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Pro Jam Still Rocks at Barfly

The all-star sessions, which attract music's biggest names, thrive in their new location.

April 26, 2001|HEIDI SIEGMUND CUDA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

So, you're in your 30s and recently divorced, or maybe you just turned 40 and finally got that new lease on life. Better yet, you're in your 20s and looking for love in all the right places. Well, let me help you narrow it down a bit. Every Wednesday night at Barfly, the China Club Pro Jam commences and people get a taste o' honey.

For 15 years, the China Club Pro Jam--a gathering of cream-of-the-crop studio musicians--has fired up the funk from coast to coast. It originated in New York then migrated west to the old China Club in Hollywood. Before Barfly, the Sunset Strip nightclub that's its current home, its most famous incarnation was at Tatou in Beverly Hills, a staple of '90s night-life excess.

At Tatou, I never knew what was more interesting to watch: the stage, where such superstars as Wayne Newton and Rick James might be singing a Righteous Brothers duet, or the audience, where older producer-types were getting jiggy on the dance floor with wannabe starlet vixens. The images are fun to remember; I was so naive to the scene, my jaw was locked on perma-drop.

About six months ago, promoters Allan Kaufman and Skunk Baxter took their jam session to Barfly and haven't missed a beat. Consider their pedigrees: Kaufman, who ushered at the Fillmore East at age 15, got his first break in the music biz working as Mickey Hart's drum tech. Kaufman went on to become a percussionist and perform with Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye. His partner, guitarist Baxter, was a member of both the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan.

They began piecing together a lineup of their friends that today includes Billy Preston on organ. According to rock-star legend, Preston is the only musician to have played with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix. The band also includes drummer Steve Ferrone, who works with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Eric Clapton and was the Average White Band's original drummer. Guns N' Roses/Alice Cooper keyboardist Teddy Andreatas is in the Pro Jam, and Rod Stewart band veteran Jimmy Roberts plays sax. Last but certainly not least, is Lee Thornberg from Tower of Power, one of the baddest soul groups of the '70s (and you know I mean good).

All these cosmic musicians in one house attracts a wide range of fans and an even wider range of surprise guest talent. Among the performers who've sat in at the Pro Jam are Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt, Don Henley, Sting, Billy Idol and Tom Jones. Not bad for a school night.

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A lot of good things have been accomplished by teaming up the Pro Jam with Barfly, which opened three years ago to some hoopla, but quickly faded into a Eurotrash hang with little to no flavor.

As excitement builds around Hollywood's live music scene, plenty of people who'd been spending their nights with Ally McBeal want to check things out. The China Club Pro Jam attracts people from all walks of life, and now Barfly has made a 180-degree turn. Instead of a snooty door policy, the nightclub's reinvented itself from the outside in.

The French owner, Raymond Visan--who owns the successful Barfly, Buddah Bar and Barrio Latino in Paris--paid a visit a year ago to Barfly L.A., and the doorman Frank Fortet caught his eye. Visan decided Fortet should be on the inside. Good eye. Now general manager, Fortet oversees the one-level club's restaurant (which serves everything from sushi to filet mignon), performance stage and spacious bar. Fortet's transformed the place from a rather pointless nightclub to one with a bright future.

So far, Monday is split between comedy and hip-hop, Thursdays feature the Soul Shakers, Fridays and Saturdays are dance and deejay oriented. But the best transition is the lack of attitude. Servers are friendly, the hostess is happy to see you, the doorman is courteous. Especially when new people are being introduced on the scene, a little bit of grace goes a long way.

Now, with the China Club Pro Jam adding the titillation of celebrities and music fans comfortably congregating each week, Barfly makes even me want to shout: "Vive la France!" Translation: Keep on rockin' in the free world.

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* China Club Pro Jam, 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. Wednesdays at Barfly, 8730 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (310) 360-9490. 21 and older. No cover. Early arrival recommended. Call in advance for dinner reservations.

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