Fajitas, With a Side of Jazz
Tiny’s Restaurant & Lounge continues a Santa Fe musical tradition
Make no mistake. J.R. Palermo, owner of Tiny’s Restaurant & Lounge in Santa Fe, is a businessman. He’s the third generation of the place’s founding family—it was established in 1950 as Tiny’s Dine and Dance—and he continues the tradition by booking live music at the place. But the music has to carry its weight.
“I’m doing my part to keep these local musicians happy,” he says. “I’m paying them, and I’m not charging a cover. Hopefully the sales justify the band.”
But mention trumpeter Chief Sanchez, a native Santa Fean who first played Tiny’s when he was 11 years old, and see what happens. “He’d come in here and play that trumpet, and the place would just light up,” says Palermo, his face doing exactly that.
Or drop the name of David Barclay, accordionist in Felix y Los Gatos, and Palermo (whose dad Jimmy knew how to handle that instrument) gets positively euphoric. “I’ve fallen in love with Dave,” he says. “They’re an incredible band that has not been discovered yet.”
Whether it’s a hardheaded business decision or a passion for music that brings live jazz, bluegrass, and rock and roll to Tiny’s three nights a week, the place is one of a handful of venues in town where you can hear good local music in a comfortable, unpretentious venue. Plus, a kitchen that’s been serving up grub for more than 60 years has to be doing something right.
Chief Sanchez, whose Round Trip Ticket quartet alternates Wednesday nights with singer Susan Abod’s quartet, played an important role in getting Palermo to start booking jazz into Tiny’s. Sanchez’ first step was to suffer a stroke back in October 2007 after playing a gig at Disneyland.
“I woke up in Santa Fe,” he says. Sixteen months later, he was ready to start playing again but needed a place to blow. Remembering how well he had been treated in the old days, Sanchez approached Palermo about playing at Tiny’s.
“It’s just the perfect venue,” he says. “It’s classy enough, and yet it’s seedy enough at the same time. So for jazz, it’s perfect. The acoustics are wonderful.”
They agreed on Wednesdays, with an early starting time so families can enjoy music with their dinner before the night owls take over. A small dance floor right off the bandstand allows listeners to work off some of the calories from Tiny’s New Mexican specialties, steaks, seafood and salads.
As Sanchez grew stronger and his calendar got busier, he wanted to alternate weeks. Abod approached Palermo and got the gig. No stranger to debilitating illness herself—she’s battled chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome, as well as multiple chemical sensitivities, for years—Abod has used the venue to get back into the swing of things, literally.
Working with two trios that trade off weeks—one headed by guitarist Lewis Winn, the other by pianist Bert Dalton—Abod has been writing new material, exploring the American songbook and expanding her vocal capabilities. “I’m getting a chance to hone the craft,” she says. “I’m so appreciating the opportunity. It’s a really low-key, comfortable, relaxed kind of place.”
That’s the way Palermo and his customers like it, too. The lounge is a hangout for locals, and judging from the repartee at the bar, whose patrons run the gamut from motorcyclists to grandmas, Tiny’s is the kind of establishment where the regular patrons achieve the status of family.
Tiny’s pays the musicians the ultimate compliment: When the set gets going, the bartender turns off the big-screen TV that dominates the bar. But there’s still plenty to catch the eye, from the ancient tchotchkes to the oversize train set that adorns the chandelier in the middle room. A comfortable feast for ears, eyes and mouth, Tiny’s still serves up a healthy portion of old Santa Fe.