CINCINNATI — Zarleen Watts didn’t know how to turn on the lights to the jazz club she inherited when her father died.
“Before, I would just go visit and I'd take friends there, like, 'Hey, you wanna see something really cool?’” Watts said.
Watts’ father, Ed Moss, opened Schwartz's Point Jazz Club in the cobblestone space beneath his apartment in Over-the-Rhine in 1998.
“Really he started it so he would have a place to play," Watts said. "He was a really great musician. In the beginning, it was just lights. If the lights on the outside were green, you'd come in, and you had to kind of know somebody to go there. It has a mystique."
The building sticks out as the focal point of a five-way intersection at Vine Street and East McMicken Avenue, but Moss was running the club as a speakeasy under boarded-up windows for nearly 10 years.
“He didn't have all the things you're supposed to have,” Watts said. “He just invited people in, he put a donation jar out for the people that would play, and then eventually I think the liquor board was like, you know, 'Hey, you can't do this.'”
After another eight years of operation — this time legally — the club faced another shutdown in 2016 when Moss found himself sick in the hospital. He passed away that September. That’s when Watts, who studied library sciences and doesn't play an instrument, found herself flung into the position of running a jazz club where she’d never worked before.
“I took about a year to clean the place up and work on it and get loans to fix the roof and things like that, and then I opened in October of 2017 myself,” Watts said.
Unlike the unmarked mystique of her father's reign as owner, Watts wanted to make it clear on the exterior of the building what you would find inside: live jazz, Thursday through Sunday.
She started an online newsletter for fans and expanded the drink menu to include herb-infused cocktails made from ingredients grown in her own garden.
"It took us a while, but by 2019 we were doing better and people knew about us and were coming to visit us and business was better and then, boom: COVID,” Watts said.
The club, while iconic, is not a moneymaker for Watts, who said the pandemic restrictions made it impossible to operate a club that holds only 45 people.
"With 25% or even 30% limits, there's just no way to pay the musicians," Watts said. "We have to have a decent-sized crowd just to break even. We got a couple PPP loans, not very much money, but we tried to make it last. It was the only reason we were able to pay the liquor license fees.”
Watts said she tried to apply for a shuttered venues grant, but the club wouldn’t qualify since they don’t pay an outside booking agent. She felt they were being punished for being such a small venue. Aside from the bartenders and musicians, Watts is the entire company, working 60 hours a week on top of her day job.
"I've never paid myself there, so I have to work another job," she said. "It's been a lot of work to do it, but it's important to the community, to the jazz community."
Like Watts, the jazz community does not get rich off Schwartz’s Point either, but pianist Andrew Haug doesn't care.
"No one loves playing there for the cash," he said laughing. “It's spunky. It has a lot of character to it. It's not just your average jazz club when you walk in.”
Watts said her father created a sound vacuum in the tiny club by lining the walls with antique rugs and art to create a unique acoustical experience, like playing in someone’s living room.
"It is a small space and they have a lot of carpet and things on the walls," Haug said. "Especially when it's a full house, everything just kind of soaks up the sound. So you can hear, there's no room noise, you can hear straight from the instruments. It's probably the most intimate space I've played in Cincinnati."
While Watts isn’t a musician, growing up in the scene made her musical. She said she would fall asleep as a young child on a bench listening to live jazz.
“I have a real, almost innate feeling for music from listening to that," she said. "I couldn't really explain what it is, but I can hear it when it's right, ya know? I'm really careful about who I have play there because I think it's important because people know when they come there it's going to be jazz, like real jazz."
After a 15-month closure from COVID-19, Watts is ready to bring live jazz back Friday night to the five corners of OTR. But just like when she found herself taking the reins of her father’s club in 2016, she’s faced an uphill battle getting the club back on its feet.
“We're running out of money big time, so we have to do something,” she said. "I've asked the musicians that play there if they could donate a few shows just to get us up and running. I'm going to make a big opening."
Six jazz groups agreed to play for free to help lift the club’s hiatus, including Hague’s trio, On A Limb.
“The community just loves Zarleen and loves playing there for who she is and what the place is. It's something special we're all trying to keep going,” he said.
Other groups donating their shows include Rusty Burge & Dan Karlsburg, The Erwin Stuckey Trio, The Ron Enyard Quartet, Ricky Nye & Bekah Williams and Phil DeGreg & Eric Lechliter.
You can find a complete list of shows and make a reservation here.