House of Cool
If you're fresh to P-town, and know the lay of the cit-tay about as well as Ashlee Simpson knows how to hold a musical note, then let Professor Kreme school your ignorant ass on the chillest spot in the PHX, the Zona's world-renowned lounge paradise Chez Nous, at 675 West Indian School Road, on the southeast corner of Seventh Avenue and Indian School (www.cheznouscentral.com). It's the sort of place where Cleopatra Jones and Shaft would've hooked up for a cocktail back when hair was big, lapels were wide and everybody knew the electric slide. That's right, 'cause even though Chez Nous actually dates to 1963, the place strikes you as 100 percent pimpin' superfly '70s, with deep leather booths, gold-and-black wallpaper, and a faux-rock waterfall behind the long, crooked bar.
The live music and kick-back crowd complete the Soul Train-meets-Jackie Brown vibe. Most nights, "music" means the Roscoe Taylor-Tim Forkes Experience, with Forkes on the boards and Taylor performing the group's versions of old-school classics, everything from Rick James and Al Green to Stevie Wonder and the Four Tops. Forkes knows how to stretch a groove and make it last, while Taylor's gravelly, Lou Rawlsy vocals take Chez Nous' small but crowded dance floor on a "fantastic voyage," to borrow a phrase from the funk/R&B hit by the group Lakeside.
"What's special about Chez Nous is that we do all '70s," Taylor explained to the Jettster and me during a rare break in his set. "The older crowd and the younger mix. There's no rap, there's nothing about violence or killing. When you come in here, you can be yourself. You don't have to get all dolled up. You just come in and sit down, listen to the music and enjoy."
Taylor and Forkes have been at Chez Nous for 11 years, and they draw a loyal audience Fridays through Mondays, and Wednesdays, when they play. (Soul Horizons picks up the slack on Tuesdays; Fire in the Sky on Thursdays.) But good luck snagging a barstool or much more than breathing room on Fridays and Saturdays when Chez Nous is packed tighter than Ralphie May's underwear. That's why the J-girl and I sashay into Chez on a Sunday, when the waterin' hole still pulls in the macks and mamas, though at a head count more conducive to conversatin' and elbow-bendin'.
When the Shirley Manson of the PHX and I hit the swank saloon, it's early, like 8:30 p.m., and Taylor and Forkes are still setting up. Our chesty bar-gal slings a couple of pints of draft Heineken our way, and we begin to get situated as we spot Naima Homer, 23, the model-gorgeous daughter of owner Amina Uben. Naima bartends sometimes, but tonight she's off duty, kickin' it with her honey Aaron Petz. The classy dime breaks down how her mom came to own the club in 2001, as all of Phoenix, it seems, had banded together to keep Osco from bulldozing Chez Nous, and turning the lot it's on into yet another drugstore.
"She used to come here as a patron," Naima says of her mom. "She'd never been in the bar business. In fact, she worked for the state Senate [as a researcher]. But she didn't want Chez Nous to close, so she found a way to buy it. She was able to work with Osco, and they let it stay a landmark."
"Has anything changed since your mom took over?" asks the J-unit.
"Not much," replies Naima. "We changed the carpeting, but pretty much everything else is the same."
"Why was it named Chez Nous back in '63?" I wonder.
"The original couple that owned it, the guy wanted to make it a cowboy bar," Naima states. "His wife was like, 'No way! This is Arizona, and there are too many of those. We're going to have a lounge.' She won that argument, and it became Chez Nous. I don't know where they got the name from, exactly."
(According to Naima's mom, whom we caught up with later on, the woman Naima's referring to is Maureen Womack, now in her 90s. Womack was and presumably still is a Francophile, hence the Froggy sobriquet.)
We thank Naima for the 411, and slink back to the bar for refills as Roscoe & Co. start their set. My eyes have finally adjusted to Chez's famous darkness, and I feast my eyeballs on Jett's cleavage, which seems to grow deeper and wider as the night progresses. Jesus, you'd think the girl was workin' it down on Van Buren with the free show she's giving! And I'm not the only voyeur at the bar. Next to me is a cat in shades who calls himself Duke, though whether that's his real name is up for grabs.
"I think you people are hot," Duke tells us.
"Thanks. But you seem to be staring mostly at my sidekick here, as you say that," I notice.
"Yes, but in order to give her a compliment, one must go through you," says Duke, never taking his eyes off the prize, as it were.
"So how often do you come to Chez Nous?" queries the AC/DC Devon Aoki of the Duke of Earl, changing the subject.
"Oh, about once a week," he states, sippin' on a bottle of Bud Light. "I've been coming here for nearly two and a half years."
"And what do you like about it?"
"The crowd. It's a mixed crowd, all types of people. Older. I'd say about 28 to 45. I like the music, and the atmosphere. And of course, the pretty ladies," he smiles, focusing his attentions on the Jettster.
I decide to let them make goo-goo eyes at each other, so I shuffle off with my brew in hand, and ease up on this lovely couple arm-in-arm in a booth, Melanie Weaver and Mbonani Mia. Weaver's in a white dress, with silvery braids flowing from her head. Mia's lookin' sharp in a white Lacoste jacket, puffin' on a Black n' Mild cigarillo. It's Mia's first time at Chez Nous, Weaver's second.
"A friend showed me this place, and now I'm showing him," confides Weaver, nodding her head toward the handsome Mia. "It's a cozy little getaway. Nice and dark."
"And people are having fun," says Mia, looking out at the dance floor.
I make note of Mia's accent and ask him where he's from.
"Central Africa," he relates. "I've been in Arizona almost eight years. I'm here studying engineering, but I'm taking a break right now from studies."
"How 'bout you, Melanie?"
"Oh, I'm not a student. I work in accounting, in accounts payable," she says.
"So tell me, Melanie, was it that sexy accent that first attracted you to Mia?"
They both smile, a little bashfully. "Actually, I met him at Club Central, and I liked the way he danced," she confesses. "We've known each other for two years, three months, but we've only been dating one year and three months."
"Are you two going to dance tonight?"
"Oh, yes," she answers, looking at him admiringly. "We love to dance."
Obviously, I'm the odd man out again. I leave these two lovebirds alone, and amble back to the bar, where I see Jett with yet another fella, this time getting a massage from him.
"Hold still, now loosen up," this tall gent with a clean-shaven head is telling the bi-Rosario Dawson, as he presses her willing flesh.
"Oh, God! Oh, yes, right there!" exclaims the Jettster, in the throes of massage ecstasy, her cries muffled by Roscoe Taylor's melodious growl, as the crooner dances his way through the club, mic in one hand, singing as he goes. Jett's masseur, whose name is Mark, finishes up his session, and gives the J-girl a big hug. Seizing the moment, I sneak up behind, attempting to engage them in a hug sandwich.
"Whoa, Nellie!" yelps the Jettster, pushing me off her. "One at a time."
"Come on, Jett," I josh, pulling her back toward me. "Like MC Lyte said back in the day, 'If it ain't rough, it ain't right.'"
"You'll enjoy this, then, blubber belly," she says, elbowing me in the plexus.
"Ow! Mounting you, Jett, is tougher than Final Jeopardy!," I cough, taking the barstool between her and Mark. "At least, for me it is.
"So what's your story, Dr. Feelgood?" I ask Mark.
"I'm an artist and a Libra," he explains. "Not only that, I'm spiritual and intuitive."
"Nutty," I reply, sipping my Heiney. "And for a living?"
"I'm an electronic engineer, only because there's money in it," he tells me. "But I'm a visual artist. Right now, I take pictures for an escort service."
"I have an eye for it," he says, nodding his head. "So I'm taking advantage of that. The girls want good pictures. That's what's driving the world right now -- perfection. It's all about the woman. Women control the world, but they don't know it, because the man is keeping them down."
"On their hands and knees, hopefully," I say.
"Don't talk about yo' mama that way, Kreme," cracks Jett. "Tell me, Mark, what's the perfect woman in your opinion?"
"Only one woman is perfect -- the Virgo," he tells her. "Virgos are gonna rule the world. You know why? Because they know what it takes."
Anyhoo, this crazy confab continues for some time, ending with Mark telling me I'm stressed, and giving me a massage as well! Sure, he's a studly dude, but I don't take it personally. Before the night's over, seems like Mark's massaged half the bar.
As the night crawls toward closing, Jett switches from beer to Jack 'n' Coke, and before you know it, I'm peeling her off the ceiling, paying our tab and exiting stage left, one drink shy of a Tara Reid-like wardrobe malfunction.
"How do I know you won't take advantage of me?" she gurgles as I pile her into the Impala.
"Because you smell like a sailor's britches after 48 hours of shore leave," I sniff, rolling down the windows. "In fact, if I'm smelling what I think I'm smelling, I'd say ur-ine safe hands."
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