The 1950s produced cool jazz, sleek furniture lines and abstract art. Clubs reeked with pot and tobacco smoke, while hipsters drinking cheap red wine snapped their fingers to jazz in appreciation of Beat poetry amid intellectual banter to the strains of Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker’s horns as a backdrop. While Bill Evans, Art Blakey and Dave Brubeck held down the East Coast with bebop, Los Angeles was swinging with a softer sound at the Lighthouse, Shelly’s Manne Hole and, in the 1960s, Donte’s.
Even when jazz was wiped off the radar with the advent of rock ’n’ roll and jukeboxes, musicians kept on grooving — often with lousy jobs backing burlesque strippers on the Sunset Strip, just to keep food on the table or, for some like pianist Art Pepper and saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, to put junk in their veins.
So where is California jazz at now?
In SoCal, since losing its permanent home in 2009, the Jazz Bakery, founded in 1992 by vocalist Ruth Price, has focused on creating a permanent home for jazz while cooking up movable feasts featuring stellar musicians from around the globe. Cats who have dropped in to perform include John Clayton, Max Roach, Alan Broadbent, Roger Kellaway, Charles Lloyd and Billy Childs. Marian McPartland was a regular; Diane Reeves still appears. Concert venues include Moss Auditorium (Price’s favorite), RedCat (inside the Walt Disney Concert Hall complex), Colburn School and Zipper Hall, great acoustic spaces that don’t serve booze.
Before becoming a moveable feast, the Jazz Bakery had a 17-year run in Culver City’s original Helm’s Bakery, which partially inspired the name. “Everybody wanted me to call it Ruth’s Joint or something like that, and I think that’s tacky,” says Price, the Jazz Bakery’s indefatigable octogenarian/artistic director/president/chief bottle washer and birth mother. “So I settled for the Jazz Bakery because I came from New York and there was a jazz club called The Cookery, in Greenwich Village.”
The first line-ups were booked for weekend-only performances.
“All I did was pick up the phone and call the last person I sang with in New York, which was pianist Tommy Flanagan, and after that, I called a rapid succession of people that trusted me,” Price recalls. “We didn’t have contracts then. I told them: ‘The check doesn’t bounce, the piano is great and people don’t talk.’”
When the bakery building’s owner died, his son didn’t share his father’s passion for the arts and decided to install a furniture store in the space instead. Suddenly, the Jazz Bakery was homeless.
For the past few years, Price has booked acts to play in varying venues, from the Westside to downtown L.A., while she waits for donors to cough up enough dough to build a permanent home for the Jazz Bakery in Culver City.
The compact new space — designed gratis by Frank Gehry — will host year-round performances and educational programs in two state-of-the-art theaters. It also will have an art gallery, an interactive West Coast jazz museum, a cafe/bar and an urban jazz camp for aspiring young musicians. (San Diego trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos recently launched such a program in Liberty Park: the Young Lions Jazz Conservatory, whose students perform for free every Wednesday evening in Balboa Park’s Panama 66.)
Why a jazz hall rather than a club?
“Because I worked every joint that existed — large and small — with a green spotlight and an inadequate piano,” Price says. “I was sick of the way we were all treated with disrespect in clubs. I hated people talking, and I wanted to create a place where people would not be facing each other in booths — but seated in a row.”
If patrons don’t talk, they listen — and that’s critical. “I wanted respect for everybody,” she stresses.
Fundraising efforts for the new facility continue so the Jazz Bakery can join Jazz at Lincoln Center and SFJazz as modern venues for presenting and preserving jazz and attracting younger audiences.
A model of Gehry’s design was displayed at the architect’s retrospective at LACMA in 2015. A $20 million capital campaign began in 2010 when the Annenberg Foundation donated $2 million in seed money, followed by a donation from Culver City of a $1.2 million lot next to the Kirk Douglas Theater. Other donations have come in, but more funding is needed to break ground and bring the project to the finish line.
“Fundraising is challenging — it’s a lot of zeros — but we continue to pursue it,” says Price, who crooned with Charlie Parker and knew Miles Davis and just about every other “name” musician. “Jazz is not dying. Older people who cling madly to the past need to know there’s a lot of good music happening right now. Kids nowadays share everything. I keep on listening to the new stuff.”
Leslie A. Westbrook is a third-generation Californian, breastfed on jazz (thanks to her jazz pianist father Forrest Westbrook), and a community activist in Carpinteria.
Other Good Places to Bend Your Ears and Open Your Mind
• Panama 66: No-cover-charge weekly jazz on Wednesdays by talented youth from the Young Lions Conservatory, performed outdoors next to a magnificent sculpture garden in historic Balboa Park, and indoor shows by top-notch San Diego musicians. 1450 El Prado, San Diego; (619) 696-1966.
• The Athenaeum Music & Arts Library: Never mind that libraries are “shush/be quiet” sanctums. This art gallery/library has been hosting jazz recitals in an intimate, acoustically perfect setting for more than 25 years. 1008 Wall St., La Jolla; (858) 454-5872.
THE JAZZ BAKERY
• Various locations in Los Angeles