Pushing his drums on a cart into Pico Boulevard club the Mint on a recent Monday night, Kevin Kanner exclaimed, “When I pulled up in the alley out back, it was just, wow ... like old times.” Keyboardist Josh Nelson rolled his gear through the room shortly thereafter with a “Whoa, I'm having flashbacks here!”
Kanner and Nelson are the only two holdovers from Kanner's earlier jazz jam bands at the Mint, a tradition that began in 2005 and ended in September 2010. The jam session moved in early 2011 to the then-newly opened Bluewhale in Little Tokyo before ending in early 2012 when Kanner moved to New York City, home to the mainstream and hard-bop jazz he loves and has committed to playing seriously for more than a decade. After four years in Manhattan, Kanner returned last September to try to re-establish the jazz scene he's always wanted for Los Angeles but still hasn't found.
Over its original seven-year run, Kanner's jazz jams featured such regulars as pianists Larry Fuller, Gerald Clayton and Matt Politano, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, bassist Hamilton Price, guitarist Charles Altura and saxophonists Tom Catanzaro and Walter Smith III. They also became a regular hangout for the best of L.A.'s young jazz talent, including saxophonist Kamasi Washington, drummer Ronald Bruner Jr., trumpeter Jumaane Smith and late phenoms pianist Austin Peralta and saxophonist Zane Musa. Nearly any young player who became anyone in the L.A. jazz scene played the Mint jam early in their career, working through jazz standards and an occasional more obscure tune.
Kanner, a graduate of the outstanding jazz program at L.A.'s Hamilton High School and disciple of longtime Diana Krall drummer Jeff Hamilton, left Los Angeles because “the kind of high-level, straight-ahead jazz I wanted to play just wasn't happening regularly here. What I'd like to happen is what I saw in New York at [jazz club] Smalls, where the jam sessions would have a mix of generations — world-class people like Branford Marsalis or Roy Hargrove or Benny Green would sit in and young cats would get to play with them.”
Kanner sees New York as having “an old soul. It's gritty. It's also close to other big cities, like Philadelphia and Boston, that feed their best talent into New York, so you get more mixing of places there than you do in Los Angeles. L.A. is somewhat of a bubble, I think.”
Since Kanner's 2012 departure, a number of other weekly Monday night jams have sprung up, including one at downtown's the Falls Lounge led by guitarist Matthew Yeakley, and bassist Ryan Cross' Jazz Eclectic at the Sofitel in Beverly Hills. (From the stage at the Mint, Kanner mentions the Falls jam as an alternate for the weeks his won't be happening — the Mint Jam is currently scheduled for every other Monday.) There's also the area's longest-running Monday jazz jam at the Baked Potato in Studio City, led by guitarists John Ziegler and Jamie Kime, which offers a more jazz fusion-oriented approach. The World Stage in Leimert Park continues to offer jam sessions on various nights at its new home as well.
In addition to Kanner and Nelson, the new Mint band includes guitarist Graham Dechter, along with 20-somethings saxophonist Danny Janklow and bassist Mike Gurrola. Gurrola's father, Eric, frequently brought him to the Mint as a teenager to play in the jam sessions then.
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“I'm really glad another generation of young musicians will get to experience what the Mint jam was about,” Kanner said as he passed through the club during the evening's first break. “I really felt a clarion call to come back to L.A. and try and make things better here. I enjoyed my work in New York, but I was mostly just a sideman there. This jam allows me to work on the music I want to get better at and enjoy the most.”
Much as in the Mint Jam's previous incarnation, more than a dozen young musicians brought their gear to play in the jam session before it began. And much as before, the first set featured numerous guests, including vibraphonist Nick Mancini, vocalist Melissa Morgan and trombonist Francisco Torres.
“I hope this jam and what we can do here will help open up more clubs for jazz musicians to play live music in Los Angeles," says Kanner. "All these young players are coming out of the woodwork from everywhere and I wonder, where are you going to play? A lot of jazz clubs have closed here and there just aren't enough places now. This is really a selfish endeavor for me — I want a place to hang and party again and get to play great music.”
The Mint Jam with Kevin Kanner returns to the Mint tonight, Monday, Jan. 30. Tickets and more info.