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Mimi Melnick dies at 77; author, ex-Times writer held jazz salons

Mimi Melnick's Double M Jazz Salon featured a stellar array of jazz artists. She was described as an 'urban archaeologist' for the two books she wrote about the artistry of city manhole covers.

August 01, 2013|By Don Heckman
  • Mimi Clar Melnick wrote for The Times from 1958 to 1965 and hosted jazz salons in her Encino home for more than 17 years. She also co-wrote two books about the artistry of manhole covers.
Mimi Clar Melnick wrote for The Times from 1958 to 1965 and hosted jazz salons… (Daryl Temkin / Richard Clar )

Mimi Clar Melnick, an author and former Los Angeles Times writer who was the host of jazz salons in her Encino home for more than 17 years, has died. She was 77.

Melnick died June 14, a few months after having open-heart surgery, her family announced this week.

Her presentations, which she titled the Double M Jazz Salon, featured a stellar array of jazz artists, including, among numerous others, Gerald Wiggins, Billy Childs, Kenny Burrell, Bobby Bradford, Art Davis, Oscar Brashear and Arthur Blythe.

"Some of the best live music I have ever heard in L.A. has been in Mimi's family room," author Steven Isoardi said in a Los Angeles magazine story in 2007. "There is no other experience I've had that comes close to being in that little room with all these great artists who are loving being there and sharing their music with you."

The popularity of Melnick's Double M Jazz Salon events reached from listeners to the musicians themselves, in part because of her generosity, in part because of her great affection for the music.

"All of the proceeds," Melnick said in a 2010 Times story, "go to the musicians. I've got the house, the piano and the mailing list, but I'm one part of the equation. I couldn't do it without the artists and the audience."

Melnick was also an author, often described as an "urban archaeologist" for the two books she wrote — "Manhole Covers of Los Angeles" (1974) and "Manhole Covers" (1994) — with her late husband, Robert Melnick, about the artistry of city manhole covers.

"They lie underfoot, embellished and gleaming," she wrote in "Manhole Covers." "They hail from places as far apart as New York and Paris, Brazil and Scotland, Africa and Australia; they reside in wide boulevards, narrow alleys, slick sidewalks, squalid gutters, at least one or two of them probably lie in the street where you live."

She also edited "Lollipop: Vaudeville Turns with a Fanchon and Marco Dancer," her mother's memoirs about her career in the vaudeville entertainment world of the 1920s and '30s.

Melnick was born Mimi Clar in Hollywood on Dec. 25, 1935. Her father was Charles Clar, a fireplace merchant who catered to show-business celebrities. Her mother, Reva Howitt, a dancer, was featured in the all-female tap dancing company the San Francisco Beauties.

Drawn to the piano as early as age 4, Melnick often rang neighbors' doorbells, asking to play their pianos.

Her early piano lessons were classically oriented, not as appealing to her as jazz. And she sometimes speculated about how her jazz playing might have evolved had she been given the proper guidance.

"I don't know what kind of pianist I'd have been if I'd gone ahead and really pursued jazz as a career," she told Los Angeles magazine. "I do have some regrets about that. But it came out in my writing."

Her career as a music journalist and critic began indirectly while she was an undergraduate music major at UCLA. In a class with Albert Goldberg, The Times' classical music critic, she wrote a review of a Dixieland jazz concert. Goldberg, displeased, returned the review with the suggestion that she should try her critical writing skills on "something serious."

Melnick responded by saying: "Jazz is serious." And Goldberg was eventually instrumental in bringing Melnick to The Times as a critic specializing in the coverage of jazz. She wrote steadily for the paper from the summer of 1958 to the summer of 1965.

In addition to her jazz reviews for The Times, Melnick covered classical music and theater events. She also wrote liner notes for albums by Bud Shank and Jack Wilson, and essays for periodicals such as Folklore International and the Jazz Review.

Her Double M Jazz Salon programs, which began in 1996, expanded from an initial mailing list of 50 to nearly 500 jazz fans. Among the many entertainment celebrities who were regulars at the events were actors Russ and Amber Tamblyn, Marla Gibbs, Morgan Freeman and Michael McGuire.

"I couldn't have created this myself," Melnick once told a friend. "I need the musicians. I need the audience. And when I saw how happy it made people, I thought, 'Gee, this is great,' because what started out as a very selfish kind of a motive turned out to be, 'Hey, I'm able to give something to the community,' and it's kind of gone beyond me now."

Melnick, whose husband died in 1982, is survived by her brother, artist Richard Clar.

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