America’s Most Fascinating Jazz Clubs

America’s Most Fascinating Jazz Clubs

The Jazz Bakery
3253 Helms Avenue
Culver City, CA 90034

“I couldn’t stand playing in one more club where everything was falling apart,” said Ruth Price, reliving her exacerbation. “You used to be able to play, to go across the country as a mid-level artist, play in the smaller establishments, and have people respect you. That’s not true anymore.”

Price knows what she’s talking about first-hand. A jazz singer and lyricist, she came to New York at the age of 20 and began working with the likes of Buddy Rich, Red Garland, Charlie Barnet, Charles Mingus and Dizzy Gillespie. When she resettled in Los Angeles in the 1960s, she became the featured vocalist at Shelley’s Manne-Hole where she recorded her best known album, Live at the Manne-Hole. She once received Down Beat‘s New Star Award.

Now Price has found herself on the other side of the club business as President and Artistic Director of The Jazz Bakery, her brainchild. To those who might mistakenly think she suddenly joined the other team, Price has created the Bakery from scratch. Designed according to her own artist-friendly specifications, it is the only full-time, non-profit jazz club in California and may be the only one in the country.

While the idea was still taking shape, Price outlined four absolute musts in having a venue she’d be proud to call her own:

  1. An audience that didn’t talk.
  2. A good piano that was well-maintained.
  3. Pretty colored lights. (“Nothing that makes you look green all the time,” as she put it.)
  4. A good sound system.

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Lee Konitz: All of Us
Lee Konitz – alto sax; Brad Mehldau – piano; Charlie Haden – bass
Recorded live at the Jazz Bakery on December 21, 1997
{Blue Note 98222}
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It doesn’t sound so hard to come by, but when asked if she had ever played in such an establishment, Price struggled and failed to recall the name of one small room in Hull, Quebec, a favorite among musicians.

“I thought to myself,” she says, “‘With all that in one place, wouldn’t the artists blossom?’ Now you can hear it.”

The Bakery certainly has all that and more. Open since October 1992, it feels more like a concert hall than a club, with stackable chairs sitting in neat rows. The audiences never make so much as a peep once the set has started. Youngsters and students are welcome. It’s clean, smoke-free, well-lit (with ambient lighting and many flattering spotlights), and has a high wooden trestle ceiling that makes for great acoustics.

The Jazz Bakery
Photo courtesy The Jazz Bakery

Price insisted on having a wooden stage as well; one was built at a cost of thousands of dollars. It turned out to be a wise investment because it allows her to present small chamber groups, unamplified ensembles, and even tap dancers. Gregory Hines who, like other tappers, considers the floor his instrument, calls it his favorite. The built-in sound booth makes live recording and radio shows – like 1998’s New Year’s celebration broadcast by NPR – an easier undertaking than in other venues.

The old Helms Bakery and garage, in which The Jazz Bakery dwells and for which it is named, attracts interest in its own right. Once a Los Angeles institution, its distinctive trucks drove through the neighborhoods selling the best donuts and other baked goodies. Its permanent signs remain just below the roof. A cafe, separately owned and operated, now occupies the front lobby and the enormous Antique Guild much of the remainder. The old Beacon Laundry, just across the street, is due for similar redevelopment and belongs to the same owner, Marks Reality Company.

When she began booking the room, Price chose musicians she knew or had played with: Tommy Flanagan, George Shearing, and Annie Ross, for starters. She presented local talent too, but found it wasn’t economically viable except in the case of special events. “I’d love to have more of them, but people come to see a name. They won’t pay the ticket price to hear locals because they can hear them in a bar or cafe, sit, drink, and talk without a cover charge.” On the up side, The Jazz Bakery is now a West Coast must for major touring artists, among them Hendricks and Ross, Brad Mehldau, Elvin Jones, and Max Roach. The venue, which has earned its reputation as being respectful to artists, should keep attracting them year after year. Meanwhile, Price continues to make use of her vocal talents as a lecturer in the Jazz Studies Program at UCLA.

From America’s Most Fascinating Jazz Clubs
by Lara Pellegrinelli
© 2000 NewMusicBox

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