Catch the chill vibe at The Dragon Upstairs in downtown
Following the tail of the golden dragon mural that undulates alongside the staircase, guests are led from street-level to a nightclub that feels like a world away. A smoky piano melody fills the room at the aptly named Dragon Upstairs, where for the last year-and-a-half Honolulu’s jazzerati have been coming to hear the best jazz musicians and singers in town.
The dragon, left by the previous tattoo parlor tenants, inspires the club’s Chinese-themed dcor, including giant masks, red tasseled drapes, red lanterns and mirrors. More dragons – yellow, former theatre props – guard the opposite wall.
A solo pianist warms up the audience with loungy jazz standards as they begin to fill in the raised seating clustered around the central performance area. Among the clientele are attorney-by-day “groupies” who show up religiously and a homeless guy who saved his money to pay the cover. Middle-age hipsters, stern-faced jazz fanatics who’ve come by themselves and a young couple on a romantic date round out the congregation. Some dress up, some dress down, but all are made to feel welcome by the friendly bar staff and owner Hank Taufa’asau, who greets almost every newcomer like an old friend – and indeed many of them are.
“One of the beauties of this place is how people just come in off the street and jam,” says the genial and effusive Taufa’asau as he guides soft-spoken men with instruments and charismatic singers alike toward the stage to play a couple songs before the evening’s main act. Taufa’asau (who is Samoan, Chinese, English, Portuguese, Hawaiian and Tahitian) retired after 35 years as a Reader’s Digest sales executive before returning to Hawai’i to nurture his passions for music and art.
As a Hawaiian man in a reverse-print aloha shirt sings Someone to Watch Over Me to the subtly charged crowd, Taufa’asau effuses, “Isn’t that a wonderful image!” It’s a reminder that he is a visual artist as well as a music lover. His own work is on display in a gallery at his other live music venue, downstairs, the well-regarded Hank’s Caf.
Every Friday night, the main attraction at The Dragon Upstairs is Pierre Grill, a lanky, wild-eyed Frenchman whose frenetic piano playing is only upstaged by the myriad number of additional instruments he plays. Foot bass, trombone and trumpet all make appearances, though one gets the feeling there might be no instrument he can’t play. Accompanying Grill is the radiant songstress and conga player Ginai, who jokes with the audience, even freestyles about them in song.
At the bar, regular Rowen Tabusa contemplates the draw of the venue, which is now filled to standing-room only. “This place has a lot of ambience, it takes you to another place – just that it’s not any place you already know, that’s what’s special about it.” A self-described jazz nerd, Tabusa heartily recommends catching The Satomi Trio on Saturday night, featuring the classically trained pianist Satomi Yarimizo and her band, which Tabusa considers “exceptional.” Standards, Afro-Cuban and other styles of jazz round out the weekly offerings, which are listed online at www.thedragonupstairs.com
The Dragon Upstairs
1038 Nuuanu Ave.