Loved around the world as a uniquely American art form, jazz has roots all across the country. We think of places like Chicago, St. Louis and New Orleans as jazz capitals, and rightly so. But when we speak of world-class musicians, great clubs, great performances and a great scene, another city comes to mind: Los Angeles, specifically the North Hollywood, Studio City and Toluca Lake area.
In the '60s, '70s and early '80s, when jazz was still in its heyday, there was no better place to go, or to play, than Donte's on Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood. Donte's, located on a piece of real estate that is now the home of Century West BMW, was host to such legends as Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Buddy Rich, Louie Belson, Joe Pass, Carmen McRae and Larry Carlton.
Celebrities like Clint Eastwood and Frank Sinatra hung out there along with the locals. Studio musicians would stop by after recording their albums or TV shows to listen or "sit in." One of our local greats—sax player, arranger and composer Don Menza, who played with Rich, Belson, Kenton and Maynard Ferguson—used to perform there with his big band.
"It was a great scene," said Menza, "like a hangout, or clubhouse for musicians. We loved going there, playing, and listening."
"It was the hottest jazz club around," recalled Studio City resident and sax player Bernie Fleischer, a former president of the Los Angeles Musicians Union who played alongside Les Brown, the Baja Marimba Band, Benny Goodman and Super Sax.
Donte's was a great hangout, but not necessarily a well-run business, according to some locals.
"Sometimes musicians waited a long time to get paid. Sometimes they didn't get paid at all," said Don Randi, owner of rival jazz club The Baked Potato.
at 3787 Cahuenga Blvd. West in Studio City, is the oldest surviving jazz club in Los Angeles. It was started by owner and noted musician Don Randi, who also plays in the house band Don Randi and Quest. The place is now run by Randi's son, Justin, who also plays and sings there. Randi can still be spotted, hanging out and keeping an eye on things.
Randi is noted, in the history of great studio musicians, as being a member of the "Wrecking Crew." This is the nickname for a group of talented players, with backgrounds in jazz, pop and classical music, who worked in the '60s and beyond on film scores, TV shows, jingles and hit records. Members included Randi, Hal Blaine, Glen Campbell, Tommy Tedesco, Carole Kaye, Leon Russell, Dr. John and Ollie Mitchell. There were others, whose names you might not know, but whose music is woven into the fabric of our culture.
The Baked Potato recently celebrated its 40th anniversary with a two-day festival at the John Anson Ford Theatre. The club received tributes and accolades from its illustrious alumni. Performers included Steve Lukather, Larry Carlton, Lee Ritenour, Jeff Richman, Michael Landau, Scott Henderson, Allan Holdsworth, Alan Pasqua, Abe Laboriel Sr., Greg Mathieson, Vinnie Colaiuta, Yellowjackets, the Jazz Ministry, and others.
The Potato is known for its showcasing of some of the greatest talent in jazz, fusion and, occasionally, rock. Its loyal regulars, who have been attending since Day One back in 1970, say that it is, and has always been, the best jazz club in town.
Running a music club is not easy. Survival takes hard work, dedication and a love of music.
"That is why they [The Potato owners] are still around," Menza said.
Fleischer, who has also played with Randi, called The Baked Potato "an amazing success story."
I remember, years ago, attending a fantastic performance by the Don Ellis group. I got there early, looked around, and noticed that there were more people on stage than in the audience. I thought, how can they afford to do this? But, the local jazz lovers started showing up for the late sets, and before long, the joint was really jumping.
I asked Randi the secret of the club's success and longevity. "It's simple," he said. "It's the musicians."
Funny, if you ask the musicians, you get a different answer. "It's simple," they say, "it's Don Randi."
For those of you who have not been to the club lately, or have never been: You are missing out on a great music evening. Check out the club's calendar here.