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By Corrie M. Anders
The vibes in the back room at Bliss Bar were warm and mellow when pianist and bandleader Larry Vuckovich invited Jackie Ryan to take the microphone.
A small woman with a strong voice often compared to jazz great Sarah Vaughan, Ryan smoothly launched into "Historia de un Amor" ("The Story of a Love"), doing a smoldering reprise of the song she performed with Vuckovich on her 2002 album Passion Flower.
The crowd shared its own love by clapping enthusiastically for Ryan, whose number-one CD in 2007, You and the Night and the Music, was on the jazz charts for nearly nine months.
Then Vuckovich and his trio resumed playing, this time for crooner Steve Situm, who once shared stages with George Shearing and Ella Fitzgerald and whose comeback album is currently in the works.
Welcome to the Sunday afternoon jazz series at Bliss Bar on 24th Street. For three hours starting at 4:30 p.m., jazz lovers can cozy up to a variety of singers and musicians, many of whom are well known at jazz venues around the country and in Europe.
Jazz arrived at Bliss last October, and the weekly events have started to attract fans from both in and out of Noe Valley with hardly more advertising than word of mouth. "I think I'm getting a little reputation, which is nice for the neighborhood," says Pierre Letheule, who owns the bar at 4026 24th Street.
The excellent caliber of the performers that Vuckovich brings in for his "Art of the Duo" playbill is one of the secrets to its success. Besides Ryan and Situm, the June lineup featured vocalist Kenny Washington, alto saxophonist Pete Yellin, baritone Jamie Davis, and violinist Eric Golub, all recording artists and hot players on the jazz circuit. With the series' growing reputation, well-known artists like reedman Noel Jewkes may pop into the bar on any given Sunday to groove with the local talent.
Then there's Vuckovich himself, who moves deftly between jazz, bebop, swing, Latin, and blues. The 72-year-old maestro has six top-selling albums to his credit, and has performed with so many jazz legends he can barely recount them all.
He sees a similarity between Bliss and the Manhattan clubs he's played in.
"I like the intimacy of Bliss, with people being really close to you," says Vuckovich, standing at the bar between sets and wearing his trademark beret. "You can feel the exchange of ideas...a dialogue between two musicians."
In the Blue Room Lounge
Most nights, the bar draws a hip 20- and 30-something crowd, who sway to rock, R&B, and hip-hop music played on a deejay's turntable. (On Mondays, Noe Valley comedian Jacob Goldstein hosts a comedy open mike.)
But on a recent jazz Sunday, many of the customers were in the baby-boomer-and-up category.
The mood was relaxed as they sipped cocktails in Bliss' dimly-lit "Blue Room" just off the main bar. Actually, the contemporary-style room is more red than blue, with red stools, red chairs, and a red, comfortable lounging bench. A gray minimalist fireplace and a convertible stage only a step or two away from the listeners enhance the cozy ambiance.
With Vuckovich fingering his Roland keyboard, Buca Necak on bass, and Vuckovich's wife, Sanna Craig, on bongos, the gig saw vocalist Situm ease through a song list of standards, including "I'm in the Mood for Love," "How High the Moon," "Route 66," and Nat King Cole's version of "Sweet Lorraine."
"This is world-class jazz. This isn't just a bunch of guys getting to sit in," says Noe Valley resident and musician Joe Massey. "These are guys who play at the Black Forest Festival in Germany or at any number of European festivals.
"One of the great things about Bliss is that you don't have to drive all the way to the East Bay. You pay $27.50 to hear jazz at Yoshi's, and it's $10 [cover] in Noe Valley. It's really exciting to have them on 24th Street."
Bliss & Jazz Seek Harmony
Letheule, 56, bought Bliss nine years ago after chucking a career as a bronze sculptor.
"Even though I was making a living, being an artist is sort a struggle. I was getting older and I didn't want to struggle as much. So I bought a bar," says Letheule, who admits he knew little about running a tavern. "I was very fortunate, maybe because I picked this neighborhood. From the get-go, I was successful."
Last year, Letheule was looking for some entertainment to amp up business on Sundays, generally a slow day in the bar business.
Letheule has eclectic musical tastes and a special fondness for classical music. Raised in the south of France, he learned to play the flute at 7 and became accomplished enough as a teenager to tour summer festivals in Europe.
While he enjoys jazz, he didn't really have the genre on his radar until he fell into a conversation with customer Massey last fall. Jazz was the perfect tonic for a lazy Sunday afternoon, Massey told him, and he was willing to help make it happen.
As it turned out, Massey is a superb jazz singer in his own right and, more importantly, an old pro at promoting jazz. The 66-year-old impresario once owned Baker's Keyboard Lounge, a famed jazz club in Detroit, as well as the popular Bistro 339 in the Ramada Inn off Union Square in San Francisco. Those associations filled Massey's little black book with a who's who in the jazz world. And some longtime neighborhood residents may remember Massey from when he performed with sax virtuoso Jules Broussard at the first Noe Valley Music Festival in the mid-1980s.
Massey moved to Cesar Chavez Street last year and discovered Bliss.
"I was sitting around talking with Pierre one day over cocktails," remembers Massey. Letheule told Massey he was interested in doing some live music, and Massey immediately thought of his longtime cohort.
"I said I knew of a person who had an extensive resume who'd be willing to perform. I gave him Larry Vuckovich's phone number, and they pretty much carried on from there."
Vuckovich stopped by Bliss, declared the location "a great venue for jazz," and started booking musicians, says Letheule.
"At the beginning, I thought we'd probably lose money. Jazz is not always that easy," Letheule says. "But we started to break even after the first month, and I said there is some sort of potential here. It's working very well."
Evolution of Vuckovich
Vuckovich has proven to be "a pretty popular performer," marvels Letheule.
And little wonder, given his music vitae. Born in the former Yugoslavia, Vuckovich was 14 when he immigrated with his family to San Francisco in 1951. He paid his dues under the tutelage of name artists, and in the mid-1960s served a stint as pianist in Jon Hendricks' long-running North Beach jazz musical Evolution of the Blues.
In 1978, Vuckovich headed the house band at Keystone Corner until it closed in 1983. He has also lived in England, Germany, and New York--all the time fronting groups in notable jazz houses or playing with celebrities like Charlie Parker, Mel Tormé, and Stan Getz.
Vuckovich returned to San Francisco in 1990 and, among other jobs, led the house band at Club 36 on top of the Grand Hyatt Hotel for seven years. In 2005, the Fillmore Jazz Heritage Center recognized Vuckovich as a "Jazz Legend," and in 2006, on his 70th birthday, Mayor Gavin Newsom proclaimed Dec. 8 as "Larry Vuckovich Day."
"I've been fortunate to play with great people," says Vuckovich.
A two-week tour of eastern Europe will take Larry Vuckovich away from Bliss Bar on July 26. However, he'll be performing his "Art of the Duo & Jazz" for most of the month. For more information, visit www.blissbarsf.com or www.larry vuckovich.com.
Bliss Bar's Jazz Lineup
The Sunday afternoon series, the "Art of the Duo & Jazz," will feature several recognized singers and musicians at Bliss Bar, 4026 24th Street, in July.
Here is the schedule for the musical entertainment, which runs 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. and has a $10 cover charge.
Larry Vuckovich Trio, featuring vocalist Joe Massey, bassist Jeff Chambers, and pianist Larry Vuckovich
Larry Vuckovich European Tour Trio, with guitarist Josh Workman, bassist Michael Zisman, and pianist Larry Vuckovich
Larry Vuckovich Duo with vocalist Amanda King and featured guest vocalist Claudia Polley
Saxophonist John Palowitch, bassist Jonathan Stein, and drummer tba