Ask singer Ruth Price if she's happy and she says she's not sure. "I'm busy, and that's sort of the next best thing," she said. "It keeps you from wondering if you're happy."
One thing for sure: Price, who appears tonight and Saturday at Maxwell's in Huntington Beach, feels she just isn't singing enough. These days, she's almost completely tied up running the Jazz Bakery, a nonprofit performance space in Culver City she owns with photographer Jim Britt. The space, which seats 80, has been open a little more than a year and has presented such notables as Tommy Flanagan, Bud Shank, John Patitucci and Pete Christlieb, often in unusual combinations.
When she first started the Jazz Bakery, Price thought it might be "found money--you know, something I could do in my spare time and still sing," she said by phone from her home in Beverly Hills. "But it's turned out to take all of every day. It's very demanding." Price books all the room's artists and handles most of the business.
Still, she admitted, it's a treat to run a club where you can hear something on stage that once you only imagined. As when bassist Patitucci and pianist John Beasley played a duo performance recently. "John (Beasley) wanted to work with a drummer but I wanted to hear him without one, and John (Patitucci) and I talked him out of it," Price said. "It was so glorious . I just stood in the back of the room listening, thinking, 'God, this is fun.' "
Financially, the room sometimes does OK, sometimes not, to the point where some months Price hasn't been able to pay herself the small salary written into the organization's charter. She also sometimes has booked other singers instead of herself--she usually sings at the Bakery once a month--"because I know they'll do better business."
So a trip to a room like Maxwell's is a chance to get back to what she loves most in life: singing.
"Singing is easy and natural for me. It's the only time I don't feel self-conscious, don't think about myself," she said. "I think of it as getting out of my skin, like being free of anything that's a problem. It's a tangible place to go."
Despite the fact that she's been somewhat distanced from singing by her activities at the Bakery, Price believes her art has continued to improve. "It's amazing but you don't grow as a singer in your throat--you grow in your head, as long as you're around music, and I'm around music all the time," she said. "In fact, working too much can be detrimental: You're always fighting the atmosphere of the different rooms, straining, coping. At the Bakery"--which has no bar, and doesn't allow smoking--"there's nothing to cope with."
At Maxwell's, Price will be joined by one of her favorite pianists, Tom Garvin, with whom she sketches out most of her arrangements, as well as bassist Jim De Julio and saxophonist Gordon Brisker. The singer will offer some of her distinctive treatments of infrequently heard tunes including Johnny Mandel's "Don't Look Back," Vincent Youmans and Arthur Schwartz's "Haunted Heart" and a medley of "While We're Young" and "Young and Foolish," which segues from waltz time to a 4/4 pulse.
Price, a native of Phoenixville, Pa., who began singing at age 17 and has worked with Charles Mingus, Red Garland and Shelly Manne, said that no matter how things go in her life, her art remains.
"I remember feeling as a kid--and I feel that way now--that the only thing you've got is your art," she said. "It's inside you and it's yours. Everything comes and goes except it."
Ruth Price performs tonight and Saturday at 8 and 10 p.m. at Maxwell's by the Sea, 317 Pacific Coast Highway, Huntington Beach. $5 cover charge, $7 food/drink minimum. (714) 536-2555.