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The doors are closing, but the Jazz Bakery is still in play

May 29, 2009 |  1:43 pm

The lauded music venue may be closing its doors this weekend, but owner Ruth Price is working on plans to keep the music going.

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The Jazz Bakery, a staple of the L.A. music community, will close its doors Sunday after losing its lease, but owner Ruth Price insists it's too early to write a eulogy for the club, which has occupied the same space at the Helms Bakery District for the last 16 years.

"I've been really stressing the word moving, not closing," she said. "But it's been really hard to get people's mind-set away from the most dramatic thing they can think of. It is pretty dramatic any way you look at it, frankly."

Given that the similarly lauded music venue Largo pulled off a successful (if more voluntary) transition to the Coronet Theater last year, Price has reasons to be hopeful. Despite the tough economic climate and the fact that jazz continues to be faced with a shrinking and fragmented audience, she's fielding a number of offers to keep the Bakery alive.

She's working on a partnership with the Grammy Museum downtown that will allow her to present a run of shows there starting as early as late summer, along with tentative plans with Culver City's Kirk Douglas Theatre to take over the space on open nights.

She has also pinpointed two potential sites on the Westside for the club's new permanent home and is working with architects on preliminary sketches. Still, there is no fixed timetable for a new location, or any guarantee that one truly will come to fruition.

"Everywhere we go people talk about our cachet," Price said. "And my joke is I wish we had cash instead of cachet!"

Although the Bakery is insulated somewhat by grants as part of its nonprofit status, the grim reality is that 2009 is a tough time for jazz clubs across the country. Detroit's venerable Baker's Keyboard Lounge, which has hosted John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, announced it also might close at the end of the month after recently celebrating its 75th anniversary.

If the Bakery fails to find a new home, that will leave Los Angeles with only one club that hosts nationally touring jazz artists on a regular basis: the Catalina Bar & Grill in Hollywood, which like many area jazz clubs requires a two-drink minimum or dinner purchase on top of parking and admission costs.

Add it up and an evening of jazz quickly becomes cost-prohibitive for young or less solvent music fans -- to say nothing for what this could mean for nationally recognized artists touring the West Coast.

"Other entrepreneurs are going to have to start [opening] different jazz venues in places people may not think are jazz places," said LeRoy Downs, a DJ at radio station KKJZ-FM (88.1) who hosts a number of local jazz shows. "Just so we can have musicians still call Los Angeles a viable place to come for music."

In recent months, the Bakery has struggled with attendance -- the room, which holds 214 people, should draw a good crowd tonight for its final major jazz performance with bassist Scott Colley's quartet, but at times has had trouble reaching capacity. Most shows at the club cost a minimum of $25, even for lesser known acts like a sparsely attended recent Monday night show with Iraqi American trumpeter Amir ElSaffar.

"The Bakery is a large enough room that you could get a lot of people in there -- not that a lot of people would always turn out," said drummer Peter Erskine, who frequently played the Bakery. "L.A.'s L.A., it's hard to get people to come out. I don't know, what's the [missing] ingredient?"

"Easy parking," he suggested with a laugh.

Parking has grown more difficult since the arrival last year of trendy gastropub Father's Office, but the Bakery has remained beloved by members of the local jazz community because of its strict focus on music. Unlike other clubs, there is no food or drink service, something the featured performers appreciate.

"Clubs are fun . . . but you know, they all have ice blenders and telephones and chatty people that come in for reasons other than listening to music," Erskine said. "The great thing about the Bakery was that it's a listening room, and so the philosophy of the room is what I think made every musician fall in love with the place."

Last week, a predominantly older crowd with a few clusters of excitable young students filed into the Bakery's performance space to see local pianist Billy Childs, who was beginning a four-night run at the Bakery.

As with most every performance, Price addressed the audience before and after Childs' set, making a point to remind everyone to sign up for the club's e-mail list.

In the lobby after the show was Douglas Mosher, 22, a recent USC music graduate with shoulder-length hair and an easy smile. A student of jazz saxophone, he's been coming to the Bakery all through college, and even got onstage two years ago as part of the club's student nights.

He's long been a fan of the venue's student discount program that takes a bite out of what he considers the high price of jazz, but the Bakery's unique vibe is what he'll really miss.

When asked where he'll go after the Bakery closes its doors, he's much less certain.

"I don't know, I guess I'm not going to see as much," he said, the Bakery lobby's exhibition of images of jazz greats looming over his shoulder. "I'll just kind of wait and see what their next move is."

--Chris Barton

Photo: The Scott Colley Quartet performs at the Jazz Bakery on May 28. Credit: Jay Clendenin / Los Angeles Times

Note: An earlier version of the story misidentified LeRoy Downs as a former DJ at KKJZ. Downs hosts a Saturday program on the station from noon to 2 p.m.

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