Despite Growing Pains, L.A. Jazz Scene Blossoms

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Drummer Martin Diller, a Bay Area native who came to L.A. in 2009 to study jazz at CalArts, also has found success as a hired gun, mainly in indie-rock circles, playing with the band Givers and ex-Dirty Projectors singer/guitarist Amber Coffman. He acknowledged that economic necessity drives some of his choices—there still aren’t enough jazz venues and gigs in L.A. to go around—but said he enjoys mixing things up. “Here, you gotta be flexible in order to work,” he said. “And that’s something that’s attractive to me as a musician.”

ON A COOL SATURDAY EVENING in October, Diller led his own quartet, featuring Holophonor’s Miro Sprague on piano, through a set of lyrical original compositions at the city’s newest jazz venue, Sam First. Tucked into a sleek lounge on the ground floor of an office building near LAX, surrounded by hotels and long-term parking structures, it’s an unlikely place for a jazz club. But the venue’s booker and Holophonor bassist Dave Robaire said owner Paul Solomon is committed to filling the intimate space’s calendar with top talent.

“Paul really wants to have more and more music at Sam First,” Robaire said, noting that the club initially only hosted weekend gigs, but recently began booking Thursday nights as well. “He definitely has a love for, I guess I would say, more modern styles of jazz.”

Robaire hopes Sam First, which has been operating for about a year, can address the L.A. jazz scene’s most pressing issue: a lack of venues that showcase its burgeoning pool of young talent. Ironically, just as phenomena such as the West Coast Get Down and Holophonor were bringing more attention to Los Angeles, many of its best jazz clubs were closing. A 2017 article by L.A. Weekly jazz critic Tom Meek rattled off the grim roll call of recently shuttered venues: Matsumoto’s 2nd Street Jazz, NOLA, Jax Bar & Grill, Typhoon, H.O.M.E. and the celebrated Jazz Bakery. Even the West Coast Get Down’s longtime home, the Piano Bar, abruptly closed its doors in 2016.

A handful of newer spaces have risen to fill the void, including ETA, Sam First and Tabula Rasa, a wine bar on Hollywood Boulevard. There’s also the Lodge Room and another recently opened venue, Zebulon, the West Coast reincarnation of the Brooklyn experimental music space of the same name, both of which sprinkle the occasional jazz night among their other offerings. But according to Robaire, it’s still not enough. “Some days I get five to 10 emails about playing Sam First,” he noted. “It’s kinda crazy.”

Among the city’s more venerable jazz institutions, only the World Stage in the historic Leimert Park neighborhood books young local talent on a regular basis. World Galaxy’s latest signing, a hip-hop-influenced group called Black Nile, often plays there, and like the Bluewhale, World Stage hosts a monthly jam session with Monk Institute students. But the venue’s executive director, vocalist Dwight Trible, said it can be a struggle to attract paying audiences for younger acts.

“I just think that it’s something about the mindset of the people here in Los Angeles that they believe that when it comes to jazz, they’re supposed to get it for free,” he said, citing free summer jazz series at places like the L.A. County Museum of Art and outdoor mall Hollywood & Highland, whose popularity seldom seems to trickle down to clubs that charge a cover. “This city is too big to not have enough people come and support 10 jazz venues. There’s just no excuse for that.”

ETA owner Ryan Julio said the solution is to present jazz in a setting that feels more familiar and less intimidating to younger audiences used to rock shows and hip-hop clubs. At his tiny bar, there’s no two-drink minimum or no-talking policy; bartenders happily rattle cocktail shakers (sometimes in time to the music) during performances, and a DJ in the corner spins jazz LPs between sets.

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July 2019
Anat Cohen
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