As the owner of Chris' Jazz Cafe for the last 15 years of the club's 25-year history, Mark DeNinno looks back fondly at the young musicians who got their start on the stage at Chris' and went on to become jazz superstars – names like guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel and drummer Ari Hoenig. In his other role as chef, DeNinno's memories also extend to the meals he's made them.
For Hoenig's regular returns to the club, DeNinno says, it's always crab cakes, unless crawfish are in season. Pianist Helen Sung loves lamb Bolognese. Before Philly organ great Joey DeFrancesco changed his eating habits, it was veal osso buco with picci. The fact that Pat Martino's annual visits are on Thanksgiving weekend adds an extra family feeling. Before the guitar great switched to a raw diet, DeNinno would always serve him penne with clams.
"It warms my heart, because I know what they like to eat, so I make their favorite foods when they come back," DeNinno says proudly. "I'm kind of like their restaurant dad."
If DeNinno wants to play that role for the musicians who will play Chris' to celebrate the Sansom Street club's 25th anniversary, he'll have a lot of cooking to do. From Thursday to Saturday, eight artists will perform shows that will add up to 25 hours of jazz in honor of the club's silver anniversary.
From a happy-hour set on Thursday to a late-night set Saturday, the lineup will include bass great Mike Boone; vocalist Michelle Lordi; drummer Webb Thomas; and the All-Star Jazz Trio, featuring veteran drummer Bruce Klauber, pianist Andy Kahn, and bassist Bruce Kaminsky.
"These are the stalwarts of the jazz community," DeNinno says, "and we're celebrating them, as well. Without them, obviously, the club wouldn't be here."
The numbers game will extend to the menu, which will offer a three-course chef tasting and show for $25, along with bottles of wine at the same price. The bar will offer throwback cocktails from 1991, though DeNinno insists the drinks will be crafted with modern flair.
"It won't just be a Malibu Bay Breeze with no garnish," he says with a laugh.
Restaurateur Christ "Chris" Dhimitri opened Chris' Jazz Cafe in 1991 and ran it as an unassuming piano bar for its first decade. Three regulars bought the place, though that didn't bring much beyond enthusiasm to the table. Enter DeNinno, a veteran restaurant consultant who came to Chris' in that capacity in 2001 and took over as majority owner a year later.
At the time, Chris' Jazz Cafe was still more of a bar with jazz on the side than a true jazz club. Though booking agent Al McMahon (who DeNinno says "keeps Chris' alive") already was bringing in name acts like the Bad Plus, performers were crammed into a corner near the front of the bar, and the back third of the space was given over to a pool table, pinball game, and cigarette machine.
That changed in 2005, when those amusements were dumped and a true stage was installed in their place, with new lighting, sound system, and a baby grand in place of the club's notorious, perpetually out-of-tune instrument. "We knew that we needed to center jazz in the restaurant and make it the focus," DeNinno says. (Though given the competition that bands often face from the noisy bar, not every patron seems to have gotten that message, even a decade later.)
Fittingly for a club that has welcomed back so many artists who had their earliest gigs there, Chris' continues to offer a mix of young local talent and national touring acts.
Major jazz names like Brad Mehldau, Fred Hersch, Chris Potter, and Christian McBride all have played there, and local giants like Bootsie Barnes, Jimmy Bruno, and Larry McKenna have frequented its stage at various times.
Vibraphonist Tony Miceli, who has been a regular for most of that history, says: "We're so lucky to have Chris' right in Center City. I've loved the club for 25 years now, and it's evolved into an incredible place where the greatest names in jazz come to play. Mark could throw in a bunch of big TVs and put on sports and probably pack that place, but he really loves the music."
With his duties in the kitchen and overseeing the operation, DeNinno doesn't often get to stop and enjoy that music. A particularly compelling performance will force him to pause and take in the band for a moment, though.
A recent performance by the Bill Charlap Trio was one such occasion, though his favorite remains an appearance by pianist Junior Mance and his trio in 2006.
The combination of music and food remains DeNinno's passion. "I leave here many nights exhausted, and I go out, dust the flour off my shoes, get in my 12-year-old Ford pickup truck, and I'm content," he says. "I know tomorrow I'll either have to go to the market and fill up my cooler, or go pick up an amp somewhere."
"25 Hours of Jazz," various artists, Thursday-Saturday, Chris' Jazz Cafe, 1421 Sansom St. 215-568-3131, chrisjazzcafe.com.
Published: May 3, 2016 — 7:40 AM EDT | Updated: May 3, 2016 — 9:02 AM EDT The Philadelphia Inquirer
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