Late last year, a modest billboard along Lincoln Boulevard in Venice started touting the pending residency of saxophonist Azar Lawrence… 50 feet below.

The newly christened RG Club — a former dive bar located between an AT&T store and a Jewish community center — opened in November with Lawrence playing three days a week. Jazz club openings are few and far between in the Southland and it's a beacon of hope for Westside jazz fans.

It's everything you might expect from the phrase “Venice jazz club” and so far it seems to be working out quite well. A little after 11pm this past Friday, the club was full, the small tables surrounding the stage were all occupied and the bar staff was fluttering about. Drumming heavyweight Alphonse Mouzon, in sunglasses and an Australian outback hat, splashed a loud and swinging solo on Freddie Hubbard's “Up Jumped Spring” and the audience soaked it up, applauding Mouzon's boisterous display. Owner Brad Neal, in a sweater and a pair of shorts, was roaming around the club, sizing up his investment.

Lawrence, the larger-than-life tenor saxophonist who made a name playing with McCoy Tyner, was out of town. His band, however, was ready to play and trumpeter Nolan Shaheed had taken over horn responsibilities for the night. Bassist Henry “the Skipper” Franklin, seated next to Mouzon, was an anchor, taking agile solos when not laying down a solid foundation behind his bandmates. Neal couldn't have picked a better band for this opening residency. After their set, I asked Mouzon if he'd ever been booked for three months in the same place. “No, never,” he said with a smile. “I've been on tours but never anything like this. It's great.”

Still finding its footing, the venue is slowly offering more nights of music with guitarist Julian Coryell moving to Thursdays and promising young guitarist Brent Canter taking over Sundays, while Lawrence will continue on Fridays and Saturdays. Neal made a living through real estate but has now decided to try his hand at club ownership, pursuing a lifelong dream. It hasn't been easy securing a liquor and entertainment license, taking almost a year to wrap up the bureaucratic end of things. Now that he has everything in place he can pursue his ambitious goals.

“Once I brought a sound engineer in there and I knew the acoustics were good, I knew that I was going to have something great,” says Neal. “In the next few months, we are planning a second story restaurant and a third floor smoking deck.” Despite all these additions, he has made one promise: “We will always have jazz. No matter what. Anyone that is profit driven would probably shy away from jazz but it will always be a part of the club.”

And it appears that the billboard will always be a part of the club too. After a disagreement with Clear Channel, the billboard became a double-sided blank canvas for Neal to do what he liked. “I'm going to dedicate both sides to the venue. Jazz musicians just don't get the respect that the great genre of American music should have. The billboard is our way of setting us apart and paying that respect.”

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