Vernon’s Hidden Valley Steakhouse, a classy restaurant on North Fourth, has done very well pretending to be a speakeasy. Advertising has been low-key—what else would you expect from a speakeasy?—and you’ve got to know the password to get in. The windowless dining room looks and feels like a well-appointed back room in a Chicago basement, what with its elegantly polished black diamond plaster walls and period paraphernalia, and the speakeasy charade—complete with the “What’s the password?” routine—adds a little spice and corny fun to an evening out.
Vernon’s owner, Mike Baird, knows that the classier speakeasies were renowned for their jazz music—as much a part of the festivities as the forbidden alcohol—and he’s long intended to include jazz in his joint. He got it off the ground a while back with vocalist Tommy Gearhart, who does two dinner shows on Sunday evenings.
“Those Sundays were so successful that it just seemed that I needed a better space to provide that entertainment,” says Baird. “And also, the restaurant was getting so busy that I needed more space for a lounge anyway.”
The newly opened Vernon’s Black Diamond Jazz Club fills the bill, defining itself as New Mexico’s “only art space solely dedicated to the survival and the vibrancy of jazz as an unfiltered, unapologetic art form.” It’s also the closest you’ll get to a Chicago or New York jazz club experience in this neck of the woods.
Shoehorned between the dining room and kitchen, into what used to be a package liquor store, the club seats 50 people at small tables and a faux-stamped-copper bar at which you can sit with dignity. The subdued lighting and black walls, ceiling and tablecloths—relieved only by a red rose in a bud vase on each table and a fringe of red curtains behind the stage—seal the place off from the everyday. The full bar can have the same effect, and if the prices are a bit high, the pours are generous.
The music is programmed by Gearhart. Wednesday nights are given over to jam sessions hosted by Albuquerque resident Doug Lawrence—that is, when he’s not touring the world as lead tenor in the Count Basie Orchestra. (When he is touring, folks like the renowned alto saxophonist Glenn Kostur and the trumpet luminary Bobby Shew have taken the reins.) Five bucks—two bucks if you’re a musician who plans to jam—gets you in the door, with a one-drink minimum per set. If you’re hungry, you can order from the appetizer and dessert offerings. The club is small enough that you feel Lawrence’s big tenor tone vibrating right in the middle of your chest.
Friday nights—and Saturday nights, beginning in June—might feature locally and/or internationally recognized jazz players. Ten bucks gets you in—no matter who’s playing—with the same one-drink minimum and limited menu. “We’ll be drawing on musicians from around the state and from around the world,” says Gearhart, who drops a few tantalizing names not yet ready for publication.
Sunday nights, Gearhart croons to diners in the lounge at 5 and 7:30 p.m. For table seating, you’ve got to order dinner, but you can sit at the bar for $5 and the one-drink minimum per set.
The club, which both Baird and Gearhart envision as a place where jazz musicians and fans alike can hang, plans to offer jazz five nights a week in the near future.
Oh, yeah, the password: “Joe sent me.”