It’s an unseasonably chilly Sunday night (for L.A. in April), and I’m in the front room at the Bootleg Theater on Beverly Boulevard in Echo Park. They’ve managed to squeeze 17 musicians onto the small stage, and they are playing jazz, or some derivative of it. The music, written and conducted by saxophonist Joe Santa Maria, sounds like a mashup of Aphex Twin and Steve Reich, with different layers of repetitive motifs building gradually though the various horn sections.
A change in conductors, and now violist and composer Lauren Baba is in front of the band. The big band responds to her precise gestures with a whirlwind of texture and rhythm. There are surprising plot developments within the music, moments of curious spaciousness rudely pushed aside by something more sinister. Trombonist Joey Sellers is making inhuman sounds on his horn, followed by a patient and smart solo by guitarist Greg Uhlmann.
This is Jazz Night at the Bootleg, a once-a-month series curated by Uhlmann, an experimental jazz and rock guitarist who has taken on the mission of trying to address our city's increasingly urgent need for more outlets in which to present and perform jazz and other types of original, improvised music. L.A. is home to a handful of such would-be “saviors” of jazz, which has been proclaimed to be on death’s door since the bebop days of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in the 1940s but has proven hard to kill.
Last month, L.A. Weekly contributor Tom Meek wrote an article documenting the demise of almost every single jazz club in this city over the past decade. By my count, the number of bona fide jazz clubs still in existence in the city of Los Angeles is down to three: Catalina Bar and Grill in Hollywood, the Baked Potato in Studio City and Bluewhale in Little Tokyo. (Honorable mentions go to Vibrato in Bel Air and the E Spot Lounge at Vitello’s in Studio City for their heavy jazz programming along with other styles of music.) Even for a genre of music that was determined a few years ago to be the least popular music in the U.S., three jazz clubs in a city of almost 4 million people seems pitifully low. Yet Meek rightfully notes in his article that in terms of the number of artists creating exciting new music, jazz in L.A. is as strong as it has ever been.
The combination of homegrown jazz musicians opting to stay in town and the influx of talent moving here from New York, Chicago and other traditional jazz havens has created a burgeoning community of younger creative jazz musicians who have energized the scene overall. More interesting stuff is being created than ever before, but where the heck can we go to check it out?
To answer that question, I visited two places with different approaches to programming creative music. The Bootleg Theater is a combination rock club and live theater venue that sells drinks, charges a cover and shuttles up to four bands on and off its stages most nights. Jazz is featured here once a month, with three bands splitting the cover equally.
A little farther to the edge of Northeast L.A., ETA is a small cocktail bar in Highland Park which has been featuring more and more jazz over the past year. They don’t charge a cover, which makes it very appealing to music fans and drinkers alike.
These are two very different places, with two things in common: The jazz is cutting-edge and compelling, and the artists who make the music receive little to no compensation, which seems to be the currently accepted tradeoff for showcasing their new works.
Ryan Julio is one of the owners of ETA, and a music aficionado. He was an opera major at Loyola Marymount University, and later sang in a rock band before getting into the restaurant business. He’s also a big jazz fan, having frequented now-closed jazz joints like the Jazz Bakery and Dinner House M. Julio, along with partners Mateo Glassman and James Bygrave, opened the Greyhound, the popular Dodgers-viewing gastropub on Figueroa Street in Highland Park, and were close to opening a second place down the street when a chance meeting took place.
“I was bartending at Greyhound,” Julio tells me, “and I was wearing a Tortoise shirt.” A tall man with glasses approached him. “He told me, ‘That’s funny, I love that guy.’” The man, a drummer named Matt Mayhall, was referring to Jeff Parker, the guitarist in Tortoise, the well-known Chicago-based experimental rock band.
“I have a band with Jeff Parker!” Mayhall exclaimed to Juilo. Their discussion quickly turned to setting up a performance at the new place; the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. “That day,” notes Julio, “we got permitted to do acoustic jazz at ETA. Matt was literally the first guy to play.”
Mayhall had just released an instrumental jazz album featuring Parker on guitar, and invited his publicist, Stephen Buono, to the show at ETA. Buono had just moved to L.A. from Chicago and was also friends with Parker. Buono and Julio got to talking, and before the evening was over Buono had agreed to book music at ETA.
Buono, a former and still-sometime punk guitarist, was an early fan of the New York Knitting Factory experimental jazz scene when he lived on the East Coast, and his job as a publicist has allowed him to make some strong friendships with nationally known avant-rock and jazz artists like Parker, Nels Cline, Marc Ribot, Chris Speed and Brandon Seabrook. It is because of Buono that you now can see first-rate artists at ETA several times a week.
Buono moved to L.A. in part because of the storied history of underground music here. “I look at what happened in the '50s community of Eric Dolphy, Charles Mingus, Ornette [Coleman], Don Cherry and Hampton Hawes, and Charlie Haden coming here,” he says to me from his home in Mount Washington, not far from ETA.”The SST [Records] community of the Minutemen, and Saccharine Trust, and even the Melvins … I look at them as people who inspire me.” He sees a historical link between the free jazz movement and punk in Los Angeles. “It’s a lineage from Ornette to the SST punk-rock scene. It’s a good devotion to art, outsider art. I want to honor them and keep that going.”
On any given night at ETA, you might hear Jeff Parker (who plays here almost every Monday, when he isn’t on the road), drummer Jay Bellerose or woodwind player Chris Speed. You can also hear some of the best young players in town. On the night I attend, drummer Christian Euman is leading a group. They start out with a jazz standard, “I’ll Remember April,” familiar only to other jazz musicians and hardcore fans — though on this night, maybe not even to them, as the tune is quickly deconstructed, devolving into almost free improv that hangs onto the original's structure by the thinnest of threads. The band is completely absorbed in their sophisticated interactions, oblivious to the muted cacophony of the casual patrons near the front of the bar.
The freedom to play like this with no strings attached is the reason why ETA has a full calendar of good musicians. “At the many shows I’ve seen here,” says Euman to me after the gig, “[the musicians] are able to play the music the way they want to play it.”
Euman, originally from Chicago, is a recent graduate from the vaunted Thelonious Monk Institute at UCLA. He has performed around the world with luminaries like Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Kurt Elling, and yet here we find him tonight in this little bar.
“There’s no restrictions to how you play music here,” he adds. “It’s really special and there’s very few places like this in L.A.”
On this last point, Greg Uhlmann is in agreement. “I feel like there’s a ton of really interesting things going on, and not a ton of spaces for it.” It’s why he ultimately agreed to curate the monthly jazz night over at the Bootleg, at the request of the Bootleg’s talent buyer, Kyle Wilkerson. “I’ve been thinking of doing a jazz night since I took over operations and booking at Bootleg two years ago,” Wilkerson writes via email. “Most of the smaller concert venues on this side of town weren't doing a monthly night and I felt it was a genre that was missing.”
The Bootleg, like many clubs in L.A., is looking to broaden its appeal by diversifying its investments in the many types of music that exist here. “Bootleg Theater is a multi-use space,” Wilkerson explains. “Just about every genre of music was represented in the space except for jazz … until now.”
Uhlmann came to L.A. from Chicago to go to graduate school at California Institute of the Arts. In the spirit of CalArts, the Sunday jazz nights he puts together covers a wide range to music that could be considered jazz. “It’s a night that involves different bands, different musicians that wouldn’t necessarily share a bill on their own accord,” he says. “You could have an experimental free solo drum set, and then a funk-fusion band, and then a Macedonian-inspired group.”
Over at ETA, Buono is trying to do a similar thing, both by programming a diversity of shows and also by creating new bands, introducing new musicians to each other and putting them on the bandstand. “Stephen’s done a really good job of putting bands together for people,” says Mayhall. “Because he spent so much time in Chicago, Philadelphia and New York, and he knows so many of those musicians, he knows when they’re coming through. He can either give them nights of their own or pair them with bands that already have gigs on the nights when they’re in town. That breeds this kind of cross-pollination.”
Having a critical mass of young, quality players in L.A. is a recent development. “I feel like 80 percent of the people I played with at school stayed in L.A.,” says Uhlmann, “or moved and then came back.” Los Angeles used to drive young, promising jazz musicians to New York in search of a healthier music culture, but that's increasingly no longer the case.
All these artists desperately want and need someplace, anyplace, to play. This has set up a significant imbalance in the supply-and-demand economy that exists between artists and venues. Amazing musicians seem to be falling out of the sky here, which ultimately devalues their overall worth to the few places that will have them. So far, there is no parallel in the jazz scene with the city's “pay to play” rock clubs, but there's little money to be made from live gigs.
“The monthly Jazz Night at Bootleg is doing well and continues to build each month,” Wilkerson writes encouragingly, while tacitly acknowledging there is room for improvement regarding attendance. On the night I am there, the front room is roughly 75 percent of capacity, which is pretty good considering it’s a Sunday evening. Nevertheless, the total take is going to be divided among over 20 players. “That’s just, like … OK,” Uhlmann concedes. “That’s just like scraps at that point.”
Julio, as a former rock singer, understands and sympathizes with the dilemma of trying to pay musicians what they are worth. But as of right now, he and his business partners are offering musicians at best $30 to $50 per player to perform at ETA. Julio would like to pay more, but he doesn’t feel he can afford to just yet. “Eventually, if it’s so busy, maybe we can add a cover, which will help mitigate things,” he says. “But I’d still like to keep it free, because that’s how you find new things.”
It’s still possible to be a successful jazz musician in Los Angeles — just playing other kinds of music.
This represents a dramatic change from the L.A. jazz scene of decades past. Saxophone guru Steve Coleman told me in a recent interview that the conventional wisdom for jazz musicians of his era was that if you wanted to make music, you went east (to New York), and if you wanted to make money, you went west (to Los Angeles). Jazz musicians used to do quite well for themselves out here. There was a lot of studio work, and a lot of clubs to play at. Older musicians tell stories of playing multiple gigs every night of the week — up to 500 gigs a year, often with good pay.
Mayhall notes that it’s still possible to be a successful jazz musician in Los Angeles — just playing other kinds of music. “Some of the guys that are playing at ETA,” he muses, “they may be making their money elsewhere.” Mayhall himself is one of those players; he is currently on a nationwide tour with singer-songwriter Aimee Mann.
“I think that if jazz musicians can kind of get over themselves, you know, as far as, ‘Oh I need to be paid X amount of dollars,’” Mayhall continues, laughing. “If they can adopt that [other] mindset, maybe that can lead the way to more creative things happening.”
These seem to be the new conditions for making creative music in Los Angeles: accepting low-paying or “freebie” gigs in exchange for a chance to play out with like-minded musicians. Certainly, this is far from ideal, or even fair. I would hope for a future where L.A. has five more places like Bluewhale, where the artists and their work are highly valued and fairly compensated.
There is, however, a poetic beauty in the transition currently underway in Los Angeles. Even in the face of economic hardship and risk by musicians and club owners alike, true value is being discovered in the artistry and new music communities that are being formed right before our very eyes, at the Bootleg, ETA, and hopefully many more places that will open their doors to the unfolding artistic revolution.