BKAV: Westside Blues & Jazz
Welcome back to “Better Know a Venue”, a regular column highlighting the coolest and coziest places to listen to live music in the Valley, any day of the week.
An entrepreneur with 40 years of experience, Paul Vincent Perez knows how to thrive in trying circumstances.
“Entrepreneurs, they just figure out how to do it,” he says.
Yet even Perez felt the burn when he suddenly opened his own music venue, Westside Blues & Jazz, amid a global pandemic.
“When COVID arrived, we were literally three weeks away from opening,” he says. “We were interviewing employees when we were told we couldn’t open. So I got kicked in the nuts.”
But Perez was devoted — Westside has been a “must-do list item … for 25 years,” he says, dating back to when he first got into jazz in the 1970s.
“I was into rock ‘n’ roll,” Perez says of the time. “I had a walkman and my friend gave me a tape of Lee Oskar before the rain. From that moment, I listened to more blues. I was going to meet my friends [at Chars] to collect chicks.”
He adds: “My mother was a musician, so I was exposed to classical stuff and a bit of jazz. But it was Oskar’s tape that completely changed my outlook on music. And, of course, my girlfriend and partner [Cindi Jackson]’s uncle, Lou Garno, was a famous saxophonist.”
So Perez and Jackson persevered, completing much of the design work themselves. Adding dividers and rolling out other COVID-19 measures, Westside finally opened in April 2021.
Those early months included their own unique challenges — Perez says the experience was “meant to be a little cooler than that.” But he was ready to weather the storm.
“My owner was decent,” Perez says. “We sat down from the start and I said, ‘Here’s the scoop…you have to help me here…we’re all going to suffer. Usually your growth starts in your first 90 days…we start growing late, but I anticipated that.”
Part of the process was to adopt COVID protocols as part of regular operations.
“We took a big hit in September,” Perez said. “We only did the vaccination. I thought we would take a shot of 20 [percent], and we took a hit of 30 to 40 percent. So, plan B, we have a test booth here – free instant tests for five minutes.”
Despite calling it “the right thing to do”, Perez has come under fire from the metrics.
“You won’t believe some of the emails and phone calls,” he says. “They’ll ramble and rave that we’re Communists, Nazis, and Fascists. Well, I can’t be all three.”
Because, as Perez sees it, this “system” is “going to be part of the life you just went through,” and he’d rather deal with bureaucracy than stay closed.
Perez said Westside’s freshman year was worth it, and it was a time to celebrate the local scene he’s followed for decades.
“People think jazz music is just elevator music,” he says. “Well, jazz has changed since then, and there’s R&B jazz and Latin jazz.”
He hopes to strengthen the legacy of great jazz and blues in the valley. Because if The Nash, Chars and The Rhythm Room remain avant-garde, Perez has a different vision in mind.
“There were clubs everywhere,” Perez says of the heyday of jazz clubs in the Valley. “There were smoky rooms, and you walk in and it was just a whole different atmosphere.”
This speakeasy vibe, with a sizable menu of cocktails and Chesterfield-style chairs, has been a tough sell to a mid-pandemic audience more accustomed to other setups.
“The audience comes in and treats it like a show,” Perez says. “They play music and leave. It started with COVID because of the splitters. I’m trying to change that and say, ‘No, you can come in early and have a cocktail and relax. They’re not used to it because we haven’t really had any real nightclubs in the last five or ten years.'”
Fortunately, Perez already has plans to counter this trend.
“We’ll start in a small group of two for the first 45 minutes,” he said. “To get people in earlier and get them used to it, like, ‘No, you can just come in and have a cocktail.'”
But Perez knows he’s on the right track when some people recognize the value of Westside’s setup.
“We have a lot of people from the East,” he adds. “They say, ‘I don’t feel like I’m in Arizona anymore. I just feel like I’m in Chicago or somewhere.'”
Perez said the setup, with no seats “more than 26 feet from the stage,” helps people socialize while enjoying great music.
“Before opening, our motto was: ‘All seats shared; meet a new friend,’” says Perez. “As long as everything [the guests] don’t worry, I’ll go say, ‘Meet your new friends.'”
He adds, “[The artists] like the atmosphere. They have a professional sound system and lighting and the acoustics are perfect. It’s intimate, but neither too big nor too small. And I leave them free to make new music.”
All of this is essential to building a club where the fans engage intimately with the artists.
“We have musicians coming here all the time,” Perez says. ” Francine [Reed] was in [the other] night, and she got up and sang a few songs out of the blue. George Benson was here, because he lives in town. [He] just had a cocktail and [listened] to the music.”
It helps that Perez has gone to great lengths to exclusively book local blues and jazz acts. Fortunately, he had help in this regard.
“We have an in-house group coordinator; it’s Mike Reed, of the famous Reed family [Margo and Francine Reed]”, says Perez. “So he knows the music and he knows all the people here. And he knows what I want in terms of quality.”
He adds: “I want to introduce new bands, but they just have to have the quality. We have people who send in their CVs, and I say to Michael, ‘Tell me what you think. Do you know him?’ So that was a big help and he was invaluable.”
Perez hopes this focus on locals will help him fulfill his larger mission statement: to open up jazz and blues to a wider audience. It starts with his beloved West Valley, which he says has a lot of potential and not enough entertainment options.
“I’ve lived in the West Valley all my life. Well, 40,” he says. “The West Valley was where I wanted to be. I did my demographic studies, and it’s just perfect. There’s freeway access. And [59th Avenue] is the busiest road in this state. Because nothing is ever here, or somewhere opens up and six months later, it’s gone.”
It’s only the beginning, however, and Perez has larger goals to promote jazz and blues.
“We find that our demographics are between the 40s and 50s,” says Perez. “But we get a lot of 20 year olds. I encourage mine to bring their kids; we allow kids here for free with their parents. Because I want to expose the kids to great live blues and jazz music . It’s just [takes] a song.”
And a “younger” crowd has meant a particular focus on marketing the club.
“We have a lot of loyal customers,” Perez says. “I talk to all the customers every night, and 75% of the invites are by word of mouth. And I spend a lot of money on advertising. When you’re building an audience, you have to have that human element.”
Perez still has more plans to develop Westside further. For example, more “theme” nights at the club.
“If you look at our lineup, we have a lot of old school bands,” he says. “We’re bringing The Rocket 88’s and Big Pete Pearson. I wanna bring reggae, man. But can I get an audience with a reggae band?”
Perez adds that they even hosted a ‘French night’ and the success of that event was a huge inspiration in his plans to strategically expand the club’s calendar.
“We’re only open for four days,” says Perez. “Originally we were going to open six, but we will expand as the market allows. These open nights, Perez adds, could be available for “punk or comedy” shows to help other bands get into live entertainment.
Perez also plans to hold a festival this spring or summer, which will take place in the club’s parking lot (with permits, of course). He asked other sites to participate.
“I spoke to Rhythm Room and The Nash to see if they wanted to help co-sponsor,” he says. “It’s not a competition for me. The more people that come, the more successful we all are. I think it just broadens the audience. My room is a little different from Chars, which is a little different from Rhythm Room.”
Perez could possibly book non-local artists, saying it “just gives the club a bit more credibility when you have a national or even regional band”. And that’s not even including plans for the big “breakout show” on April 9.
But while it looks like Perez wants to take over the local music industry, his ambitions aren’t quite as great.
“I’m not looking for expansion,” he says. “But if you want to use my name, that’s fine.” He spoke of a local Irish pub that has outgrown and lost its inherent charm, a future he wants to avoid for Westside.
Because even after this extra work for a “retirement hobby”, Perez aims to return to his first projects: “I want to set it up so that my daughter and I can travel, come back in a month and know that someone took care of this one,” he said.
This means that Perez just has to find “the right staff, the right band coordinator and the right musicians”. But even then, he won’t be able to walk away completely. Because the past two years have only tempered Perez’s love of jazz and blues, and he’s dedicated to making the most of this club no matter where he travels.
“With all electronic devices these days, you can do everything online,” he says. “Check my reports, watch the cameras.”