Vine St. Bar & Grill--the Way Jazz Was Meant to Be Heard


Things got off to a slightly rough start at the Vine Street Bar & Grill in Hollywood the other night when bassist Marshall Hawkins missed the first tune with alto saxophonist Richie Cole’s quartet.

But if you closed your eyes, you might not have noticed his absence the way the ever-exuberant Cole, pianist George Gaffney and drummer Sherman Ferguson roared through a medium-fast take of “There Will Never Be Another You.” These guys are pros and not about to be thrown by the lack of a bass note or two.

Cole, a Northern Californian, plays the intimate room that’s across the street from the James A. Doolittle Theatre about twice a year. “Hey,” he said with a smile after the tune, not having a bassist “makes sense; you can make more money this way.” Then he and his fellows launched into the Jerome Kern classic, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and, before you knew it, Hawkins, bass in tow, scooted through the club’s double glass front doors and made his way to the bandstand.


About 20 people, from singles to foursomes, were enjoying Cole as the set began. They sat either in Vine Street’s main dining area, where there are 15 tables and booths, or in the bar, where there are 30 stools. The small audience mostly listened; some chatted with their friends.

The crowd had grown to about 45 by the time the band played its final number, a rousing version of Ray Noble’s “Cherokee,” to which Dan Bourgoise, seated at one of the tables adorned with pink tablecloths and complementary pink and green stoneware, gave a thumbs up sign.

“Hey, I’m prejudiced,” he said with a sly smile. It turns out that Bourgoise, at Vine Street with his wife, Kellie, and their friend, singer/songwriter Fontaine Brown, is head of Bug Music, which publishes Cole’s music, as well as tunes by Los Lobos, Marshall Crenshaw, Robert Cray and John Lee Hooker.

“I’ve been publishing Richie’s music for about 10 years,” Bourgoise said. “Richie was one of my first clients.”

Bourgoise is a fan not only of Cole’s, but also of Vine Street. “I like it because it’s small,” he said. “We were here for Johnny Otis a few months ago and we sat right in front of the horn section. There you can get an accurate feel for the music. It’s like hearing jazz the way people heard it years ago, and that’s fun.”

Debra Pontac, a medical transcriber from Hollywood, enjoyed Cole from a seat at the front of the bar, where she could be seen snapping her fingers and nodding her head in time with the music. She turned out to be another Vine Street regular.


“I come here every couple of months. It’s a listening room. For the most part, that’s why people are here. And I like the decor,” she said, looking at the grayish walls, red booths and tables of the main room.

Pontac described herself as “Richie Cole’s greatest fan. I like the theory of Alto Madness,” which is Cole’s nickname for his bands. “His sense of humor, generosity of spirit, he’s obviously having a good time. Plus he plays straight-ahead be-bop, which is what I like.”

Gaffney walked over to the bar and ordered a drink. “I still can’t get over” Sarah Vaughan’s death, he said, lighting a cigarette. Gaffney had played piano for Vaughan, who died earlier this year, for the last 10 years of her life.

“It’s kind of ironic. I went to hear Ella Fitzgerald at the Bowl last week and I was thinking of how when Ella was sick, we covered some of her dates for her, including one at the Bowl.”

Asked what he liked about Vine Street, he said: “I like any room where they have a good piano, as they do here. Plus it’s small and that suits me; it’s comfortable. The people are right on top of you.”

When owner Ron Berinstein bought Vine Street, entertainment was the last thing on his mind.


“I saw an ad in the newspaper saying this restaurant was for sale and thought, ‘Gee, that would make a good place for a steakhouse, right across from the theater,’ ” he said during the break. The 40-year-old owner was seated in his cramped upstairs office in front of a bank of Atari computers and monitors.

“So far, I guess that hasn’t happened,” he said with a chuckle.

Berinstein, a native of New York state and former commercial pilot, aviation instructor, illustrator and furniture manufacturer’s rep, opened his first restaurant, Adagio on Melrose Avenue, in 1977. So when he bought Vine Street in 1981, he opted for a similar choice of cuisine. And people liked the food.

“We’d be packed from 6 to 8 p.m.,” Berinstein said. “We still are, but then there’d be nothing until after the theater let out, so I thought, ‘Why not entertainment?’ We decided we were just the right size for a jazz room.”

When Vine Street first offered music in early 1982, clarinetist Miriam Cutler, who still occasionally plays the room with her band Swing Street, was the attraction. To draw the after-theater crowd, Berinstein, who could have been a carnival barker in a former life, would stand in front of the then-Huntington Hartford Theatre (now the Doolittle) and hawk Cutler’s wares.

“We had a spotlight on Miriam standing on the roof of the club playing,” Berinstein recalled fondly. “And when people exited from the theater, I’d be there, saying”--and here he went into his routine--” ’Ladies and gentlemen, Big Band music, the music of Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Billie Holiday and Count Basie, right across the street, underneath the lady in the spotlight.’ ”

After Cutler established the room’s entertainment policy, bigger names came in. Singer Maxine Weldon got the ball rolling, and from there the club has been filled with people like Joe Williams, Cab Calloway, Woody Herman, Anita O’Day, Marlena Shaw, Mose Alison, Dizzy Gillespie, Poncho Sanchez, Dave Frishberg and Cole. They’ve made Vine Street one of Los Angeles’ top jazz clubs.


It’s open Tuesdays through Sundays, with the first show at 9:15 p.m. Entertainment charges range from $5 to $35, and customers are asked to purchase an item off the menu in the main room. Although Vine Street has a two-drink minimum, it’s not strictly enforced.

The Italian cuisine at Vine Street is under the direction of Antonio Ruggieri, a native of Potenza, Italy, who has been associated variously as a chef, captain and general manager with Mum’s in Long Beach, Rex Il Ristorante in Los Angeles and Il Nido in New York City.

The menu changes monthly but there’s always chicken, veal, steak, swordfish, scampi and a daily fresh fish, in addition to a number of pastas.

“We make our own pasta and every item is cooked to order; nothing is prepared ahead of time,” said Ruggieri, who greeted customers outside the room during Cole’s first set.

Entrees average $17.50, appetizers are around $7.50 and desserts are in the $5 range.

Berinstein says the room is doing “as well as can be expected. We function as a jazz club and as a restaurant, and one serves as buffer for the other. Jazz has been pretty strong, though, with only two major losses in the last year. That’s kinda nice.”

The owner noted that there were rewards far away from the bottom line in running a jazz room. “I’ve been lucky in having so many artists visit here so that I can learn about them, about their lives, why they create, why they’re jazz people. It’s a privileged feeling.”


Asked if he had a fond memory, Berinstein recalled his association with Big Joe Turner, the great blues singer who died in 1985 and who worked Vine Street regularly the last two years of his life.

“He’d sit on the stage on this big curved bench we found for him and that’s where he’d stay,” Berinstein said. “Joe, because he was so overweight, didn’t want to walk around a lot between sets and, like others here, he’d sell albums on the break, but he’d stay on his bench instead of going to the dressing room. He’d say to the crowd, ‘All right, you all line up and I’m gonna sign the album for you.’ Afterwards, we’d always have a big pile of cellophane over by the drums from all the albums he’d sold and signed.”

The memory of Turner made Berinstein reflect. After a pause, he said quietly: “If I had to do it all over again, with the exception of some of the bad nights, I guess I’d do it the same way.”