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Jazz salons keep the beat going

As the number of clubs dwindles, jazz patrons Betty Hoover, Mimi Melnick, David Anderson and George Klabin hold soirees in private homes.

December 26, 2010|By Kirk Silsbee, Special to the Los Angeles Times

On a Sunday afternoon, a house full of people sat attentively at a cozy A-frame home in the Hollywood Hills. Against a huge window with a breathtaking view of the surrounding canyon and the Los Angeles basin in the distance, the audience heard an informal but passionate jazz performance. Singer Greta Matassa made the trip from Seattle, expressly for this impromptu recital. Teamed with the estimable young rhythm section of pianist Josh Nelson, bassist Hamilton Price and drummer Clayton Cameron, Matassa exulted in the informal freedom of this, one of several ongoing L.A. jazz salons.

Ten years ago, in order to hear live jazz in Southern California, a hierarchy of nightclubs could be considered, as well as a selection of regular concerts, usually at a college or university. Like so much in Los Angeles, all that has changed. Many long-established jazz clubs, such as Culver City's Jazz Bakery and Spazio in Studio City, have closed. Catalina's, the gold standard for SoCal jazz venues, now books a fair amount of non-jazz performers. With the club shrinkage, the rise of private jazz salons — mostly in homes — has filled the void somewhat and changed the local jazz dynamic.

The genial and petite Betty Hoover lends her home about once a month to the Jazz at the A-Frame series. She books performers who don't always appear on the club rosters and attempts to match them with complementary local musicians. As with many of the salons, Hoover provides a fine lunch between sets. On the intermissions, patrons, who pay $40, can mix freely with the artists, adding to the closeness between the two.

Singer Janis Mann has worked at a number of the L.A. salons and she prefers the format to nightclubs. She finds "the audiences are very focused, and there's an intimacy that you don't often find in clubs. From my experience," she adds, "the acoustics and the sound quality are much better. A special bond seems to develop between the musicians and the audience. Jazz at the A-Frame is one of my very favorites."

Private-residence jazz in SoCal stretches back at least as far as the 1920s and the rent parties of the Central Avenue area, a common meeting place for homegrown and visiting musicians in that jazz-centric area of Los Angeles. Jazz was just one feature on the menu at a private home off the Avenue known by the cognoscenti as Brothers. For a few years, a cross-dressing man would provide intoxicants and illicit pleasures behind a beaded curtain. Duke Ellington and Art Tatum were just a couple of the players who frequented this after-hours hangout.

After heiress Doris Duke bought the old Rudolph Valentino estate, known as Falcon Lair, from Gloria Swanson in 1953, her home was the site of regular private jam sessions throughout that decade. Her paramour, pianist Joe Castro, gathered the talent and even recorded some of the jams in the late '50s and early '60s. Bass giant Oscar Pettiford was moved to record an original titled "The Pendulum at Falcon's Lair" in 1956.

As jazz clubs flourished in the '50s and '60s — exemplified by the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach and Shelly's Manne-Hole in Hollywood — private performances dropped off. The high attrition rate of clubs in the last 20 years has made salons an attractive alternative to clubs and concerts.

When the Jazz Bakery closed a year ago last May, owner Ruth Price was undaunted.

She continued presenting music, at venues all over town. The Grammy Museum immediately reached out to her and offered its stage. Price's Moveable Feast series has extended the reach of her Bakery policy: giving a forum to worthy musicians who don't get club bookings. She presents about three times a month, in venues as far apart as the Nate Holden Theatre in mid-city L.A., Zipper Hall at downtown's Colburn School, the Musicians Institute in Hollywood and the Boston Court Performing Arts Center in Pasadena.

While a new permanent home for the Bakery is expected in 2012, Price produces her shows. "We've had some great performances," she asserts, "but it's hard to do it at different places because I have to reinvent the wheel every time. I have to rent the piano, sometimes the sound equipment and microphones. Everything takes time and adjusting and there are innumerable details. Even though I did it before, at the old Bakery it was my space, my piano, my equipment — all in one place."

Price prides herself on her founding policy of providing space to one-of-a-kind artist combinations, such as the 1999 concert of pianists Roger Kellaway and Dick Hyman. (Their Bakery show was released as "Two Pianos" on the Bakery's own label.) Still, she concedes that the schedule of three shows a month in different settings can be wearing. "I used to be able to accommodate an artist who said, 'Hey, can you give me a night?'" she says. "Now, the agents want to book their artists way in advance for a tour. It's a juggling act that may put me in an early grave."

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