Music With a Smile

A coffeehouse on the far southeast side has become one of Tucson's top acoustic venues

The coffeehouse, singer/songwriters and folk music ... together, they conjure up images of small, dimly lit establishments. In a corner sits a solitary performer playing for tips among family, friends and curious onlookers, all engulfed within the pungent aromas of exotic coffees and teas.

Quickly cut to Javalinas Coffee and Friends, one of Tucson's premier coffeehouse venues for acoustic music, and where the setting and imagery couldn't be more different.

Being situated within a Safeway shopping plaza on Tucson's far southeast side is an odd thing in and of itself. For its warm-weather outdoor shows, Javalinas will actually encourage patrons to set up lawn chairs within its portion of the parking lot. Got that? People in lawn chairs sitting in a strip-mall parking lot listening to music. Add to this mix the notion that some people consider Javalinas to be halfway to New Mexico, and it's a wonder anybody who doesn't live in Rita Ranch ever gets out there to see music.

Some would argue it's Tucson's high quality of musicianship that has made Javalinas a success. But it's mostly about owner Bonnie Vining and the vision she has nurtured.

On her MySpace page, she writes, "After 20 years as a software engineer for a large corporation, my group was sold to another company. I was advised in an interview not to smile so much, and in that instant, I made a decision to follow a new path where a smile would be an asset rather than a liability."

She opened Javalinas in December 2003, never intending to showcase music. "It all started a few days after when I went out to a powwow where my old friend and violinist extraordinaire Arvel Bird was headlining," she continues on MySpace. "I casually (and half-jokingly) asked him if he would ever consider performing in a coffee shop." He said yes, and before she knew it, she had other friends asking to do the same.

Eventually she was encouraged to check out the acoustic music scene at Bookmans, where she saw and befriended Nancy Lynn Bright and Hank Childers. They helped Vining connect with Tucson's larger folk-music community. This led to performances by such diverse artists as Wendy Adams, BK Special, Ice-9, Dennis Pepe, Mitzi Cowell, Kathleen Williamson, Lisa Otey, Will Clipman and Amber Norgaard, Eric Hansen, Sabra Faulk and the Determined Luddites.

"One thing we have to offer," Vining said in a recent interview, "is that we have a real listening audience." This is a situation acoustic musicians long for, where every instrumental nuance, vocal harmony and turn of a phrase can be heard, savored and appreciated.

"For a while," she added, "it was easier to get musicians than audiences. But we regularly pack the house now."

After some experimentation, Vining and Javalinas have settled into a comfortable routine that features music every Friday and Saturday evening, with irregularly scheduled weeknight events. These include touring musicians and songwriter showcases on occasional Thursdays and a monthly Wednesday-night bluegrass jam.

Sometime after Hurricane Katrina, Vining sponsored a hurricane relief benefit. This featured 18 different acts filling the parking lot on a Sunday afternoon and evening. This past year, she continued to blow up the coffeehouse paradigm (and pack the parking lot), featuring shows by Mr. Boogie Woogie and Arthur Migliazza. She has also booked Native American and world music shows featuring Mary Redhouse, Will Clipman and Gentle Thunder.

Perhaps what's best about Javalinas is the vibe that comes from how much Vining appreciates her performers. For a while, she was paying a significant percentage of Javalinas' sales during the gig to the performers; there is now a $5 suggested donation. And Vining has no problem jumping on a mic and reminding folks what a good deal they are getting and how important it is to support the musicians.

For the performer, compensation comes in many forms. Rarely does anyone leave Javalinas not feeling richer for the drive.

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