On a recent Friday night at Catalina's Bar & Grill, a Hollywood jazz room-restaurant, tenor saxophonist Lew Tabackin ripped into a rousing up-tempo blues, as Vince Verdi sat listening intently on one of the bank of stools that surround the bandstand.
Verdi, his brother Rob, and their friend, Laura Coyen, all aficionados in their 20s, had traveled from Anaheim to hear Tabackin--a mainstream artist and former Los Angeles resident who lives in New York City with his wife, pianist/composer/bandleader Toshiko Akiyoshi. While the Verdis don't make the 40-mile drive to Catalina's every week, when they do, they say it's well worth the time and energy.
"It's a classy place," enthused Rob Verdi, who plays saxophone and leads the Side Street Strutters, a Dixieland band that works weekends at Disneyland. "The audience knows they're here to listen to jazz music, so they're very appreciative, quiet and respectful of the performers."
Tabackin, a dynamic, virtuosic performer who also excels on flute, was playing to a three-quarter-full house at Catalina's, an airy, light nightclub with big, exposed beams that has been open less than a year and whose success is indicative of the recent boom in the jazz nightclub business.
The upswing has been marked in the past few years by the opening of several excellent rooms. Among them are the Loa in Santa Monica, the Alleycat Bistro in Culver City, Alfonse's in Toluca Lake, Birdland West in Long Beach and Bon Appetit in Westwood. They join more established clubs like Donte's and the Baked Potato in North Hollywood, LeCafe in Sherman Oaks, Concerts by the Sea in Redondo Beach and the Vine Street Bar & Grill in Hollywood in filling out the best jazz scene west of New York City. (See sidebar for a listing of top local rooms.)
The Sunday Times Calendar listings indicate that there are close to 100 rooms from the northern San Fernando Valley to as far south as San Diego that regularly--or occasionally--book acts that fall under the eclectic umbrella of jazz music, which includes Dixieland to jazz/rock, acoustic solo pianists to roaring big bands. This new-found abundance is definitely good news for live-jazz fans--for almost any night in any locale, there is good music to be heard, if you don't mind getting in your car and driving to it. Catalina's is one club that's quickly gained a reputation. Chuck Niles, the easy-smiling veteran jazz disk jockey whose show is heard Monday through Saturday, 6-9 p.m. on KKGO-FM (105.1) was there to hear Tabackin. "I like the vibes here. Of course the guys on the bandstand create vibes for me, and when you have people like (pianist) Ahmad Jamal, (saxophonists) Phil Woods, Johnny Griffin and Lew Tabackin, how can you lose?"
Though mainstream jazz--which can be defined as acoustic jazz played with a swing era, be-bop or post-be-bop rhythmic feel, might seem to have more appeal to middle-aged listeners, the crowd at Catalina's to hear Tabackin was predominantly youthful. "I couldn't help but think of Lew as appealing to an older audience," Niles commented, "but maybe young people are getting tired of their eardrums getting mauled (by loud volume concerts)."
That same evening, Don Menza's big band held forth at Donte's in North Hollywood, enthralling a packed house in the room that this October will have been open 22 years, making it the area's oldest continuously operating jazz spot.
Among the multitude that filled the dark-walled, low-ceilinged club were Nick Sanders and Mandy Jacobson, who could be seen swaying back and forth in their seats. Outside the club at the end of the set, Sanders, said serendipity had brought them there. "This was a spontaneous thing to do," he said. "We drove by the Baked Potato (located on Cahuenga Blvd., about a mile from Donte's), but it seemed too crowded, and we'd read about this room, so we came here . . . "
The intimacy of a nightclub, as much as what was played, seemed to strike a warm chord in the couple, who don't ordinarily go to jazz rooms. "You got a sense of the performers, tuning in to what they do," Jacobson said. "It was fun listening to what they say to each other, and the way they play off each other," Sanders added.
It's the Closeness
Tom Christensen and Larry Jack, two spunky 22-year-olds from Chatsworth who were at the Baked Potato listening to drummer Chet McCracken's jazz-mixed-with-rock outfit the following Sunday, both agreed that the closeness of a small room like the Potato, which seems hardly bigger than a shoe box, provides something special.
"You can talk to the band members right after the set, get to shake their hand," said Christensen, an electrician. "I don't know where else you can go to do that."