Despite Struggles, Schwartz's Point Refuses To Change Its Tune

Sep 24, 2019

Imagine the Hollywood-depicted dark, moody jazz bar: maybe it's in the Marais in Paris, or down an alley in Chicago. Carpets on the wall for insulation, warm lighting, a dark conversation corner so chatty couples don't disturb the musician, a chalkboard with drink specials, a surly-on-the-outside bartender who's actually a teddy bear, a woman making sure everyone's drinks are filled and that everyone is welcomed. 

It's not Hollywood, or Paris, or Chicago: it's in a flatiron-style building on Vine Street in Over-the-Rhine, just as you go up the hill into Clifton. 

It draws in national jazz acts who play for tips. It draws jazz fans from around the region and the world. It attracts those who've transplanted here for work or school, and love the feeling that they're back in Europe, or in a big city, or just like the camaraderie around jazz. 

That was Ed Moss' vision when he established Schwartz's Point in the early 2000s, and it is struggling to continue. 

Ed Moss was a jazz icon—not just in Cincinnati, but worldwide. He was known for his musical genius, his collection of handwritten musical charts, and his polarizing personality. He was also known for running a bar that catered to jazz musicians. He was famous for stopping the show when patrons talked during a set. When Moss died in 2016, his business was up in the air: What would happen to this speakeasy-like jazz club on the northern end of OTR? 

Much to her surprise, Zarleen Watts—Moss' daughter and the granddaughter of Carolyn Watts, the first DJ at WVXU sister station WGUC—was left the building and the business. She and her mother, also Carolyn, now run this 50-seat jazz club. They take no salary (Watts has a full-time job at Pacific Kitchen in Montgomery to pay her personal expenses), and both spend upwards of 40 hours a week scheduling bands, making updates and maintaining the building and keeping her father's dream alive.

Conversation Corner at Schwartz's Point
Credit Courtesy of Justin Whittaker

The space is unique: It's got some of the best acoustics in town, according to Watts, hidden behind the cobblestone of the former Schwartz Brothers' dental practice. The building itself dates to 1876; it became Schwartz's in the 1920s. Converting the upstairs into an apartment is a goal—having Schwartz's be a "stay and play" for traveling artists would be appealing, but it isn't in the budget now. When Ed died, and Watts had an electrician out to take stock of the building, the wiring to the apartment was so old that he insisted the electricity be cut off for safety. 

For now, there are window air conditioning units, one bartender, and Watts and her mother do everything from making the cordials featured in the cocktail menu (Watts used to make the homemade soups featured in Crock-Pots on the bar, and is a nutritionist as well), to grabbing buckets when it rains, to cleaning up after a late Saturday night.  

Still, she's hopeful for the bar's future: With the Over-the-Rhine Museum and residential units opening up across the street, and with Findlay Market becoming even more of a magnet for businesses, she hopes that more people will notice and visit, and not feel that it's out of the way. "We've been an island," she says. "It's always been safe here. People just assume it isn't. It's so quiet. We have free parking." She hopes that will help cash flow, as she's taken out personal loans, a car loan, and started a GoFundMe to keep the lights on at Schwartz's Point. 

What they really need? Regulars. Locals. People who come weekly or monthly for jazz. 

The stage at Schwartz's Point
Credit Justin Whittaker

The cover is minimal: $5 most Fridays and Saturdays, unless there's a really special artist in town. "It's hard to get people to play for tips. We'd like to pay $50 an hour or more, but we have to stay afloat." On the first and third Thursdays of the month, it's "jazz pub night," an open night where jazz recordings are played and there's no cover "so you can enjoy the ambiance and talk. You can't talk during shows. Ed insisted."

Those Fridays and Saturdays draw national acts or even local musicians. Members of the Cincinnati Symphony (one of the few full-time symphonies in the country) come in to play gypsy jazz. The music is mostly instrumental; not as many singers come in since Ed died. "He made them sound so good," says Watts. This fall, Watts is welcoming other acts that are related to jazz—but not specifically jazz—on Sundays. Faux Frenchmen, Burning Caravan, "blues-derivative music with jazz roots," she suggests.

Watts mostly sees younger people as the future of Schwartz's. "Students from UC in the fall and winter come a lot. We have a family that brings their kids up from Louisville. We have four generations of musicians [who play here]." She hopes that the renaissance in Over-the-Rhine continues. She wishes the streetcar would have been built to go up to Clifton. 

She wishes the people who so badly wanted Schwartz's Point to stay open visited more often.  

There is no one reason that Schwartz's Point is struggling; no one direction to point an accusatory finger. Watts isn't selling. "I see the possibilities, even if I don't have the funds. I love it when people come here for the first time and they're blown away. This is a special place."

So, she and her mother carry on, for jazz and for Ed.