Photo by Katherin Miller

Lavay Smith and Chris Siebert moved to the Mission 20 years ago, and they’ve been making the neighborhood jump and jive ever since. 

A bluesy jazz singer (or jazzy blues singer, depending on the song), Smith and her piano-playing partner-in-groove Siebert were a nationally touring act with her Red Hot Skillet Lickers in the pre-pandemic era. But they’ve always worked hard to cultivate a scene close to home. 

These days, the scene emanates from their living room, the stage for their weekly Friday night livestream “Lavay Smith’s Swingin’ Cocktail Hour.” Usually organized around a loose theme — episode 25 last week featured songs from their third album, Miss Smith To You! — they present the duo show via their Facebook page.

“The way we’ve organized it, it’s not just who are favorite players and composers are,” Smith said. “It’s more what are these songs about? It’s not just a night of Duke Ellington. We’ve done songs about smoking dope and drinking. We did a night of country soul, with country songs covered by R&B and soul singers, and not just Ray Charles. Brook Benton and Louis Armstrong both recorded Hank Williams’ ‘Cold Cold Heart.’”

In their first concert outside their apartment since mid-March, Smith and Siebert livestream Thursday from the SFJAZZ Center, joined by Red Hot Skillet Lickers trumpeter Mike Olmos. On Sunday, there’s an encore presentation with the musicians live-chatting along with the rebroadcast, which will be available on demand through Dec. 31. 

With dozens of SFJAZZ performances to their credit over the past three decades, Smith and Siebert are almost a house act for organization, but they’ve never done a show quite like this. The concert offers SFJAZZ a chance at a trial run with new technology that allows the duo to perform in the (empty) 700-seat Miner Auditorium while Olmos accompanies them from the intimate confines of the 100-seat Joe Henderson Lab. 

The setup is cutting edge, but the music is a celebratory mix of holiday standards and jumping blues, like “Tain’t What You Do (It’s the Way That You Do It),” a Sy Oliver classic for the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra, “a theme song of Frankie Manning, who taught the Lindy Hop in the Savoy Ballroom and taught dance into his 90s,” said Siebert, honoring a friendship forged during the Red Hot Skillet Lickers’ countless gigs for swing dancers. 

Over the year, the Red Hot Skillet Lickers has featured some of the region’s most esteemed horn players, and Smith is thrilled to join forces again with a warm-toned trumpeter whose backed legends like Etta James and Rosemary Clooney. 

“It’s like candy for my ears,” Smith said. “I feel like my voice is more like a trumpet than a saxophone, and I can play for that. But it’s just nice to have one of the best musicians in the world on stage with you. Everything Mike plays is five stars. We’re so lucky he lives here. He could live in New York and make a very good living.”

Smith and Siebert have done their part to bring some East Coast energy to San Francisco. When Smith’s bother Paul Miller and his wife Debbie opened the Royal Cuckoo Organ Lounge at Mission and Valencia streets, he asked the couple to put together a music program. Thinking about the club that served as their home base in Chicago, The Green Mill, which has an organ built into the bar, they convinced him to procure a vintage Hammond B-3 and install it behind the bar.

Smith and Siebert held down Sunday nights. Vocalist/guitarist Carmen Getit and organist Steve Lucky were also regulars, as was the great Oakland soul singer Freddie Hughes, organist Wayne De La Cruz, and reed player Rob Barics. “It’s been this wonderful thing, with people coming from all over the country,” Siebert said. 

After San Francisco’s shelter-in-place order eased in the spring, the Royal Cuckoo Organ Lounge partnered with local restaurants and opened up a sidewalk operation. Siebert got a little portable organ and provided a rollicking score. Down the street at the Royal Cuckoo Market on 19th Street, which the Millers opened in 2014, they added live music to that setting, too. 

“There wasn’t much music at the market prior to the pandemic, although Paul had both an acoustic piano and a Wurlitzer electric piano in there that folks would occasionally play,” Siebert said. “When bars were allowed to re-open with food service, Paul received licenses for outdoor music, and since then there’s been music at both spots until the recent shutdown. Piano music outside the market, and both organ and piano music outside the bar.”

But singing in public is a whole different story. Siebert and Smith have been rigorous about staying safe, turning down several offers for performances. They’re hoping a slew of cancelled concerts they’d prepared for get rebooked, including a series of gigs celebrating the centennial of Peggy Lee. But, after initial skepticism, they are livestream converts. 

“We really miss going out and seeing people,” Smith said. “But I can get used to this. A vision of mine before the pandemic was to do a show from our living room where we perform and feature and interview some of our friends. Denise Perrier, who’s been such a mentor to me, was scheduled to do our SFJAZZ Peggy Lee show at Herbst Theatre. I’d love to feature her and Freddie Hughes.” 

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2 Comments

  1. Love Lavay and Chris! They have brought so much great music to our world through the years and their continuing work through the pandemic gives us that glitter of optimism and anticipation for when live music will be back! Thanks for writing about them.

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