On a brisk spring weekday night, Martial Solal, the Parisian piano legend, is holding court before a modest but keenly attentive assortment of devotees at the Jazz Bakery in Culver City, Calif.
His music is a joyous melange of traditional swing and avant bop that plays havoc with one’s expectations — truly the sound of surprise.
There’s a concert hall gravity to the performance that suits the Bakery just fine. Solal, a huge name in Europe who’s scored a number of notable films including Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless,” has never played in L.A.
But unlike most jazz supper clubs, the Bakery is a pure aural experience that attracts musicians who might not otherwise play in a town known for its fickle tastes — world-class players like Paul Bley and Lee Konitz, who both hail from New York.
The venue’s vaulted, wood-trestled ceiling and resonant acoustic baffling suggests a cathedral setting. The 200-seat capacity club, which will celebrate its 10th anniversary this fall, demands reverence from the most discriminating player and listener.
During intermission, Solal’s bassist Francois Moutin wanders outside for a cigarette. It’s his first night at the Bakery and he is an instant convert. “All the attention is on the music,” he says. “It’s good for our ego. Of course, the typical jazz club … eating, drinking and maybe a song they recognize so they’ll clap or dance. But here … we can do some serious listening.”
Serious listening is exactly what Jazz Bakery founder Ruth Price had in mind. A distinguished jazz singer whose roots reach back to Philadelphia in the ’50s, Price commands the room with the impresariolike stature of a Sol Hurok.
She books all the acts, writes all the checks and beseeches her benefactors to keep her nonprofit enterprise afloat.
After introducing the band for the second set, Price closes the concert doors behind her and finally takes five.
“There was never any plan,” she says. “It just happened. Dave Grusin left me his 9-foot grand piano after our relationship ended. I needed some place to put it. Jim Britt, a singer who had a photography studio here at the Helms building, let me store it with him. It seemed silly to let it go to waste so I went and bought 148 plastic chairs and two or three nights a week we threw a party. I bought pound cake from Ralphs, sold decaf and called in some friends to play.”
Friends like Tommy Flanagan, who initiated the club, followed by Michel Legrand and Dave Grusin. There were no contracts signed, no formal constraints. Just a Rolodex filled with a lifetime of legends, informed only by her felicitous taste in music.
By 1992 it was time to move. There were complaints about noise as the club’s following swelled. She designed the current space to her specifications. “I decided to be a nonprofit from the beginning because I did not want to be the kind of club that only works if you’re a big star. I wanted to focus the attention on the music and that’s what we’ve got — total focus.”
That focus comes at a price. Audiences for jazz peak and trough. Running a club is not for the fiscally fainthearted.
“I sometimes think that only jazz musicians can run a jazz club because they’re the only ones that are crazy enough or care enough.”
Price says she was with Shelly Manne when he found the legendary Mannehole on Cahuenga Boulevard in the early ’60s. “He wanted it to be primarily a place for the musicians to hang out,” she recalls. “But here it is just the opposite. They treat it like a concert destination venue. And the audiences change drastically from gig to gig. Maybe it’s that L.A. thing — the drive. We’re too spread out.”
Jazz has always thrived in a hothouse environment. New York’s fabled 52nd street was a rabbit warren of clubs, cabarets and juke joints for the terminally hip and sailors on leave. Similarly, Paris’ Rue des Lombards crackled with Le Jazz Hot for the Continental demimonde. Los Angeles’ own Central Avenue in the 1940s held a palpable sway over the burgeoning jazz scene. For Price, those formative years were more than giddy memories; they laid the foundation for her life’s work.
“I was a little white singer with stars in her eyes being mentored by Philly Joe Jones, Red Garland and Bill Evans,” she says. “I assumed I’d always be surrounded by musicians of their caliber and for the most part I have.”