Distillations: Improvisations on a Theme at Les Joulins Jazz Bistro

Les Joulins Jazz Bistro makes a great nightcap: Take a date there after the-thing-you're-ostensibly-doing is over, put a cheap drink in her hand, let her be stunned by the live music, the late-night energy … it feels like you're having a magical San Francisco experience, that anything could happen next.

Going there earlier, however, reveals a different bar — a little touristy, given its proximity to Union Square and the cable cars. You'll spot a dozen tables filled with families who look like they just flew in from Akron, no one who looks like they're going to an interesting party, and the odds are the only people of color will be waiting tables or on stage making music.

But Les Joulins is still a working club, doing what it takes to keep working, and if that is true of us all it is especially true of everything involving jazz — a son of American racism and mother of American culture that is being devoured by both sides of the family.

Yet it sounds so good. The music at the Jazz Bistro is always good.

“He's trying again,” said Beatrix, staring at her phone. A client for her services as an escort had pushed their appointment back that afternoon, and then stood her up, and now was trying to reschedule for a late night thing. “He's completely inconvenienced me, and now he's bothering me about it while I'm trying to have dinner with a friend!” She sighed. “My feet hurt, too: I've been wearing high heels for two days.”

“We all do what we have to,” I said. We were both eating steak. Rare. The cuisine is French, good not great, while the drinks are solid and inexpensive. The Jazz Bistro isn't a place you come for the drinks, but you will come to drink.

“Let's see, what else do we have to catch up about,” she asked herself. “Oh, I went to a party in Mountain View, a kind of polyamorous hot tub thing … but it turned out to be really boring. A bunch of people just standing around with their beers going 'Hey.'”

I considered. “Every party I've ever attended in Mountain View has been disappointing. The place has this incredible gift for coming up with extravagant ideas that fall flat.”

The musicians started passing around a hat. We both put in, eagerly.

“That's it exactly!” Beatrice said. Her eyes followed the hat. “You know, clients in San Francisco don't usually tip.”

I blinked. “Really? I'm surprised.”

“I'm a service industry worker, dammit. Do I need a jar?”

“Although …” I hesitated. “We don't tip therapists.”

“True. A lot of it is therapy.”

“But … we tip masseurs.”


“Okay,” I admitted. “I have no idea what the standard should be.”

Her phone chimed again. “Oh come on!” she snapped. “How can you think it's okay to put your scheduling problems on me?”

The band started to play “Caravan,” by Duke Ellington. One of my favorite things about Ellington is that he kept his big band going long after it stopped making economic sense … when he could command the same price for just showing up and noodling on a piano … because he liked to write a big band tune on Monday and hear it rehearsed on Tuesday.

“I've told him I'll reschedule tonight for double the price,” Beatrice said. “Otherwise I'm going home, drinking rum, taking a bath, and watching House of Cards.”

“Are you sure you want to make someone like that a client?”

She shrugged. “It's rent week, and I stopped working for two weeks after a really bad period.”

“Fair enough.”

Her phone pinged. “He'll pay,” she said. “But …” she bit her lip, “he also says that emotional manipulation and disengagement has been very common in his life. So … it's going to be one of those. Lots of talking about his issues.”

We called for the check. It came fast. I put down a card, she put down cash. “I can already smell this session,” she said.

“Smell it?”

She nodded. “It smells like latex and tears.”

“My God.”

“Foucault was right,” she said, “about sex. Everything he said about sex is right. It's all a conversation with society, a form of discourse with our culture.”

He said that about music and identity too, if I recall. How both are defined by the conversations that flow through us. But I prefer Ellington.

We walked out, the musicians playing a timeless melody to tourists before the locals arrived.

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