Noe Valley Voice September 2000

Jazz Babies: Taking the Kids to Yoshi's

By Janis Cooke Newman

It all started when they turned saxophonist Joshua Redman into a dog and made him play "Crazy Bus."

Until then, I'd always considered jazz to be a uniquely grown-up activity. Jazz was music that was best accompanied by undiluted whiskey and smoldering cigarettes, music whose lyrics tended to concentrate on adult pursuits -- like sex, and heartbreak, and the abuse of controlled substances.

Then Arthur, the popular PBS show about a book-loving aardvark, aired an episode in which Redman (drawn as a dog) jammed with classical cellist Yo Yo Ma (who had been turned into a cat). Watching the cartoon musicians get down with the Crazy Bus song, I decided, if they could put jazz on educational television, maybe it wasn't nearly as lowdown and dirty as I'd thought.

So a couple of Sundays later, my husband and I grabbed our 5-year-old, Alex, and headed over to Yoshi's, the jazz club and Japanese restaurant at Jack London Square.

For the past three years, Yoshi's has been running a series of Sunday matinees designed to inspire a love of jazz in children. And the club has priced these matinees to encourage parents to bring along their miniature music lovers. Admission is $5 for kids under 12, and $10 for the adults who accompany them. If you come alone as an adult--even on Sunday--your admission can run as high as $26. So cultivating your own small jazz aficionado makes both musical and fiscal sense.

Since a good portion of the Sunday matinee audience has an attention span the length of a Rug Rats cartoon, these performances tend to be a little shorter than the evening ones. And the musicians often do something special for the kids. Dee Dee Bridgewater invited a group of children onstage to sing with her. Betty Carter explained how a jazz tune is put together. And legendary harmonica player Toots Thielemans played the theme from Sesame Street.

The day we went, Yoshi's bill featured saxophonists Sonny Fortune and Frank Morgan. But Alex was much more interested in the bassist, who stood on a small piece of oriental carpet and played in his socks.

Looking around the room, I noticed an under-12 jazz fan at nearly every table. I also noticed that kids don't do the jazz head shake -- that little nodding movement adults do to show they're appreciating the music. When Sonny Fortune played an uptempo version of "Just in Time," the kids sat more or less still in their seats, while around them the adults' heads bobbed up and down like dashboard Chihuahuas.

"Why isn't he playing?" Alex asked, pointing to the piano player, who was sucking on a Calistoga bottle.

"Jazz has a free-form structure," my husband explained, "built on solo improvisation."


"They're taking turns," I told him.

At the side of the stage, a dad was bouncing his queasy-looking 2-year-old in time to the music. At another table, a pair of 7-year-olds in dinosaur T-shirts were beating out a rhythm with wooden chopsticks. Behind us, a man was biting into a big piece of hamachi.

Sushi is one of the major perks of hearing music at Yoshi's. But if you find the consumption of raw fish distracting during the show, you can always eat ahead of time at Yoshi's restaurant next door. The restaurant's menu includes a child's bento box with things like tempura and chicken yakitori for $6. And there's green tea ice cream for $5. Best of all, if you get a seat on the tatami mats, you and your kids will have to remove your shoes -- a requirement whose hilarity seems to fall just short of having to eat in your underwear.

As Frank Morgan played a samba, a mom and her little boy salsa-danced in the aisle beneath black and white photographs of Miles Davis and Thelonius Monk. At the lip of the stage, an 11-year-old in sunglasses effected a world-weary air as he sipped his cranberry juice and soda. Next to me, Alex was jiggling his leg in what looked to be a clear understanding of downbeat, but turned out to be an itch.

After the show, the kids rushed the stage for autographs. The bass player let a small boy who could barely reach the frets run his hands across the strings. Two sisters in pink tights clamored for a pair of "I'm a Yoshi's kid" T-shirts.

"How'd you like it?" I asked Alex, as we were leaving the club.

"Good," he said, stopping to study the poster in the lobby. "But which one was the dog again?"

How to Get There

Yoshi's is located at 510 Embarcadero West near Washington Street at Jack London Square in Oakland. If you drive, there's a garage on the corner of Embarcadero and Washington that accepts validation from Yoshi's. But the best way to get there is by ferry. Boats leave from Pier 41 and the Ferry Building in San Francisco. For a schedule, call 415-773-1188 or go to the web site

To find out who's playing at Yoshi's, call the club at 510-238-9200 or check out Note that most Sunday matinees sell out in advance, so reserve early. Also, if you're planning to eat in Yoshi's restaurant, make reservations. The place can get pretty crowded before the show.

Seating at Yoshi's is first come, first serve. On Sundays, the doors open at 12:30 p.m., and you're invited in to tag your seats. Then you can go out and explore Jack London Square or have lunch and return by the 2 p.m. showtime.

Sunday is also Farmer's Market Day at Jack London Square. It's fun to come early -- the market runs from 8:30 a.m. until 2 p.m. -- do a little shopping, check out the steel drum and banjo players, and have lunch out by the water.

Are We There Yet? is a Voice feature about places to go and things to do with your kids. If there's an activity or outing you'd like to see explored, please email Janis Cooke Newman at or the Noe Valley Voice at