Magic in the Night
As any observant jazz listener has probably noticed, there’s been a change in music in the last few years
Written byKirk Silsbee
As any observant jazz listener has probably noticed, there’s been a change in music in the last few years. The jazz focus in SoCal has indisputably shifted from Hollywood to the Valley. With the closing of Culver City’s Jazz Bakery in 2008, regularly scheduled jazz activity in Los Angeles proper has been isolated to Catalina’s on Sunset Boulevard. However, Valley jazz fans can hear the music seven nights a week at the Baked Potato and at Vitello’s, both in Studio City, and Vibrato near the top of Mulholland. Jazz also plays at Charlie O’s in Valley Village, inside a recital hall at intimate Giannelli Square in Northridge, as well as in private homes.
There had occasionally been jazz on Ventura Boulevard at spots like Larry Potter’s Supper Club (Buddy Rich appeared there in ’55) and the Zomba Café burlesque house, where jazzmen played for the tassel-twirlers and shimmy-shakers. But essentially, jazz in the Valley began at Donte’s in North Hollywood in 1966.
As jazz musicians began to get work in recording studios and on movie soundtracks, they found affordable housing in cities like Encino, Studio City and North Hollywood. (Drummer Shelly Manne did so well in the studios, he bought a ranch in Sunland.) But they needed a nearby place where they could cut loose with their friends. Donte’s hosted local musicians, from Joe Pass, Hampton Hawes and Anita O’Day to Tom Scott, Frank Rosolino and the Don Ellis Orchestra. Occasional national headliners such as Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, Red Rodney and Jon Hendricks were also booked. Legendary nights at Donte’s are still spoken of—like when singers Carmen McRae, Sarah Vaughan and Morgana King shared the stage. A couple of YouTube videos of saxophonist Zoot Sims heading a rhythm section pushed by drummer Larry Bunker (filmed at the club in 1970) are one way that the faithful stay in touch with the magic gone by.
“Playing at Donte’s was never about the money,” says reedman Gary Foster, who worked there regularly with guitarist Laurindo Almeida in the early ‘70s, often for $20 a night. “It was a good place to play, but the pay was never anything more than union scale. And we all knew not to try to cash our checks the next day.”
Andover, Massachusetts native Bill Cunliffe got his first taste of SoCal when he played piano with the Buddy Rich Big Band at Donte’s. Since settling here in 1990, he’s seen lots of jazz activity. “Donte’s was a real joint,” Cunliffe recalls, “and I love joints. Music is not just for concert recitals; it serves different functions. I like it when you get a synergy of music, characters in the audience, joined with food and drink. Donte’s had that.”
Since Donte’s closed in 1988, cherished Valley jazz clubs, restaurants with pianos, lounges and listening rooms have come and gone. Among them are The Times, Diamante’s, The Sound Room, Carmelo’s, Alfonse’s, Le Café, Chadney’s, The Money Tree, La Ve Lee, Monteleone’s West, Sportsman’s Lodge, Moonlight Tango Café, Spazio and The Back Room at Henri’s.
“I loved Le Café!” Cunliffe exclaims, recalling the postage stamp-sized upstairs room. “It reminded me of the tiny jazz bars in Japan I’ve played, where the whole room is trained in on the music. That’s the greatest experience.” He saw the Brazilian song master and guitarist Dori Caymmi there. “I sat 10 feet away from him,” Cunliffe muses with awe. “You can’t beat that kind of intimacy.”
When it comes to jazz, over the years a kind of law-of-the-jungle has held: when one closes, another one emerges. Cunliffe currently likes the upstairs music room at Vitello’s, the Italian-cuisine restaurant. “It’s a room where people really listen.” April Williams, who books the musicians, confirms. “You won’t hear cash registers, blenders or phones in the room,” she maintains. “Our waiting staff is quiet as a group of ninjas.” Williams presents some of the best local singers and instrumentalists, as well as renowned national figures like saxophonists Dave Liebman and Jim Snidero and vocal pioneer Sheila Jordan. None would likely be booked at Catalina’s. Jordan’s recent Vitello’s triumph—an autobiography in song and spoken word reflection over a duration of four sets in two nights—would have great difficulty being presented anywhere else. The surfeit of young players and music students in the room was a great source of gratification to everyone involved.
With a background as a realtor and musicians in her family, Williams brought jazz to Vitello’s in December of ’09. “I was tired of kicking people out of their homes,” she explains. “I felt that my marketing skills and understanding of musicians could result in a venue that would create new jobs. And that’s just what’s happened.” Vitello’s doesn’t just provide a bandstand to local artists; it’s open to them exploring surprising formats. “I try to vary the music, because I want it to be an artist’s creative space. We’re going to have some chamber music soon.” Actress and singer Sally Kellerman loves Vitello’s. “It’s my musical home base,” she asserts. “I love the ambience and the great sound. I can really communicate in that room, and I’m in heaven when I sing there.”
For meat-and-potatoes mainstream jazz, Charlie O’s is where locals can blow hard. Joanne Abatanegelo runs this wood-paneled room that serves square-meal food. The club regularly hosts fine pianists like Cunliffe and Theo Saunders and commanding saxophonists Rickey Woodard, Charles Owens, Justo Almario, Benn Clatworthy and Gary Foster. Foster plays with bassist Chuck Berghofer (that’s him on Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’”) and the band co-led by singer VR Smith and her bassist-husband Putter. “I like Charlie O’s,” he says, “because we can try different things, and we don’t have to stop and consider if they might go over the audience’s head. They’re right there with us. Even though the people may be eating and drinking, it’s all about the music at that place.”
Don Randi’s Baked Potato
The jazz club longevity prize goes to pianist Don Randi’s Baked Potato—41 years and counting. Over the years he’s hosted mainstream jazz, but the club has long been the reigning bastion of fusion and jazz played on electric instruments. Guitarists Lee Ritnour and Larry Carlton, the unclassifiable bassist Abe Laboriel, and trumpeter/composer Mark Isham have found it to be hospitable to their multi-note explorations. The room has a capacity of 85 and serves all manner of (you guessed it) baked potatoes.
Electric bassist Ric Fierabracci, often heard with Chick Corea’s Elektric Band, played for years in Randi’s house band Quest. “Every night there was so much new music,” he sighs, “it could bewilder you. And Don gave no quarter—we had to learn it fast and play it well. And that was the greatest training I could have had.”
Guitarist Kevin Eubanks, formerly of The Tonight Show, often headed to the Potato after his tapings. He says: “They let you be a musician there. You can just concentrate on the music and let it hang out. If it splats against the wall, that’s where it is and you have a blast doing it. The places where you can get to that core energy are somehow overlooked by everybody other than the musicians, but they’re invaluable.”
Former Tijuana Brass bassist (and erstwhile proprietor of the late, lamented Malibu jazz club Pasquale’s) Pat Senatore books the music into Herb Alpert’s high-end, mountain-top restaurant Vibrato. It’s a high-ceilinged room with surprisingly good acoustics and fabulous food. “The piano is outstandingly good,” Cunliffe points out, “and Pat presents very good music.” While small groups and duos dominate the schedule, at least once a month a big band will appear. When the great composer Johnny Mandel (“The Shadow of Your Smile,” “Theme from M.A.S.H.” and “Emily”) leads an orchestra through his songbook, it’s usually at Vibrato. “People go there for fine dining,” Foster offers, ”but I always get a good workout there.”
John Giannelli and his wife Rhonda (bassist and pianist, respectively) preside over their music store and performing space Giannelli Square. Their 90-seat room is the favorite recital spot for Alan Broadbent, considered one of the greatest living jazz pianists and composer/arrangers. Broadbent can be heard distilling his orchestral vision down to a solo piano format or a duo with Putter Smith’s bass—a rare musical delight. He’ll ruminate on standards and improvise to his heart’s desire to rapt listeners. A recent Giannelli coup was alto sax great Richie Cole celebrating a new Cunliffe—anchored album with a characteristically vigorous performance. On Tuesday afternoons, Rhonda hosts jam sessions with CSUN students from the music departments of professors Gary Pratt and Matt Harris, where she helps breed young jazz lions.
Maui Sugar Mill
It’s a poor jazz musician who doesn’t have a solid grounding in the blues. The Southern California Blues Society has made Monday nights one of the best blues showcases anywhere at the Maui Sugar Mill saloon in Tarzana. John Mayall, Barbara Morrison, Phil Upchurch, Kim Wilson, Finis Tasby and Coco Montoya are just a few of the headliners who have been part of the series. There’s no cover, but a $10 donation is requested.
Playboy Jazz Festival
An increasingly important event is the yearly free concert that the Playboy Jazz Festival presents at the Warner Center in Woodland Hills. As a lead-up event to the main festival in Hollywood, for the past five years Playboy Jazz has joined with the Valley Cultural Center’s “Concerts on the Green” series. “The concerts are always very well-received,” says Playboy Jazz publicist Nina Gordon, “and Darlene Chan, the festival’s booker, always finds the best local talent with national potential, and we bring them to the people for free.” True to form, this June’s event saw pianist Patrice Rushen and the great drummer Ndugu Chancler join forces to the delight several thousand people.
Off the Beaten Path
Another Valley jazz dividend is the ongoing music workshops that pianist and composer Tamir Hendelman conducts in his Studio City home. When he comes off the road—traveling around the world as pianist/arranger with the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra or Barbra Streisand—the affable Hendelman takes serious music students and others through the inner workings of songs by substantial composers–from Henry Mancini to Fats Waller. They play, sing, accompany and explore the songs in a relaxed atmosphere.
Difficult to find but well worth sniffing out is Mimi Melnick’s legendary musicale series at her home in Encino, affectionately known as the Double M Salon. Her musical tastes run to the experimental and the avant-garde. She’s hosted the likes of saxophonists Arthur Blythe and Michael Session; trumpeters Bobby Bradford and Oscar Brashear; pianists Horace Tapscott and John Hicks; and bassists Dr. Art Davis and Roberto Miranda. The 14-year series turns away people for each show. Melnick doesn’t advertise—it’s all word-of-mouth. Clearly, persistence pays off handsomely.
WHERE TO GO
Don Randi’s Baked Potato
3787 Cahuenga Boulevard
13725 Victory Boulevard
19451 Londelius Street
Tamir Hendelman’s workshops
Maui Sugar Mill Saloon
18389 Ventura Blvd.
Upstairs at Vitello’s
4349 Tujunga Avenue
Vibrato Grill and Jazz
2930 N. Beverly Glen Circle