Like the proverbial Phoenix, LA’s Downtown isn’t just rising, it is surprising. Angelenos have a lot going on these days with a food scene on fire, a hipness resurgent in the club and bar scene, a Bill before the California legislature to extend drinking hours until 4am and now a re-emergence of live Music on the more intimate level. LA has always hosted hot concerts, big names and large venues for music but, of late, live music at the bar/club level has been somewhat in the doldrums or so under the radar that the majority have no clue where and what is happening. Jazz, in particular, has been hit hard with several of the old line clubs either closing, revamping or turning to “celebrity names” for shows. Happily, there has been a turn in the music market yet again and the truly alive Downtown LA has lead the way with the introduction of a true jazz bar: The Blue Whale.
With all due apologies for the title stolen from the Dolph Lungren classic “Showdown in Little Tokyo” (1991), there really is an incredible show going down in Little Tokyo in Downtown LA. It happens nightly at the Blue Whale Jazz + Art Space. The Club appears to be a bit difficult to find in that it is up on the third floor of an outdoor mall in Little Tokyo but if one follows the clues (and asks just about any open storekeeper or bar/restaurant worker en route) or their GPS, it is a snap. The Blue Whale features top-notch jazz talents, including some of the best up and coming young musicians, seven nights a week. The Club doors open at 8pm with the show starting at 9pm (though that is “jazz time” so if you are a minute or two late–no worries). The Club serves food but it is more of a bar feel and with some of LA’s greatest tastes within walking distance, I think the plan is dine first then head over to the Blue Whale for drinks and an incredibly cool yet very comfortable setting for live music. Its hip meets casual.
I went last week and caught the awesome quartet creatively named “Los Cuatro.” Music-wise, these guys are for REAL. They put on quite a show. The quartet is made up of young talent: It is Justin Vasquez, who recently released the CD Tryptich named as one of the top 10 Jazz albums, on the saxophone, Dennis Hamm a master at the keyboards and really fun to watch play, Jimmy Haslip, of the renowned Yellowjackets on bass, and Jimmy Branly, who is the frontman/spokesman, hitting percussion and keeping the audience in the mix and in the mood. Branly is Cuban American so the jazz occasionally has a Latin flavor though with some great twists. If this is the caliber of musicians the Blue Whale is bringing to Little Tokyo, the place is going to become a destination spot for LA.
The Blue Whale is comfortable and the crowd is generally a bit chatty before the show. It is not a traditional supper club styled space but rather a jazz club reinvent for the 21st century. The front room is a big bar (both for eating and drinking). The Bartenders were great. Sight lines from the Bar aren’t perfect so the Bar is really there for the pre-show, intermission between shows and to go back and forth to grab a drink during the show. There are no waiters nor was there any drink minimum, the show simply cost $15 at the door. The show space is great. They have some folding chairs for bigger audiences but also great and very comfortable cubes and contemporary couches (no backs) to sit on. The bottom line it works and the acoustics are spectacular.
If it sounds like I had a great night, you are right. And this was a Tuesday! Like the Phoenix, LA rises and surprises.
The Blue Whale Jazz + Art Space can be found at 123 Astronaut E S Onizuka St Los Angeles, California 90012 and at www.bluewhalemusic.com. The website has a daily rundown of talent for the present month and links to information regarding each of the acts including the webpages for the Los Cuatro musicians.
PS, for all my New Yorker friends, the terrific keyboardist, Dennis Hamm will be playing at BB Kings in New York City with the Larry Carlton Quartet on April 19. Run, don’t walk to that show!