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Cool Riffs Where Life Is Rough

Performers bring a musical sigh of relief to those on Skid Row

July 09, 2002|NOA JONES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The four-block radius around downtown's San Julian and 5th streets is stage to some of the most desperate human drama in Los Angeles. But for two hours every Tuesday it also becomes the stage for old jazz standards.

For a little more than a month now, Ravi Knypstra and Zane Musa have used their Mittenwald upright bass and soprano sax, respectively, to provide a musical oasis from the misery-soaked sidewalks of Skid Row.

Missing from their routine is the usual busker's tip tin. Both professional musicians, Knypstra and Musa are not asking for the audience's pocket change. The audience's reaction is sufficient reward.

"I've played in some of the biggest halls in town and most of the jazz clubs, and it's really difficult to get an audience to listen properly," says Knypstra. Who knew that he'd have to go to Skid Row to find the ideal fans? "They are an amazingly fantastic audience. Not only do they know the tunes, but they know who wrote them and when the lyrics were written. They clap after the solos and after every tune. Those people understand jazz."

Businessman and community activist Alan Bloch organized and financed the performances after seeing the despondency of downtown street people. "I don't have a solution for despair like that. But I thought at least as a minimum people should be entertained," says Bloch. He heard Knypstra and Musa play on Larchmont and asked if they'd be willing to participate in his "experiment." "I didn't have a plan in mind with the exception of 'Let's see what happens.' "

While both are busy full-time musicians--Knypstra gigs regularly with Sonolux at the King King in Hollywood and Musa leads a weekly jazz jam at Sonny's Spot in Leimert Park--they didn't hesitate. At 2 p.m. every Tuesday, Knypstra and Musa meet under the jacaranda trees in San Julian Park, plug in an amplifier next to the angel statue and jam. This pocket park is furnished with a fresh-cut patch of grass and about 15 sheltered chess tables around which groups of mostly men stoop and holler.

A man on a nearby bench is the first to notice the musicians. He seems mystified by the Mittenwald. "Who invented the cello?" he asks Knypstra, indicating his bass. Knypstra doesn't know the inventor, only that the bass originated in Italy about 500 years ago. The answer apparently tickles the man, who breaks into uncontrollable giggles.

Knypstra and Musa begin the set with John Coltrane's classic "Equinox." World-weary postures perk up. Chess players pause mid-move. "I've never seen anything like it before in my life and I'm 62 years old," says Louis Hill, passing through on his bicycle. "They are good!"

Between songs, audience members hike over to the musicians to pay respects. An elderly lady hooks Knypstra by the arm and coos, "Honey, you just took me back home. I'm from New Orleans; you took me to the French Quarter."

Across from the musicians, volunteers from the Minority AIDS Project conduct HIV tests as they do every Tuesday. They've already done 15 this day. "The challenge is getting them to return for the results," says outreach consultant Carolyn Martin as she hands out condoms while grooving to Herbie Hancock's "Watermelon Man." She says the music is an incentive for her to return week after week and hopes it will encourage the at-risk patients to return as well. "It makes the atmosphere more relaxed," she says.

Something is missing: percussion. But soon the gap is filled by Musa's brother, Chance Taylor, and his amazingly swift tap-dancing feet. Taylor, who has danced with Savion Glover, among others, slips into a tap-induced trance as he interprets the music. He taps with his whole body. A young girl stands agape. Social workers peer over in disbelief. So absorbed is he that he doesn't seem to notice a fresh laceration on his ankle. He keeps dancing. A young man with grass in his hair ambles by, stopping in front of the trio. Though he seems barely to have the strength to stand straight, he suddenly performs a short but lively Mexican folk dance then continues on his way. Taylor nods in approval.

A security guard from the park cuts through the crowd. Although they have permission from the park's operator, the musicians wait out a moment of tension, wondering if they are about to get booted. But the guard smiles widely and instead of a ticket, he hands Taylor a frosty bottle of water to tend his ankle then gives them all a hearty applause.

Bloch says he hopes the music will inspire street people to drum up confidence and maybe even start their own band. He's encouraged by the initial response. "There is so much life down there."

Practicing his dance moves to the music, one old-timer echoes the sentiment: "I may be in Skid Row, but I ain't down."

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