By Jeff Kaliss
Sunday evening is bringing a nearly imperceptible chill to the warm air off the bay, flowing through the open doors at the 7 Mile House on Bayshore Boulevard. Dennis Cummings, the roadhouse's attentive food and entertainment manager, has just taken a dinner order from a quartet of jazz players, who are bringing their first set to a close with a Brazilian bossa, "Chega de Saudade," translated in our language as "No More Blues," and neatly matching both the benign springtime climate and the sentiment of the smiling, seated fans, some of whom are already munching through their plates of lumpia, quesadillas, or salpicao steak.
While visionary bebop alto saxophonist Andrew Speight, bassist Michael Zisman, and keyboardist Ben Stolorow repair to the rear of the establishment to consume a complimentary meal during their break, drummer and session leader Vince Lateano walks the floor with a small tip bucket. "I always preface my solicitation with, 'Are you enjoying the music?'," Lateano reveals. "And I'd say, 80 percent of the time, even people who aren't there for the music will want to put something in."
That includes the venue's many sports fans, who've been eyeing the bank of large-screen TVs behind the bar, where the San Francisco Giants have tied the Atlanta Braves in extra innings. There's always been lots to do at the 7 Mile. Travelers have been dropping in ever since the property was developed as a stagecoach stop a century and a half ago, seven miles south of San Francisco's Union Depot and Ferry House. By the latter part of the 20th century, it had become something of a trucker and biker bar.
More recently, trumpeter Al Molina came in en route to his home and studio in nearby Brisbane and convinced current co-owner Vanessa Garcia to let him establish the venue's first successful jazz night, on Tuesdays. When fellow horn man Dave Bendigkeit began sitting in on those sessions, he had a sense of the place's historical diversity.
"I saw, there are people here just for the jazz," Bendigkeit recalls. "But there are people here just for the food, people that had no idea there was music until they walked in the door, and people here for the sports. I've been brought up to read the audience and try to make 'em happy. But how you gonna read this room?" A couple of weeks after starting his own weekly Monday gig with his Keepers of the Flame band earlier this year, Bendigkeit realized, "We should just do what we want, and everybody's happy."
What's making jazz fans happy at the 7 Mile is also the continuation of a high standard of jazz in an accessible and supportive setting — something that's become harder to find in the Bay Area over the course of the past decade. The Sunday sessions are dubbed The Doghouse Jazz Jam, in recognition of their origin at the erstwhile Dogpatch Saloon on San Francisco's Third Street. Speight, Zisman, Lateano, and others had been jamming there since escalating rents closed down Jazz at Pearl's in North Beach in 2003 (where Lateano had served as de facto music director) due to escalating rents. The Dogpatch attracted a dependable crowd of mostly middle-aged jazz fans, who were dismayed last year when owner Mike Apicelli, himself a devoted jazz buff (he rang a ship's bell behind the bar for every good solo), decided to retire and sell to new, younger entrepreneurs. Thus, Sundays were transplanted to the 7 Mile, where frequent Dogpatch visitor Molina was already hosting "Jazz On the Mile: The Horace Silver Project," every Tuesday.