Sunday Night Jazz at Walkers American Grill and Tapas bar
Thirteen years ago Bill Honaker created a tradition in Billings, Montana that continues to grow. That tradition is Sunday night jazz at his restaurant, Walkers American Grill and Tapas Bar, located on the corner of 27th and 1st Avenue North. Bill is about as laid back as a person can be when he is hanging out and playing, which is not a small feat when you are the owner and operator of a successful restaurant. It just so happens that I am playing on this particular Sunday, so I take the opportunity to ask some questions. I sit down with Bill and a couple of musicians while we eat and relax before we play. I ask Bill why he started the Sunday Jazz sessions, and without second thought he says, “I started it so I could make sure I got hired” – I forgot to mention, not only is Bill a restauranteur, but he also holds a chair as one of Walkers’ featured drummers, playing almost every Sunday night with many different groups. He didn’t just create the jazz night for himself, but for other jazz musicians in the area to have somewhere to play, keeping the tradition going through the generations. In fact, his son Will Honaker’s group “The Swingers” played at Walkers when Will was in high school. While sitting with some of Montana’s finest musicians, Bill Honaker, Sam White (Helena) and Alex Nauman (Billings), I ask them what Sundays at Walkers means to them. Alex instantly says with excitement, “it’s the best gig!” We all agree and Sam shares that “without this gig I would never have met you guys – and you are some of my favorite musicians”. We all agree as well. What Bill has done with Sunday nights at Walkers goes beyond just an entertaining night with great atmosphere, food, and drinks. What lies beneath, the average patron doesn’t get to see, that most of the musicians are friends because Sunday nights at Walkers and their love for jazz brought them together. For myself, I have made relationships that continue to this day – on and off of the band stand. If it weren’t for the late great Ralph Sappington hiring me in my early twenties, I wouldn’t know Bill, Jeff Troxel, Ronnie Bedford, Sam White, and countless other musicians that I call friends and bandmates.
So, enough with the sentiment . Sunday nights at Walkers aren’t just about the musicians, the patrons have caught on and made it a great hang every Sunday. Two people you can guarantee on seeing is Marvin Granger (who only misses maybe ten a year) and James Honaker (Bill’s brother and Owner of Enzo, who rarely misses). Marvin is always listening and appreciative, usually seated before the musicians arrive at his favorite table or at the bar. Many jazz fans have been coming since Walkers’ old location in the Old Chamber building. Marvin enjoys watching groups grow and mature every time they play, but he also notices when groups get repetitive in their repertoire and playing but says, “I don’t have any complaints.” James is adamant, giving full credit to his brother for cultivating a jazz scene in Billings when, thirteen years ago, “there was nothing happening”.
On a good night, when the band is really cookin’, the crowd becomes engaged and vibrant; the house is alive with elements of what you would expect walking in to a club in any big city: laughter and conversation hang just below the music, the sounds of the kitchen is distant in the background, and the clink of silverware and glass pepper the air. For anyone looking for a hip place to be on a Sunday night, Walkers is the perfect place. There are many choices of food and beverages ranging from specialty entrees, tapas (small plate dishes), a great wine selection (bottle or by the glass) and a full bar with beer and specialty cocktails. Come in, sit down and enjoy the vibe and music.
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