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Ups and Downs on Local Club Scene

New Agenda club set to open on San Jose's South First Street;
JJ's Blues Downtown closes

Photo by Christopher Gardner

Venue Wish Upon a Star: Co-owners Jacek Rosicki and Ann
Chin upstairs at an as-yet-unfurnished Agenda

Setting the Agenda

It wasn't exactly the best of times for San Jose's South First Street nightclub district: fires, vandalism, two clubs busted for serving minors. The area known as SoFA needs an adrenaline shot of optimism, and nightclub entrepreneur Jacek Rosicki hopes that Agenda, his new venture with co-owner Ann Chin, does the trick.

Rosicki, familiar to club-hoppers as owner of San Jose's Club Oasis and Palo Alto's Edge, could never be described as giddy, but he is full of anticipation for his new restaurant/supper club ("It's not a club," he corrects repeatedly) at South First and San Salvador streets, set to open Dec. 7.

"I love the building," Rosicki says of the venerable, two-story brick structure that was built in 1908 by Julius Wesnitzer as a plumbing store. In the mid-1950s, the building housed a neighborhood watering hole known as the Three Star Bar; in the 1980s, Marsugi's took over, booking some soon-to-be-famous names on their way up. "I think it's one of the most wonderful buildings on the Peninsula and in the Bay Area," says Rosicki. "[It] is an original, made in 1908. There's lots of history of it, not only San Jose history, but associated with music: Pearl Jam, Nirvana, L7, Babes in Toyland all played there."

When Rosicki first began work on Agenda, he took me for an impromptu tour. The bare brick and scrap wood piles gave the building all the ambiance of a gun turret. We gingerly stepped through sawdust piles and over wood planks. As he described his plans for each floor, the image of a thriving, exciting venue came into play.

The final result stays true to his vision. Agenda's 100-seat restaurant will serve a California regional menu--pizza, pasta, tapas, starters--at what Rosicki says will be moderate prices. The chef is Christian Raia, who previously tied an apron at 231 Ellsworth and Mio Vicino. Rosicki promises an eclectic wine selection, highlighting smaller wineries; there will be 24 varieties of beer on tap. The restaurant will be open from 5 to 10pm during the week, with a late-night tapas menu until 3am.

Upstairs will be a full-time live jazz venue featuring national and Bay Area musicians. Rosicki aims to bring acts that would normally draw only minimal crowds to the Edge: Acoustic Alchemy, Big Sandy, Spyro Gyra. He also professes interest in booking new jazz, hip-hop, acid jazz, funk, acoustic alternative, rockabilly, blues and swing. "Anything related to roots music," he says.

The basement will house larger parties for the restaurant and will be converted into a live venue on weekends and a dance spot during the week.

The interior is spectacular. The restaurant's sinfully smooth mahogany bar looks straight out of Casablanca. Upstairs, the feeling is Bohemian cool, leaning toward European columns and hardwood floors, offering sleek sight lines, pool tables and a view of the South First Street corner. Sculptor Ricardo Spizzamiglio added details that aim at a French Quarter ambiance.

An ordinary white staircase connecting the restaurant to the upstairs area has been transformed into a back alleyway with a Parisian flavor. Upstairs, the tables and dance area are separated by a 30-foot-long Eiffel Tower-like truss running across the ceiling.

Rosicki settled on the name Agenda because it's simple and plain. Plus, it's alphabetically correct--guaranteed to be the first place people will see when flipping to the club listings.

Three years ago, Rosicki learned that the building was for sale but deliberated for six months before purchasing it. He has owned the building for the past two years. Costly renovations kept the neighborhood waiting, and there would be months-long stretches where the building stood untouched.

Headaches with bureaucratic demands by the city of San Jose's water and fire departments and an earthquake retrofitting that took six months to complete topped Rosicki's list of obstacles. He also had to install all-new plumbing, electrical and sewer connections, a roof, air conditioning, ventilation, sprinklers and an elevator (which ran an extra $75,000) to make Agenda handicapped accessible.

According to Rosicki, he dropped "over a million dollars" into Agenda. "It's easier and cheaper to build a new building, per square foot, than go into an existing building of this age and restore it," he explains.

Unlike other urban hubs, San Jose doesn't yet boast the sophistication of an established big city. Rosicki hopes to change that by adding a genuine supper club to the downtown mix. Though shooting for an upscale clientele, Rosicki and partner Chin stress that Agenda is open to everyone, and that casual attire is accepted. "There's a lot of people who have a lot of sophistication and have no places to go," figures Rosicki. "If you don't give them a space that is not so usual for San Jose, then you'll never know if San Jose is ready or not."

Over the past two years, Rosicki and Chin have lost track of the number of parking tickets they've received on South First Street, but they believe that the fines, cost overruns and migraines were worth it. When the doors finally open next week, a new chapter to downtown nightlife begins. "It's not an easy location," says Rosicki, "but it's a very durable location."

--Todd S. Inoue

Agenda, 399 S. First St., opens to the public on Dec. 7 at 9pm, with music by Bud E. Love.

Photo by George Sakkestad

Tapping the Blues: June Stanley at the JJ's Blues Downtown bar.

Blues for JJ's

Rolling past JJ's Blues Downtown club in San Jose, it was hard not to notice that the neon-lit legend "JJ's Blues" was missing. Just before I pulled over for a closer inspection, I recalled the phone call I had received from June Stanley, the club's co-owner: As of Nov. 19, JJ's downtown venue would be officially out of business. Over and over I played back the message thinking I'd missed something. JJ's was like an institution; a home for die-hard blues (and rock and Latin) music buffs.

The news was shocking but not a complete surprise. Rumors had been circulating for months that June and her brother, Max, were shopping for a deal. June had been warning close friends as early as April that she wanted out. She was tired. She didn't have enough help. Running the club had turned into a chore.

June came to the club to perform the last rites and to explain why, five years after its grand opening, JJ's had been sold. It's late afternoon, and we are sitting upstairs. Shards of sunlight sneak through the slatted windows, barely illuminating our tiny table. Otherwise, it is dark, almost spooky.

June begins by telling me that the decision to close the club early (the original timetable was set for sometime in December) was made in order to allow the new owners time to ready the place for its Dec. 8 re-opening as Scalawag's, a mostly rock live-music club.

Before the question is raised, June tells me the reasons for the sale. "After my son, Jimmy--he helped me run [the downtown club]--left for Sacramento, I found I needed extra family support. And there just wasn't any. My daughter, Teresa, had her own life, and Max was at JJ's [Blues Lounge on] Stevens Creek. I've been serving drinks and listening to music for seven days a week for 15 years, and there comes a time when you want to make a change."

She also concedes that age--"I'm a young 54"--and nagging health concerns also figured in her decision. Still, June hasn't quite accepted the new reality. "It would have been here five years in January, [but] it seems like last week when I first opened the doors here." During that period, the club attracted top acts ranging from blues queen Koko Taylor and grand old man of boogie John Lee Hooker to salsa kingpin Eddie Palmieri.

Age and health matters aside, there were other factors that led to the sale. For one thing, the Stanleys may have been a mite too ambitious for their own good. At one point, they juggled three venues: the downtown location, JJ's Blues Lounge in San Jose and JJ's Mountain View. All were run seven days a week, with live shows every night. The workload, however, became unwieldy, and they let go of the Mountain View venue.

"Our plan," June explains, "was to sell Mountain View and Stevens Creek, and Max and I would run Downtown. Max is a great cook, and I'm really good with people, so we were a good match." The Stevens Creek club never went on the market. After a year at the downtown San Jose location, Max was forced to hightail it back to the Stevens Creek JJ's, although he had already decided he'd had enough of show biz. "I wanted a career change," Max affirms.

A large, quiet man, Max seems content to allow his sister to do the talking; only after some coaxing does he join the discussion. "I'm in the process of getting a license as a financial advisor/planner with American Express," he says softly. "I'm going to leave the operation [of JJ's Stevens Creek] to June," whose new gig begins next month.

Max has few regrets about the gradual dismantling of the JJ's empire. "We did what we set out to do. We brought in a lot of local talent: Chris Cain, Gary Smith, John Wedemeyer. Heck, Chris was playing in his garage before we started JJ's," he claims. And he insists that the legacy will continue. "We still will be doing the Blues Festival. And it will be outdoors again."

The Stanleys both appear optimistic about returning the Stevens Creek club to its former glory. ''JJ's Lounge has a special ambiance," Max argues. "Even though it's small, it's what a blues place should look like. Buddy Guy once told me that it reminded him of a Chicago joint: music in the front, pool table in the back, popcorn on the floor."

Although he is rightly proud of the lounge's history, even Max must concede that today's bottom-line economics make it far less likely that a Buddy Guy or Junior Wells would agree to play a club that barely seats 100. Even blues musicians with less drawing power--say, Joe Louis Walker or Guitar Shorty--would be difficult to lure to such a tiny space.

June should have few problems attracting local talent; unfortunately, the pickings are slim. With Max preoccupied with his new career, the quality of the acts at the Stevens Creek club has suffered. June vows to make some changes. "I want to see bands booked by Max, but I also want to bring in new artists. We need to bring in some new blood. Which is what made JJ's great in the first place."

More than likely, that new blood will have to come from San Francisco, Richmond or Oakland, a city with a lengthy and distinguished blues history of its own. It may take some time, but if anyone can make JJ's jump once again like the genuine article, June Stanley can.

--Nicky Baxter

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From the Nov. 30-Dec. 6, 1995 issue of Metro

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