A newspaper interview with JR Hester at the Jazz Lounge, Bakersfield's newest night spot, was interrupted three times by musicians eager to book gigs, proving that among players, at least, there's plenty of interest in his club. But what about jazz music fans? He'll find that out Saturday, when the Chester Avenue venue officially opens for business.
"Once I put (the sign) up outside, I was getting cards like crazy," Hester said. "I'd come in to do some work, and 10 to 15 cards would come under the door."
Although local jazz musicians often play at other restaurants and venues, it's not easy to say if the crowd comes for the food or the music, which makes the lounge something special.
"All the players tell me there is no place like this in town," he said.
Though Hester, who goes by his nickname Friggie, previously owned Friggie's Sideline Sportswear, there is little he learned from his first business that easily translates to running his second.
"This is a whole new ball game," Hester said. "It's totally different, except for customer service and wanting to give them a good product."
This time around, that product is jazz music, performed by an array of local talent, he said. The Jazz Lounge -- which serves beer and wine -- soft-opened in June but is having its grand opening on Saturday with a performance by local jazz musician Frank Trimble.
So why the jump from clothing to jazz? Hester said opening a venue for live jazz music has always been one of his dreams.
"Something that I wanted to do was give local talent somewhere to play and give grown folk somewhere to relax that's comfortable and feels safe, where they can enjoy themselves."
Hester grew up in Bakersfield with a great love of the genre. Now 60, he enjoys the sounds of classic jazz greats like Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong, as well as modern jazz musicians like Kenny G and Kirk Whalum.
"I have always loved jazz," Hester said. "Coming up as a kid, I always loved soothing music (and) love ballads. That's what jazz is to me."
The Jazz Lounge will be the place for all kinds of jazz, he said. There will be live music Friday and Saturday nights, and a pianist playing from 5 to 7 p.m. for happy hours on Wednesdays and Fridays. When there's not live music, recorded jazz will play from speakers throughout the lounge. In addition to jazz, Hester also wants the lounge to be a place for comedy, open mic, karaoke and poetry. He'd like to have weekly jam sessions, too.
Hester wouldn't say no to any big-name jazz musician hoping to play at the lounge, but "the main focus right now is for local talent because they need to be exposed."
"Believe me, there is some very good talent here," Hester continued, listing Trimble, J.J. Hicks and Isaiah Morfin among them. "I want to let (the public) be aware that we have such great players here."
Despite having a wealth of local jazz talent, Bakersfield doesn't have much of a jazz scene, Hester said. He thinks club owners before him might have been too afraid to focus on jazz because its demographics tend to skew older. But that's not a problem for Hester: He loves the older crowd that gathers at the lounge.
"Youngsters have enough places to go. Older, grown people can come here and enjoy themselves, be relaxed," Hester said, but "I know people who are 23, 24 who love jazz. They come in and they enjoy themselves, too."
Jazz music might not draw hordes of young nightlife, but Hester is confident people will always come to see good live music.
"I'm willing to take that chance because I think and I know there are a lot of jazz lovers in town," he said. More mature patrons will take comfort that "this is not a club; it's a lounge. You can have a conversation -- you don't have to yell over the music."
And now, after months of painting, decorating, tiling and obtaining permits, Hester is ready to share his dream with Bakersfield.
"It was a lot of hard work but it's worth it."