summer now, matches the fall fest for all-star lineups. This month a quartet of masters including McCoy Tyner and Joshua Redman conjure the legacy of John Coltrane (Palace of Fine Arts Theatre, June 3), as do saxophone stars Joe Lovano, Michael Brecker, and Dave Liebman, paying tribute in a Sax Summit (Herbst Theatre, June 14). Free outdoor summer concerts begin June 2.

SAVANNA JAZZ This cool little establishment in the heart of the Mission is a relaxed place to grab a drink and some succulent West African or Caribbean food and catch a selection of jazz locals, sometimes with an African or Latin twist, six nights a week. Amateurs mix with the pros at the Sunday-night jam sessions. Cover charge varies; two-drink minimum. 2937 Mission St., S.F., (415) 285-3369,

YOSHI'S A guaranteed swinging night out, in a sleek setting off Jack London Square. When headliners like Oscar Brown Jr. or Gary Burton come to town, they usually play here. This month Grammy-winning singer Diane Schuur is backed by the Caribbean Jazz Project (June 16-19) and world-music, postbop sax man Charles Lloyd performs with a trio that includes Geri Allen on piano (June 23-26). Cover charge varies; one drink minimum. 510 Embarcadero W, Oakland, (510) 238-9200.