The M Bar & Grill in Long Beach, celebrating its 10th anniversary this weekend, has always put music above everything else. Literally.
The M's bandstand, at the back of the narrow club and restaurant, is a converted loft high above the bar and dining tables. Every seat in the house has a good view to the musicians. All you have to do is look up.
"It's really a necessity," says Moins Rastgar, who owns the nightspot with his brother Mosha. "The room is so long and narrow that it was a natural to put [the bandstand] up there where it is out of the way. Most of the musicians are OK with it. Some really enjoy it. Occasionally you get some who are afraid of heights. But no one has been so out of control that they fell off."
There have been a few incidents over the years. One crowded night, according to Rastgar, a music stand was knocked off the loft into the restaurant. No one was hit.
And, in a story that has reached mythic proportions, there was the time several years ago when a heavy trumpeter (or trombonist, by some accounts) fell through the loft floor into the women's restroom below.
But what the restaurant, art gallery and performance space is best known for among musicians is its commitment to presenting music you're not likely to hear anywhere else.
"It's like playing in a European club," says saxophonist Charles Owens, a longtime member of Mercer Ellington's band. "Most of the places in L.A. want you to play mainstream or blues, but [at M] you can experiment and be creative," Owens said. "Moins is a friend of musicians, and he listens to what you play. You can never play too 'out' for him. We need more places like that."
M (known as System M until Rastgar changed the name last year) has always looked to music's more eclectic side.
World-renowned soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy once did a solo concert here. Ambitious saxophonist Bennie Wallace, a man who seldom plays in his hometown of Los Angeles, has played here. New York saxophonist Charles Gayle, regarded as one of the leading avant-garde voices, has stopped at M on his infrequent West Coast visits.
In addition, Rastgar has championed young emerging bands, including Black/Note, the B Sharp Jazz Quartet and pianist-composer Cecilia Coleman's quintet.
Musicians who like to explore the outside realms of jazz, including saxophonist Vinny Golia, pianist Glenn Horiuchi and trombonist Joey Sellers (who hosts a regular, Thursday night jam session), have made frequent appearances.
"I've always booked the kind of music that I personally would go out and hear," Rastgar said. "I love a broad spectrum of music, and my policy has been to bring a wide variety of groups and not stick to any one genre. I want [this] to be a sanctuary for musicians and listeners."
Still, there's some room for improvement. Some musicians have found the club's cranky old upright piano to be a drawback. Saxophonist Karl Denson, who has played both jazz and funk gigs at M, says he wishes the space were a little better acoustically.
"But I love what Moins is doing here, with the art, with the music," Denson said. "He likes things pure. If you come in there with something that you're sure of, he goes for it. He goes for it when the artist shows some conviction."
This weekend's two-night anniversary celebration will mirror Rastgar's eclectic tastes. Friday's performances bring in singer-songwriters, Haitian jazz, acoustic folk, alternative rock and a swing band. Among those scheduled to appear are Project K, Daji and the Chicago blues of the Henry Carvajal Band. Saturday's event will bring together many of the jazz figures who have made M a regular stop.
Among those joining Owens will be Black/Note bassist Mark Shelby, pianist Horace Tapscott, multi-reed man Vinny Golia, guitarist Nels Cline (whose tribute to actress Charlotte Rampling in 1994 ranks as one of the strangest evenings of music M has hosted) and vocalist Emily Hay. Pianist Coleman, bassist Danton Boller and drummer Kendall Kay will be the core of the jam session.
Denson, who'll be on the road and will miss Saturday's event, gives Rastgar the ultimate compliment a musician can give a club owner: "He's really interested in what's happening artistically, rather than just being concerned about making money."
* What: M Bar & Grill's 10th Anniversary Celebration.
* When: Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m.
* Where: M Bar & Grill, 213-A Pine Ave., Long Beach.
* Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (405) Freeway to the 7th Street exit in Long Beach, head west to Pine Avenue and turn left.
* Wherewithal: Free.
* Where to call: (310) 435-2525.