Anyone willing to open a jazz club these days must be a little crazy, but if Joon Lee is nuts, he's doing a great job of hiding it. In fact, since its late 2009 debut in Little Tokyo, his venue, Blue Whale, has become the go-to spot for new and emerging jazz artists from around the world.
“I was uncomfortable that people were always complaining about the jazz scene in L.A.,” Lee says, perched at his venue's bar. “So I wanted to create an artists' hang. A place for writers, musicians, painters — everybody.”
While working the room on show nights, he functions as something of a jack-of-all-trades: Lee, 37, mans the door, works the soundboard and even clears empty wine glasses, all with serene calm.
Raised in Korea, the soft-spoken, affable Lee never really had much of a business plan. He came to New York from Seoul in 1995 to study architecture and discovered jazz while bussing tables at a West Village restaurant. He eventually took up singing himself. Two years later, on a whim, he moved to Los Angeles. “I only had one friend in the United States outside of New York, and that was in L.A.,” he says.
A dozen years later, while he was working on an album, someone showed him the Blue Whale's space, and it drew him in. Although it is located in a fairly out-of-the-way spot — and the address is more than a bit bewildering: 123 Astronaut E.S. Onizuka St., Suite 301 — the club is well worth seeking out. Its ceiling is inscribed with poetry, its walls are adorned with photos of local musicians, and its bar is seductively lit. The sound system is high-quality, and the well-maintained house instruments are ready for anything.
But, like a good jazz club, darkness pervades, putting the focus squarely on the performers. Rather than booking big names, Lee concentrates on local notables like Miguel Atwood-Ferguson and Walter Smith III. The young crowd that passes through always seems game.
“Sometimes I'm sitting at the mixer before the set and I can see the hunger in the performers' eyes,” Lee says. “That for me is my inspiration.”
It's been less than three years, but he already has successfully tapped into a scene that was desperately looking for a new home. The Los Angeles Times calls Blue Whale “one of the top spots for jazz in the city,” and Lee finds the club's calendar booked months in advance.
“I'm not a businessman, but I'm learning. I wasn't looking to open a club,” he says, adding wistfully: “I still haven't finished my album.”