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Charlie O's Zeros In on Jazz

The Van Nuys room feels like a relaxed, cozy throwback to the Greenwich Village hangouts of the '40s.

March 15, 2001|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

So, you've watched the Ken Burns jazz documentary, or some of it, and you've come away with the gnawing suspicion that most of the big guys are gone. And, beyond that, the feeling that the music might just be turning into a Wynton Marsalis-led, institutionalized product of academia.

Take heart. The nightclub scene that fostered jazz for most of the last century is very much alive. The smoke-filled atmosphere may be gone--at least in Los Angeles--but the glasses are still clinking, the cash registers are still ringing, the crowds are still talking, and the musicians are still playing.

In fact, every time a jazz club disappears from the scene, one or two others seem to spring up to take its place. Late last year, for example, Rocco's popular bistro at the top of Beverly Glen shut down temporarily to find a new location. Musicians and fans wondered where to hang out, greet fellow players, hear some current sounds and maybe even sit in for a number or two.

Before one could maneuver through all the syllables of "Thelonious Sphere Monk," an answer arrived.

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Introducing Charlie O's, a jazz room in the part of Van Nuys that likes to call itself Valley Glen. Step inside, and it feels as if you've just walked into a 52nd Street or a Greenwich Village jazz room from the '40s and '50s. Wood paneling, a gallery of musicians' photographs, Tiffany-style hanging lamps, a long bar and comfortable tables and stools make for a laid-back listening and socializing environment.

The best part of the room may be the stage. Slightly elevated, it is fronted by a grand piano and surrounded by chairs in classic piano-bar fashion. The setup makes for an intimate connection between musicians and listeners. On a recent night, tenor saxophonist Bill Perkins was working his way through the blues with his rapt fans no more than a few feet away from the bell of his horn.

"I always wanted to have a jazz room," says owner and musician Charles Ottaviano, "ever since I moved out here from Buffalo in 1960. My father was a musician, and I started playing when I was very young."

Ottaviano started trying to fulfill his dream almost as soon as he opened his first room, a Valley club called the Woodside, in the early '60s.

"The first band we had was my brothers and I," he said. "We all double on different instruments--I play bass and tenor saxophone, and they get around on trumpet, piano and drums--so we were able to put something together. But then when we started getting some of the real pros in, guys like Harold Roberts, even John Williams, we pretty much retired ourselves."

Ottaviano found it difficult to keep a jazz room going with only a beer and wine license, however, so he moved on. He opened his current room in 1987 but didn't add jazz until last year.

"We started out with just beer and wine, which was pretty much the same problem," says Ottaviano. "I did try jazz briefly about six years ago, with my brothers again, but with just a beer and wine license it wasn't really supported. So I had to give it up, because I knew the only way I could seriously put jazz in was to get a cocktail license."

When that license came through last April, Ottaviano immediately remodeled and began planning his jazz programs. He started with Thursday nights, then added Friday and Saturday. "This month we're making the big move to six nights--Monday through Saturday--and if things go well, I'll probably put something in on Sunday too, but earlier, maybe from 4 to 8."

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The response has been impressive. With two veteran artists leading their own trios weekly--drummer Earl Palmer on Tuesdays and Thursdays and bassist John Heard on Fridays and Saturdays--an amiable interaction has developed between musicians and listeners. Heard brings in such guest soloists as saxophonists Pete Christlieb and Bill Perkins, and Palmer, for decades one of the world's busiest studio musicians, encourages a jam-session format that adds spice and spontaneity to his evenings.

"Last week," says Ottaviano with a chuckle, "we had a trombone player, two tenor players and a trumpet player up there at the same time--practically a big band."

Charlie O's follows in a long line of Los Angeles jazz clubs that have developed loyal followings, from the many Central Avenue rooms of the '30s and '40s to the Lighthouse, the Haig, Shelly's Manne Hole and more recent hangouts such as Donte's, the Baked Potato, and, of course, the Jazz Bakery and Catalina Bar & Grill.

Ottaviano is determined to keep his club a part of that line by doing whatever it takes to balance good music with reasonable prices.

"I know a lot of places are pretty steep, between the minimum and the drinks," he says, "and maybe that's why some of them seem to be having a hard time. Basically I don't charge a cover or minimum except on special occasions--when Pete and Conte Candoli come in, for example, and I have to charge a small $10 cover."

"But as a rule," Ottaviano says, "I don't like to charge a cover at all, I don't like to charge a minimum, and I try to keep my food and drink prices reasonable. Because, what it really comes down to, is I'd rather fill the room full of people who are relaxed and enjoying the music as much as I am."

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* Charlie O's Bar & Grill is at 13725 Victory Blvd., Valley Glen area of Van Nuys. Music Monday through Saturday nights from 8 to midnight. Cover varies. No minimum. Tonight: the Earl Palmer Trio. Friday: the John Heard Trio with featured guests Pete & Conte Candoli, $10 cover. Saturday: the John Heard Trio. (818) 994-3058.

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