Since the demise of Chuck Perrin's Dizzy's, 98 Bottles has become the de-facto jazz hang in San Diego -- despite having been open for less than a year.
That wasn't necessarily the plan.
The North Little Italy bar is the creation of three co-owners: Steve and Jill Mesaros and Chris Hjerling. Steve and Jill (they're married) ran the Old Town Theater for 15 years along with Hjerling's aunt. They initially thought of opening a theater in North County where they live, but the necessity of raising $3 million to start served as a deterrent.
"We're basically musical theater folk," says Steve. "But nobody wants to raise that kind of money to start a theater. Chris was here and got interested and our idea became this bar. He came up with the name."
They searched for a North County location for almost five years. "Finally we told our realtor to broaden the search," Jill said. "She showed us this venue, which was perfect. We really wanted an urbane-looking, raw, sort-of-industrial space."
"It was the summer of '10 when we spotted it," says Hjerling. "We signed the lease in February '11, and we opened in September that year."
"We always wanted to have entertainment," Jill says, "but we wanted to blend it in with food, beverage and alcohol. The Back Room idea was really Steve's because he's a former Broadway actor and he remembers the venues in New York where they would go after shows."
Music. Community. Culture.
So when did live jazz figure into the equation?
"When we started the place and I was looking for people to book, there was a big article about Joshua White in the paper. I didn't know how to get a hold of him so I kept stalking him on Facebook," says Steve. "Eventually he got in touch and I told him about 98 Bottles and he asked if we had an acoustic piano, I told him we would, and he said cool! That's kind of what started the whole jazz thing, and it just grew from there."
"The jazz community is so tight here," said Hjerling. "Right after the first few shows, the whole community started showing up -- word spread pretty fast."
Around the same time, Chuck Perrin parted ways with the San Diego Wine and Culinary Center and was looking for alternate venues for shows he had already booked.
"That was real serendipity," says Jill. "He happened to be looking for a place and we wanted to start some entertainment. He's so smart and sensitive about producing music. He's done it for many years and he sees the kind of things that work in the venue and the kind of things that don't."
Initially, the two-story venue had a kind of large open space downstairs and people would have to climb the stairs to reach the bar, then the Back Room. The owners were always after a kind of dual function for the place, however.
"In fact we wanted 98 Bottles to be a kind of neighborhood place, where there were things happening [upstairs] and you could choose to be a part of it or not," Steve says.
Much construction has taken place, and now there is an additional bar set up downstairs, close to the street traffic to entice more local walk-ins.
In the meantime, the Back Room has hosted close to a hundred jazz concerts featuring the cream of San Diego talent and select out-of-town musicians, such as the recent performances by Diane Moser. It's been a great place to hear some of the emerging, younger players like Ian Tordella and John Reynolds as well as the icons of San Diego jazz like Peter Sprague and Gilbert Castellanos. Perhaps its most important contribution to the arts has been as a platform for a number of performances by the young piano phenomenon Joshua White, who has appeared there in duo, trio and quintet formats.
The Back Room isn't a perfect venue for jazz lovers yet. The piano is inadequate, and there is a lot of noise happening that hampers the music when the dynamics draw down.
On the other hand, much praise is due to the Mesaros and Hjerling for the sheer number of excellent shows they have featured in such a short time. I've reviewed more than 50 of them, and it's important to realize that, without this venue, those shows wouldn't have happened.
Many fans have talked to me about the piano, and the acoustics, and I have my hopes in that regard.
"We're always looking at what the next improvement is," say Hjerling. "We had so many ideas when we were drawing this place up, and we could have spent all our money and got it wrong, or we could just open and see how it works and take in all the feedback and work from there. This really is a work in progress. Every month, hopefully you're going to see something different."
Steve Mesaros concurs: "We are a work in progress, and one day, we'll be one of the hottest places to be in San Diego."
San Diego jazz fans who have experienced the club are urged to comment on this article -- the owners are listening.
Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years.