2016 was a strong year for SoCal jazz, in many ways perhaps the best ever. Lots of Grammy nominations, the breakout of Kamasi Washington and the West Coast Get Down to a worldwide audience, and the award-winning film La La Land, which prominently featured Los Angeles jazz and provided work both on camera and off for dozens of area jazz musicians, have all helped give L.A. jazz more recognition than it's received in decades.
Despite this, La La Land writer-director Damien Chazelle, a onetime aspiring jazz drummer, caused concern in the local jazz community with his film's “jazz is dying” line, delivered by pianist character Sebastian Wilder while sitting in Hermosa Beach's Lighthouse Cafe. In that particular setting, his words rang uncomfortably true; while the Lighthouse is a historic jazz venue, its jazz offerings now are limited to a Wednesday happy hour set and two weekend brunches. Other nights are filled with a variety of rock, reggae and other genres of music.
A decade ago I had a choice of where I wanted to move, and the ready availability of world-class live jazz was a significant factor in my decision to come to L.A. While New York was always strong in the areas of hard bop and mainstream jazz, it lagged well behind Greater Los Angeles in jazz diversity, including big bands, contemporary, cool jazz and jazz fusion. There was so much great jazz happening here that musical friends who saw my personal “clubs to visit” choices encouraged me to begin publishing a weekly picks list to help locals find the best jazz across Southern California, which then became a regular blog called About & Out.
Today, however, the L.A. jazz landscape looks considerably different.
Over the past eight years, the availability of quality live jazz has been affected by difficulties in keeping area clubs open, or starting new ones. Skyrocketing commercial rents throughout much of Southern California, especially on L.A.'s Westside, have made it almost impossible to open new jazz venues, and helped force others to close after years of operation. Emblematic of a larger issue with the live jazz club scene in Los Angeles was the sudden shutdown of Hollywood's Piano Bar last September; for the better part of a decade, the venue had served as the main incubator for the West Coast Get Down on Monday nights.
Little Tokyo's bluewhale launched in December 2009 and is the last full-time jazz venue to open and survive in Greater L.A. More representative of what's happening across the region was the fate of two nearby venues: Matsumoto's 2nd Street Jazz closed in 2013, and NOLA's in the downtown Arts District followed shortly thereafter.
Jazz clubs across SoCal have closed for a variety of reasons, but the fact that no new venues have stepped in to replace them has caused serious damage to a scene that, based on all its recent successes, should be thriving. Nationally touring jazz acts sometimes skip Southern California entirely because of a lack of profitable places to play.
Glendale lost the full-time jazz venue Jax Bar & Grill last April when its hotel parent decided to use the space for its own all-day restaurant. Jazz club Dinner House M in Echo Park closed in 2011 after lengthy disputes with the city about serving alcohol after hours.
The Westside has been especially difficult for jazz clubs, with Typhoon at the Santa Monica Airport closing in November, adding to three Venice jazz and music venues that have closed in recent years, including WitzEnd, Hal's Bar & Grill and The RG Club. A 2010 fire at the Dakota Lounge in Santa Monica ended its brief run as one of the best small music stages in Los Angeles. Two Beverly Hills jazz venues that opened in more recent years, H.O.M.E. and Spaghettini & the Dave Koz Lounge, closed within a few weeks of each other last spring. Hollywood's Sunset Boulevard music venues the Key Club, which closed in 2013, and House of Blues (closed in 2015) also provided hundreds of dates for live music each year, including jazz, that have not been replaced by new full-time music venues on the Westside.
The Jazz Bakery lost its lease in the Helms Bakery District in 2009 and was unable to build a new hall on land offered by Culver City before changes to redevelopment in California were implemented in 2012. Delays in the project, combined with the adoption of a design plan offered by Disney Hall architect Frank Gehry, have more than doubled the new Jazz Bakery's original publicly estimated cost of $10.2 million. The venue's latest projection for opening is for the 2020-21 season, per Executive Director Jeff Gauthier. The Jazz Bakery continues to offer concerts at various leased spaces around Los Angeles in the interim. The only other jazz venue to open on the Westside is Pips on La Brea (2010), a wine bar that offers a repeating lineup of acts each week.
The San Fernando Valley also has seen a string of jazz club closings, including La Ve' Lee in Studio City (2009), Spazio in Sherman Oaks (2010), Charlie O's in Van Nuys (2011) and Cafe Cordiale in Sherman Oaks, which closed in 2015. Three other notable SoCal music venues that shuttered in recent years were Hip Kitty in Claremont, Anthology in San Diego and the jazz staple Steamers in Fullerton. Together with Typhoon's closure, the loss of Steamers means a hundred annual dates for local big bands are gone, with few replacement opportunities elsewhere.
Even among venues that continue to operate, jazz nights are becoming less frequent. Vitello's in Studio City has moved away from majority-jazz programming since opening its E Spot Lounge in early 2015, and now offers cabaret, comedy and other music in addition to jazz (noted musician Sheila E. is no longer affiliated with the club). April Williams, the regular jazz booker at Vitello's for a five-year period ending in 2014, has since founded the Musicians at Play Foundation, a nonprofit that presents several jazz concerts a year in Los Angeles.
Spaghettini's original restaurant in Seal Beach remains open but is offering fewer nights of live music, with a smaller percentage of those devoted to jazz. The Seabird Jazz Lounge in Long Beach also recently closed for renovations and plans to reopen this month.
In South L.A., Leimert Park's World Stage recently moved to a new home and expects to restart weekend concerts in April after a hiatus of several months, according to executive director Dwight Trible. Vocalist Barbara Morrison's nearby performing arts center has scheduled a month of concerts for April split between her BMPAC facility and the newly opened California Jazz & Blues Museum on Degnan Boulevard. Alvas Showroom in San Pedro, one of the best small weekend concert spaces in Southern California, has added more non-jazz nights to its calendar, with fewer nights of music overall.
The Baked Potato is L.A.'s oldest jazz club, founded in 1970. Co-owner Justin Randi expected to open a second, larger club in Thousand Oaks this summer, but those plans are now in limbo due to late issues surrounding the venue's prospective lease. The proposed 150-seat club will be larger than the current Studio City location, which will remain open. Randi noted that, unlike Metro L.A., where plans to open another venue last year were shelved, the city of Thousand Oaks did everything possible to make it easy for him to open a new jazz spot.
Greater Los Angeles, including many cities in Orange County and the San Gabriel Valley, now often discourages live music venues because of noise and parking concerns, as well as expensive and complex permitting processes. The Hoson House in Tustin recently was denied a zoning variance needed to continue to present jazz house concerts, and director of jazz Chris Wabich is now seeking another location.
Catalina Jazz Club in Hollywood, the area's second oldest venue, has seen an increasing number of nights devoted to cabaret and soul/R&B artists. Catalina Popescu, who has run the club for more than three decades, says she's expanded her range of featured acts to help bring in a wider audience. Producer Barbara Brighton's Young Artist Jazz Series, which has featured nearly every area up-and-coming youth jazz talent over the past two decades at Catalina, has reduced its once-monthly schedule to a few dates a year with larger ensembles because of increased production costs.
Popescu reports she has seen an uptick in “younger, hipper patrons coming for jazz since La La Land opened” late last year. Bluewhale owner Joon Lee has seen a recent increase in walk-up business from non-jazz fans, as well, which he attributes to increasing downtown gentrification, including new apartment buildings in the immediate area of his Little Tokyo location.
Both Catalina and bluewhale went through arduous lease renewals for their current spaces in recent years, and each thought they might be forced to close or move. The Baked Potato found it impossible to expand its existing Studio City club because of the vastly increased cost of acquiring adjoining property when it became available briefly several years ago.
A recent switch in musical directors at Bel-Air's Vibrato, owned by trumpeter and music philanthropist Herb Alpert and daughter Eden, is part of a number of changes at the club. Alpert recently told me that he wanted to “open up the iris” of Vibrato to offer more types of music than mostly straight-ahead jazz. The club is also making changes to its original design that will allow for amplified instruments to be better featured.
There are plenty of larger venues potentially at hand throughout Southern California for music, many of them opening since 2009, but most have either cut back or at best maintained the number of dates devoted to live jazz. The Broad Stage in Santa Monica announced an ambitious "jazz council" in 2013, but followed with little noticeable expansion of jazz programming. The Luckman Jazz Orchestra at Cal State L.A. was shut down in 2014, and the Luckman Fine Arts Complex has held few jazz concerts since. The Valley Performing Arts Center at CSUN Northridge scheduled four jazz concerts as part of its 2016-17 season. Most other college and performance stages in the area rarely present major jazz acts.
The L.A. Phil has continued to mix non-jazz acts into its summer jazz series at the Hollywood Bowl, in addition to programming a few shows annually at Disney Hall and assuming control of the Bowl's summer Playboy Jazz Festival. CAP UCLA has featured several jazz acts at Royce Hall each season, many coming from the New Orleans area, at the direction of former music programmer Phil Rosenthal, who recently left for a similar job in Austin, Texas. The Wallis Annenberg Center in Beverly Hills is another new multimillion-dollar local performance space that has seen relatively few jazz acts since opening in 2013.
Performance halls outside of L.A. have attempted to pick up some of the jazz programming no longer featured closer to Los Angeles, including the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, Soka Performing Arts Center in Aliso Viejo, the Barclay Theatre in Irvine and Santa Barbara's Lobero Theatre and Campbell Hall at UC Santa Barbara. Squashed Grapes in Ventura is a small venue that now manages to bring in major talent from L.A. on a regular basis, as local musicians seek out places to play.
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La La Land was derided by many critics and some musicians for the line delivered by John Legend's character, that “jazz is about the future,” in his rehearsal studio with the more traditionalist Sebastian. Yet much the same sentiment was echoed by Alpert, a man with considerable prominence across the landscapes of jazz and music for five decades. “Jazz needs to evolve," Alpert told me. "It needs to move past just playing a theme and then having guys solo over changes. Jazz needs a renaissance.”
Chazelle told Yahoo! Movies in December, “The thing about jazz is that actually jazz never died, it's just that people have stopped listening as much as they did. And certainly jazz has changed. There’s amazing jazz being made.”
The question now is whether the kind of amazing jazz Chazelle alludes to — the kind championed by the West Coast Get Down and similar acts — will find new homes to play in Los Angeles. Local jazz musicians have taken to playing more gigs in churches and private homes to help supplement their efforts, and some have even begun rumbling about the need to open their own clubs, much like Sebastian of La La Land. The fact that larger venues like the El Rey and the Troubadour now host younger jazz acts may shine a ray of hope, but otherwise this has been a darkening period for live jazz in L.A.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that project costs for the new Jazz Bakery had tripled, based on an original estimated cost of $7 million. The original estimated cost was projected to be $10.2 million, as reported in the L.A. Times and elsewhere, meaning the project's costs have roughly doubled, not tripled. We regret the error.