After 22 Years, Donte’s Owner Bids Adieu to Noted Jazz Club
Carey Leverette sits in the booth-sized, litter-cluttered office in back of Donte’s. At 63 and in uncertain health, he looks tired. He says he has been tired for years.
Soon, though, there will be time, not for booking musicians and taking out trash and washing dishes and filling salt and pepper shakers and buying food and liquor and paying bills, but time to lie back and reminisce. After tonight, Donte’s, the room he founded 22 years ago and that became one of the world’s most famous jazz clubs, will no longer be his property or his burden.
As he talks about the future--about Koichi Akemoto, the Japanese businessman who will take over the club next week, redecorate it and make all the improvements for which Leverette has had no money--he flashes back to the past.
“It all began,” he says, “when I was a dancer and choreographer. I met a lot of musicians at MGM and all the studios where I worked; I loved their music. With a partner, John Riccella, I found this empty building on Lankershim (in North Hollywood). We fixed it up and opened with just a piano bar.
“That was June 22, 1966. We started with Hampton Hawes on piano and Red Mitchell on bass. John didn’t think we could afford a drummer, so I took some money out of my own pocket and hired Donald Bailey.
“In October, Sunny McKay, who was a waitress here when we opened, and her husband, Bill McKay, bought out Riccella. Bill took care of the kitchen and Sunny handled the staff, the hosting and all that stuff; they were here in the daytime and I’d come in for the evening and look after the bar, the bookings, the publicity. So there were three of us to share the responsibilities.”
Soon it was decided that a piano bar wasn’t enough; it was replaced by a bandstand, and Donte’s began to book small groups, even big bands--first, Mike Barone, who was there every Wednesday for five years; then national name bands, starting with Stan Kenton, who one night observed: “You’re probably wondering how Donte’s can afford a big band. Well, our guys can outdrink the customers.”
The glory years saw Woody Herman, Mercer Ellington (soon after he inherited the band from his father) and Count Basie, who, says Leverette, “was so eager to play he’d sit down at the piano and start a set before we’d had time to turn the room over and cover his fee.”
Buddy Rich, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Gerald Wilson, Don Piestrup, Don Menza and Bill Holman brought in their big bands. So did Louie Bellson, who was a Thursday regular for almost three years.
“I remember Redd Foxx used to walk in, take over the mike and tell dirty stories--particularly when Pearl Bailey was here with Louie; it made her very nervous,” Leverette says.
Comedians liked Donte’s; Mort Sahl became a popular attraction.
“We’d book him only on weekends, because he brought in the doctors and lawyers who had to get up early and couldn’t be here on weekdays,” Leverette says.
In the early days certain rituals were followed. Once a year Sunny McKay, who was of Iranian origin, celebrated Persian New Year with appropriate cuisine. Every Monday for years, the late Jack Marshall, a studio guitarist, organized “Guitar Night,” at which Joe Pass was a regular for most of a decade. Larry Carlton, in an augury of things to come, broke records with his early fusion group.
Off or on the bandstand, celebrities used to flock to Donte’s. Clint Eastwood, a big band fan, came in often. Frank Sinatra was there, and Herb Alpert. Carmen McRae, who worked the room often, attracted fellow singers.
“One night,” Leverette recalls, “Sarah Vaughan and Morgana King came in to hear Carien, and the three of them were on stage singing together.
“Dizzy Gillespie came in one night and sat reading the fourth trumpet parts in Bill Berry’s band. Doc Severinsen did the same thing once with Bellson’s orchestra. Actually, Tommy Newsom brought in the entire ‘Tonight Show’ band several times, without Doc. He loved giving the men a chance to really loosen up and play at length.”
About 10 years ago Sunny and the ailing Bill McKay (now deceased) sold out their interest in the room. Operating it more or less single-handedly--despite the help of such aides as veteran bartender Bob Powell--proved difficult for Leverette and the room began to fall on hard times; the national names gave way to local, scale musicians; checks, as Leverette readily admits, began to bounce. He remembers what he calls the “faithfulness and unfaithfulness” of certain musicians.
“Art Pepper would never play anywhere else; he said I helped him out in lean times, and he became our regular New Year’s Eve attraction. But I felt very hurt when I would call certain other musicians, some of whom got their big break here, and ask them to play for one of our anniversary parties, and they’d be too busy or refer me to a manager.”
Leverette is grateful to men like Ross Tompkins and Conte Candoli, who for many months have led the Thursday night band and who never bother him about prompt payment. But problems with other payrolls, an automobile accident that left his right hand partly immobilized and an accumulation of other woes began to take their toll.
“One time the urinal in the men’s room overflowed; I had to get a mop, call the rooter company, and the guy looked in it and found 20 feet of twine. Well, it didn’t fall down there; someone had to stuff it in. Then there were the people who tore up the gardening out front, and the woman who dismantled the water closet mechanism and had water shooting up to the ceiling.
“When Bill McKay remodeled and put in those huge candelabras, people would somehow steal them and stuff them under their coats. No, it’s not been an easy job,” Leverette says.
The worst calamity was the sudden death of saxophonist Warne Marsh, who collapsed and died of a heart attack at Donte’s last December while in the middle of a set.
“It was a terrible moment; everybody on stage and off just froze,” Leverette says.
The future for Donte’s is set. Escrow is scheduled to close Tuesday.
“Pat Senatore, who will run the room for the new owner, is bringing in an architect. They won’t reopen until late June or early July,” Leverette says.
As for Leverette, he says he will “check into a hospital, relax, and get it over with.” He says he is ill but isn’t certain what is wrong. “I don’t like hospital food, but what the heck, at least they serve it to me.”