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Lazy, Hazy Music Days

Thursday nights in summer offer an inviting selection of free musical concerts. The trick is picking the right one(s) and getting there.

July 27, 2002|SORINA DIACONESCU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As if the prospect of another summer night in Los Angeles--and "what brutal, hot, siren-whining nights they are," as Jack Kerouac wrote--was not enough to make one break into a sweat, imagine spending it driving around and attempting to crash four music performances in a row.

The mission was to map out the freebie music scene on the town, which is in full swing all summer, but peaks on Thursday nights. The itinerary hopscotched from downtown to Griffith Park to the hills perched above West Los Angeles, and wound up at the Santa Monica Pier.

A music banquet on the run? Or just a tortuous assignment cooked up by an editor stuck in imaginative overdrive? A million times more fun than watching reruns of "Will & Grace" on TV? The answers are yes, yes and yes.

With various locales around town hosting free, open-air concerts, there is an earful of music to look forward to every week. The cornucopia of sounds on Thursday included jazz, swing, bossa nova and danceable pop laced with Algerian rai rhythms.

Attending any one of these events would have been a pleasant enough experience, but four in a row? The brain shivered with sensory overload; the tires screeched with impatience in the afternoon commute; the heart took flight in the company of inspired musicians and fellow Angelenos who came out to have a good time.

The marathon began in the courtyard of Little Tokyo's branch of the Museum of Contemporary Art, where a crowd of about 100 took their seats under a mesh canopy.

The crowd was mostly senior in age--the 5 p.m. start time assured that the worker bees were just heading out into the late-afternoon traffic jam--with the occasional Japanese tourist and visitors who ventured outside of the air-conditioned cocoon of the museum.

The tantalizing smell of hot dogs ($4) and chicken skewers ($5) floated above the crowd as jazz chanteuse Rene Marie came on stage wearing a sundress. She was accompanied by a pianist, a bass player and a drummer.

"I have one confession to make," she said, when the announcer mistakenly introduced her as a New York City native. "I am from Virginia. I am definitely a Southern belle, and don't you think otherwise."

It was a point she drove home by attacking her first song, "What a Difference a Day Makes," with the self-assured elegance of a classic jazz singer. The band accompanied her as she scatted with obvious joy.

Audience members grooved to the music discreetly, trying perchance to avoid sweating any more than they already were in the blistering afternoon sun--although some had come prepared with straw hats, fans and Chinese rice paper umbrellas. But with three remaining objectives to hit, there was no time to linger.

Even dead-on in the midst of rush hour, getting from downtown to the Autry Museum of Western Heritage, where the swing band Bob's Yer Uncle was scheduled to perform at 6 p.m., took just about as long as saying "Bob's your uncle."

In the tiled courtyard of the museum, entire families chilled out under huge yellow umbrellas, strollers parked nearby. The band started off with a few severely mellow numbers, the equivalent of swing on Prozac. It seemed like the most excitement was generated by a bumble bee that hovered above for a few seconds, provoking a few small screams.

"This is more like cocktail music," said Patricia Gallardo from Lancaster, who was there with her two children, mother and husband in tow. "Maybe they are just warming up."

Indeed they were. By the third song, the eight-piece band attacked a faster beat and the crowd began showing signs of life. Adult couples got up to shake a heel, kids intensified their agitation in an adjacent space labeled, appropriately, "children's dance floor."

"It's a beautiful night for a moon dance," crooned lead singer Rick Fitts, prompting Al Blaisch, from West Los Angeles, to spring out of his motorized cart--complete with vanity plate--and spin wife Sylvia on the dance floor. "Not bad for 85, huh?" he remarked later. "This was a belated Father's Day gift," explained daughter Lois Blaisch. "We promised dad we would do something."

But there was no time to listen to the band's version of "All Shook Up." Just as things were heating up in the Autry courtyard, it was time to hit the road once again. Destination: an intriguing set at the Skirball Cultural Center by bossa nova duo Smokey & Miho, fresh from a sold-out club show the previous night.

This is when the much-dreaded traffic-parking nightmares materialized in earnest. Long before the show started at 7:30 p.m., all three parking lots at the Skirball Center were full, even at $5 per spot. Vehicles were being turned away, fists were shaking in anger, and one reporter had to flash press credentials to weasel her way in. Others not so fortunate lined up outside, gazing forlorn at the crowd of about 1,500 who spilled inside a courtyard set against the backdrop of a rugged hill.

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