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Jazz Tunes, Local Rooms : Nearly two dozen Valley clubs focus on around-town talent, with a wide variety of entertainment. Names aren't big, but the sound is.

March 04, 1994|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Zan Stewart writes regularly about jazz for The Times

Through the years, jazz has blossomed at venues scattered all over Southern California. Beginning with the Cotton Club in Culver City in the '30s up to the Catalina Bar & Grill in Hollywood today, jazz greats and near-greats have played to packed rooms.

One other clime has, for at least three decades, steadfastly offered listeners a wide variety of jazz entertainment--the San Fernando Valley.

Valley jazz clubs, which occasionally feature top-name traveling artists, have mostly been home to local residents. Take the Baked Potato, opened in 1970 by pianist Don Randi. Saxophonist Tom Scott's L. A. Express, a top '70s band, came together at the Potato, and L. A.-based guitarists Larry Carlton and Lee Ritenour developed themselves as performers there.

This focus on local talent remains the key strength of Valley clubs. The Potato still spotlights area artists, from Randi, an Agoura resident, to guitarist Frank Gambale of Sepulveda. Jax in Glendale showcases local mainstream jazz and jazz-pop musicians such as pianists Cecilia Coleman and Frank Strazzeri and saxophonists Sonya Jason and Jim Marentic. And the Room Upstairs at Le Cafe in Sherman Oaks has long been a supporter of such artists as Brazilian-based guitarist Ricardo Silveira and Latin-jazz keyboardist Clare Fischer.

These days, there are verging on two dozen Valley rooms that feature jazz on an at least once-a-week basis, making the area a main hub of Southern California jazz. And while you won't see the big names that often, you'll consistently get a solid sample of some of Southern California's jazz bedrock--the players who often don't always get the wide exposure, but who frequently back up or appear alongside the headliners in recording sessions and live shows. These artists, names or not, provide the goods with outstanding musical performances.

The Clubs

Baked Potato, 3787 Cahuenga Blvd. West, Studio City. (818) 980-1615.

This 85-seat room has the honor of being Southern California's oldest continually operating jazz room. In the '70s, pianist Randi spotlighted more straight-ahead jazz. He's still the regular Friday-Saturday attraction, playing a foot-tapping mix of contemporary and mainstream jazz piano. But since the early '80s, the box-shaped room that offers excellent sight lines to the stage from just about anywhere has been given over almost entirely to leaning-toward-loud jazz-fusion bands, with players sporting plenty of electric instruments to get their message across.

Music from 9 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. nightly. Cover varies, two-drink minimum. The menu consists mostly of--oh, you guessed!--a variety of meal-sized baked potatoes stuffed with everything from Cheddar cheese and spinach to steak.

Cafe Sierra, Universal City Hilton and Towers, 555 Universal Terrace Parkway, Universal City. (818) 506-2500.

Perched right in the front of this large, plant-laden room is a baby grand piano, on which various pianists play jazz 5 to 7 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. No cover. Full menu.

Casey's Tavern, 22029 Sherman Way, Canoga Park. (818) 992-9362.

This windowless joint--discovered when you open a couple of plain metal doors that hide the treasures within--has been the Valley's primary home to Dixieland jazz for more than a decade. Four nights a week, it's just a watering hole, with a big Miller Lite sign over the pool table, a long, angled wooden bar and such appointments as a mirrored sign for Paddy Irish whiskey hanging over drawings of pianist Willie (The Lion) Smith and soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet.

But on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays, owner Lee Casey's crew pushes some back-of-the-room tables out of the way and in come the bands, with such names as the Jelly Roll Jazz Band, the Tin Pan Valley jazz band and the Great Pacific Jazz Band.

The clientele, according to bartender Bob Stoll, is animated, though not exactly youthful. "The average age of a Casey's customer is deceased," he cracked, "and that includes the bartenders." Even if there's no band, Casey's boasts a great jukebox, packed with such goodies as Erroll Garner's "Misty," Kid Ory's "St. Louis Blues" and Ella Fitzgerald's first hit, the 1938 "A-Tisket, A-Tasket."

Music 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. Saturdays, 6 to 9 p.m. Sundays, and 8:30 to 11:30 p.m. Thursdays. No cover, two-drink minimum. Peanut snacks only.

Cha Cha Cha, 17499 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (818) 789-3600.

This restaurant, with its barnlike spaciousness, looks stunning. The pale wood walls are adorned with paintings that have a magical, childlike motif, and an ancient map of the Caribbean is painted on the polished cement floor. Mostly instrumental Latin and Brazilian jazz and reggae are offered, with regulars bassist Marco Mendoza and keyboardist Ottomaro Ruiz.

Music 9:15 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays. No cover or minimum. Caribbean cuisine.

Chadney's, 3000 W. Olive Ave., Burbank. (818) 843-5333.

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