Ruth Price’s back is killing her. The spritelike 75-year-old singer, educator and Jazz Bakery founder hurt it, she thinks, grabbing extra chairs for a standing-room-only Mose Allison gig last fall. Yet, as we sit in the living room of her modest Benedict Canyon house, she can’t stop moving; even in pain, she’s one of the most animated people I’ve ever met. If you’ve been to any Bakery performance, chances are you’ve seen her in action: leaping onstage at the end of a set, leading the applause, praising the band, flogging upcoming gigs, perpetually turning and spinning like a joyous little girl in the first wind of autumn.
“I never wanted to run a club,” she’s telling me. “I didn’t mean to. I’m just not one of those people.” Well, perhaps not, but fact is, Price has been running the Bakery for a decade now, shepherding it from its humble, part-time inception to arguably the most prestigious jazz space in Los Angeles — a serious, no-frills, seven-nights-a-week nonprofit listening room of international renown, where everybody who’s anybody has played; where iconic musicians turn up as regularly in the audience as on the bandstand; where just ascending the stage is a sure sign that you’ve made it into the music’s highest ranks. You can measure the Bakery’s importance by the heavyweight lineup at this week’s 10th-anniversary bash: keyboard legend Marian McPartland, vocal goddess Nancy Wilson, supreme pianist Kenny Barron and terrific young vibraphonist Stefon Harris, most of whom are donating their time.
“It’s very strange,” Price says. “We just kind of started at the top. I never built up to it.” She takes a rare pause, bemused. “Did you ever do anything where everything you’ve ever done all came into fruition at the same time, and you never had any concept as you were going along that all these various things would meld at some point? That’s what really has happened at the Jazz Bakery. The reputation that I established as a respected singer” — her 1961 disc with drumming titan Shelley Manne’s group is a vocal classic — “knowing so many people over so many years and having had nice relations with almost everyone . . . it all just came together. One of the first people we had was [pianist] Tommy Flanagan. I used to sing with him in New York. I picked up the phone, told him what we were doing, assured him it was a good piano, and he just got on a plane and came out here. We didn’t even have contracts.”
Price originally envisioned the Bakery as a showcase for L.A.-based talent. “Local is not a negative word in my vocabulary. There are a lot of wonderful players here, and I still try to use them as much as possible. It’s just that the people won’t come, because they can go hear them in so many other rooms in town where they are going to pay no cover, or a very small cover, and they’ll buy food and drink. They can’t do that at my place, because I was so adamant about what I wanted to accomplish, which was no food, no service, nothing going on except what was on the stage. I wanted total focus, and that automatically ruled out the way clubs make money to keep alive.”
That the Bakery has been a nonprofit entity from the very beginning (“The people who were around when I was starting it were all painfully aware that I’m not a businesswoman, and that seemed like the safest way,” Price says) has certainly helped it survive in the wilds of Los Angeles, a town once described by the Weekly’s Greg Burk as “the graveyard of jazz.” But the peerless booking and tireless efforts of Price herself, who draws no salary — “technically, I’m a volunteer,” she says — have given L.A. a world-class jazz venue of which it should be infinitely proud. So turn out this Monday to wish the Bakery a (tax-deductible) happy 10th — and don’t forget to thank the remarkable woman who continues to provide us with it.
The Jazz Bakery 10th Anniversary Celebration takes place at UCLA’s Freud Theater on Monday, November 10; tickets $100 to $150; (310) 825-2101, www.tickets.ucla.edu.