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My first exposure to jazz was in the form of a Fats Waller record titled Don't Let It Bother You. I was 10 years old, on the brink of God knew what, and the titular sentiment was deeply reassuring. Music had tantalized my eardrums in the past, but this joyful, sweep-you-up-and-infect-the-bloodstream sound was something altogether different, and I decided, more or less immediately, that my previous goal of becoming a comic book artist was no longer viable; the life of an alto saxophonist (embodied on the record by the great Rudy Powell) was the life for me. As the years passed and I gradually abandoned my alto sax dream -- due, possibly, to the absence of an actual alto sax -- jazz nevertheless assumed an important place in my life. My tastes evolved, progressing from Powell to Lester Young to Charlie Parker to John Coltrane. I invested in the six-LP Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz and read biographies of Louis Armstrong and Count Basie and Artie Shaw and Miles Davis and even, for a time, was responsible for purchasing my local library's jazz CD collection. But the best education -- the greatest thrill -- came from hearing the stuff live.
Emeryville, CA 94608
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I heard both Ella Fitzgerald and Mel Tormé at Civic Auditorium, but most of my favorite jazz joints have been more intime -- classy Pops for Champagne and the funky Green Mill, both in Chicago; Washington's venerably hip One Step Down; Smalls in Greenwich Village, where the jam sessions flow into the early morning and you BYOB; Cafe Brasil and Preservation Hall in New Orleans.
The local jazz scene has provided many a thrilling moment as well: the great Joe Williams in all his sonorous glory at the Fairmont's New Orleans Room; Vince Wallace and the Si Perkoff Trio igniting a year's worth of Friday nights at the no-name in Sausalito; an Armani-buckskinned western swing extravaganza at Bimbo's in North Beach.
Another, jazzier supper club presents singular sounds across the bay in (why not?) Emeryville. Kimball's East shares an old brick warehouse with a pool hall, a cigar lounge, and a couple of boarded-up pubs: the ideal setting for a jazz joint. (There's even the bluesy wail of a Chicago-bound locomotive discernible now and then.) The warehouse itself has been tastefully restored with lots of chrome and upscale neon, lending it a retro-hip, quasi-bohemian air, and down the adjoining alleyway is a sprawling enclosed public market burbling with multicultural noshes and libations. The club's craggy outward appearance is a nice contrast with its sleek interior design: pools of intimate lighting, deep pastels mingling effortlessly with exposed brick (giving it that old hungry i look), and tiered seating (much of it in the form of comfortably upholstered booths) offering unimpeded views of the onstage action. People dress up when they go to Kimball's; it's a genuine night on the town, and the tables are filled with groups and couples looking sharp, taking the occasional spin on the dance floor, and, most of all, enjoying the music.
You've probably noticed that I haven't mentioned the food. My advice: Order simply. Something from the full bar or the serviceable, reasonably priced wine list is a good bet. To go with it there's a brief menu of American classics, few of them memorable. The spinach salad ($5.50 small, $9 dinner) is a bushel of underdressed spinach leaves and sliced chicken loaf enlivened here and there with pickled red onion. The Caesar ($4.50/ $7.50) has a good spiky dressing as well as a healthy sprinkling of croutons fresh from the carton, while the buffalo wings ($6.25) are doused in a gloppy, tepid red sauce and served with ranch dressing instead of the traditional blue cheese -- a de-zested version of the classic bar snack. The popcorn shrimp ($8), however, are sweet and crunchy and hot from the fryer.
Another treat is the hot, beautifully rare grilled hamburger served (albeit on a coolish bun) with smoky bacon and melted jack ($9). Similarly, the fried catfish ($14) is crunchy on the outside, tender on the inside, and tasty all the way through. (You can also get it as part of a seafood plate [$12/$20] alongside overfried oysters and rubbery prawns, but I wouldn't recommend it.) The roasted rib eye ($14, $25 for two) is skinny and tough, and its platemate of unin- spired mashed potatoes doesn't help. There is nothing to the grilled salmon ($14) either, despite its advertised (and unexciting) Key lime caper butter sauce and lukewarm basmati rice. Finally, the menu's two desserts (chocolate cake and peach pie, each $4.50) are as satisfying as any excursion to the Safeway bakery department can be.
A better bet is a visit to the aforementioned public market before the show. There's something for everyone: grilled ahi and pepperoni pizza, linguiça omelets and Mongolian beef, Afghan kebabs and Thai satays and Philly cheese steaks, Korean barbecue, Vietnamese spring rolls, schwarma and French dip and tandoori chicken and spaghetti with mussels, tempura udon and roast tongue on rye, gyros and jambalaya and burgers just off the grill, crepes and fresh mango juice, gelato and chocolate truffles and frisbee-sized chocolate chip cookies.
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