It all started out with an orphaned piano.
Arriving just steps ahead of the county sheriff, who came to seize the piano as a result of an unpaid bill, longtime jazz vocalist
had to find the piano a home. Lunaria, a new club, tried it but didn't want it. "Would you mind telling the piano player to hold it down?" said Lunaria's obviously tin-eared owner. "These people are trying to talk!"
That began this particular piano's wilderness days. "It lived in a couple of different places," recalls Price. "Musicians' homes where they already had a piano, until the wife or girlfriend would say, 'This is enough pianos.'"
Until one day, when an old fan of Price mentioned that he had some space in his Culver City studio, inside the historic Helms Bakery Building on Venice Boulevard. He had always dreamed of presenting music on a Sunday afternoon, and Price began thinking to herself: "What if in one venue you could have just the handful of things that you always pray you're going to find when you walk into a place: a good piano, maintained and kept in tune. An audience that doesn't talk. A good sound system. A spotlight that isn't green. Years ago, almost everyone had those things. What happened?"
The answer to what happened was the Jazz Bakery, a nonprofit organization whose assets totaled the orphan piano and 148 plastic lawn chairs -- all the room would fit.
Before long, the Bakery gathered a loyal following. Four years later it burst out of its photographer's studio into a larger room in the same complex. Now, along with Catalina's in Hollywood, it's one of only two jazz venues in L.A. booking world-class talent every week of the year -- everyone from veterans like
to emerging stars such as
Price, an effervescent woman whose enthusiasm was never dampened by a business that has jaded almost everyone else, points out that the Bakery is a true performance space. No tables or waiters. A cafe in the lobby (under separate ownership) provides food and drink. "You know, nobody's ever talked here. The only sound that's ever had to be addressed -- in the sense of an audience annoyance -- somebody was snoring one night.
Pianist Walter Norris was playing and I went prowling around, trying to find the person and wake him up and ask him to leave. But it turned out it was Walter -- it was the sound he made when he played!" No wonder one musician recently described the Bakery as having the acoustics of Carnegie Hall, with none of the stuffiness.
As a nonprofit organization, the Jazz Bakery supplements its cash flow with donations. Jazz fans can "buy" a chair for $250, dedicating it with a plaque to their favorite musician. There are fund-raisers, such as next month's concert at the John Anson Ford Amphitheater with singers
. But the Bakery can't exist without a steady paying audience, and Price faces the same problems as every other would-be jazz impresario who has tried to make it in L.A.
Unlike New York, where the clubs are concentrated in a comparatively small area, jazz here is a victim of L.A.'s sprawl. "I know how far people have to go on the freeway to get home, and then to go out again," says Price, noting that opening even a major act midweek typically draws a skimpy crowd. Tonight, the Yellowjackets are playing to a half-full though enthusiastic house. "Californians don't go out until the weekend, they just don't. And they don't go out to late shows. I'm from back East and I've still never gotten over it -- this mad rush to get to bed!"
Record companies may help in lining up big-name talent, especially if the artist has a CD in current release. Still, Price notes, "
Jazz musicians are low man on the totem pole. A jazz record's success would be a failure in any other area of the company. So you see it reflected in how much money and personnel they can devote to the artist. You have to accept from the get-go that if you're playing jazz or presenting jazz, you better not be doing it because you're out to make the most money you can make, because that's not going to happen. Ever."
Ironically, the biggest threat to jazz clubs here has been the proliferation of company-sponsored musical events. On a typical summer weekend, there are free concerts at the LA County Art Museum, the Armand Hammer Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art, all of which put Price in the slightly awkward position of complaining about free music. "It's not just the museums. Each year there are more and more and more nights of major jazz artists presented free by corporate people. It's so many of them you can't count. You can't fight it in the summer. You might as well close. Someone else has three major talents that you'd have to pay thousands of dollars for, and they're free. And you can't beat free."
Price acknowledges that it's nice to attract people to cultural centers, but clubs like the Jazz Bakery are, she says, "the nitty-gritty. Something very important and special happens when guys get to play in the same room more than one night. The room is like a new band member. The first night is getting their sound in that room. It's an evolving that goes on. Given the opportunity to stretch and have a whole week, it just gets better and better. And they don't get to do that in more than a handful of places across the United States."
The Yellowjackets finish their first set, and as often happens in midweek, the crowd is invited to stay for the second. Most of them stick around. It's doubtful any of them realize that all this is possible because Ruth Price got to that piano a few hours before the county sheriff.
Michael Katz is a novelist, screenwriter and producer who lives in Los Angeles. Previously he has worked as a banker and financial analyst.