On a recent Sunday, renowned mainstream saxophonist Frank Morgan was wailing on the bandstand at Catalina Bar & Grill in Hollywood, arguably Los Angeles’ No. 1 spot for acoustic, name jazz.
Morgan, a former Angeleno who makes his home in Brooklyn, was playing Wayne Shorter’s blues number “Footprints” to a small but enthusiastic crowd.
“Tootie, Tootie!” called a woman in her 30s from one of the bar stools that flank a low wall dividing the bar from the main room. She was yelling to Tootie Heath, Morgan’s drummer, who was creating a furor behind the saxman that was as robust and colorful as his pill-box African hat.
A different band brought a different crowd the next Tuesday. This time the room was packed with youngish faces, and the bandstand was occupied by pianist Andy LaVerne, a Manhattanite who engaged three top Los Angeles area players: bassist John Patitucci, saxman Bob Sheppard and drummer Dave Weckl. They delivered some originals that landed stylistically somewhere between funky jazz/fusion and rippling post-bop acoustic sounds.
The audience, although larger than Sunday’s, was more subdued. Many were there to hear Patitucci and Weckl, a highly regarded pair who are usually found in the employ of famed keyboardist Chick Corea in both his Elektric and Akoustic bands. For the most part, the patrons sat quietly during the improvisations, saving their applause and shouts of encouragement until solos were completed.
Two nights, two bands, two crowds, two responses. Morgan, a former Charlie Parker devotee who now has a much more individual approach, and LaVerne, whose work shows he has listened hard to men such as Bill Evans and McCoy Tyner, are typical of the breadth of first-class talent at Catalina Bar & Grill.
Others who have played there, and who will play there again, are among jazz’s Who’s Who. They include trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Freddie Hubbard; saxmen Jackie McLean, Pharoah Sanders and Phil Woods; pianists Ahmad Jamal, Eliane Elias and Michel Petrucciani, and drummers Tony Williams, Elvin Jones and Louie Bellson.
By consistently booking jazz greats such as these for the 4 1/2 years it has been open, the 110-seat club has become the haunt of cognoscenti and neophytes alike, the place for modern, name-brand mostly acoustic jazz. Romanian emigrants Catalina and Bob Popescu are the owners.
“Thank God for this place. When I see names like Elvin (Jones) and Phil (Woods) on the schedule, well that’s a blessing for jazz fans,” jazz announcer Chuck Niles said before LaVerne and company started their first set Tuesday.
Niles is a regular. “With a lineup like this,” he said, holding up the club calendar, “I’m not going to be in here at least once a week for the next three months?”
Saxophonist Sheppard, chatting with friends near the bar, is another booster. “This is the only real jazz club in town,” he said. “It doesn’t have that L.A. slickness that many rooms have.”
Sheppard, 38, of North Hollywood has been playing in bands led by Hubbard and pianist Billy Childs for more than seven years and was part of a big New Year’s Eve bash at the Catalina that was broadcast on National Public Radio.
He said he found the room’s audience almost ideal. “People come here to listen to serious music. And it feels like they’re listening when I’m on the bandstand playing. You can play your best stuff. You don’t have to water it down. At some clubs, you have to interpret what people want. Here they want to be blown away.”
Drummer Mike Saure, sitting with friend Heather Hathwell, 25, agreed: “I’ve heard great music here and tonight the band was fabulous. The musicians were into it.”
Saure, 23, of West Los Angeles plays Thursdays through Saturdays with bluesman J. J. (Bad Boy) Jones at Harvelle’s in Santa Monica.
“And they didn’t play too loud, just about right for the size of the room,” he added.
Newcomers also seem to appreciate it.
“I didn’t really know about Catalina’s,” said tape editor Jeffrey Spero, 29, of Palms. He said he usually went to clubs such as the Baked Potato in North Hollywood and Bon Appetit in Westwood.
“I’m a funk fan but I also like this kind of music,” he said. “I’m coming back.”
When the Popescus opened Catalina Bar & Grill in June, 1986, the room specialized in continental cuisine with an accent on seafood. Catalina Popescu, 35, formerly a caterer and later the food and spirits buyer for Bullock’s Wilshire, said: “The restaurant was doing fair but not great, and since I knew some people in the music industry . . . I asked them, and they thought jazz was a great idea.” She handles the majority of the room’s operations, from overseeing the restaurant to making most of the bookings. Her husband, in the construction business, handles the room’s maintenance.
Los Angeles woodwind veteran Buddy Collette inaugurated the music policy Oct. 23, 1986, and Popescu was thrilled with the results. “Oh, the first couple of days it was great,” she said. “Buddy did a lot of P.R. on the radio and there were a lot of people interested in seeing what this new place was like.”
The room presented artists Thursdays through Sundays for a few months, then switched to the present schedule of Tuesdays through Sundays. Los Angeles area musicians filled the roster until March, 1987, when the club offered its first touring attraction, Gillespie. Things haven’t been the same since.
“Whatever happened was wonderful. Even though it was Easter weekend, we got this place packed,” Popescu recalled.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing. “That was when Miles (Davis) was out front and in my way, and I told him to move, not knowing who he was,” she said with a laugh.
Gillespie’s appearance put the club on the national jazz map and, since then, 90% of the room’s artists are on tour, arriving for stands of at least six nights.
These bands can be expensive, and a trip to Catalina Bar & Grill can be, too. Cover charges range from $10 to $18 weeknights and Sundays, to $15 to $25 Fridays and Saturdays, plus a two-drink minimum or dinner purchase. (For the second set on Sundays and Tuesdays through Thursdays, the room reduces cover charges 50% for students with current I.D.)
The kitchen, under the direction of Bernard Louberssac, still serves continental cuisine. Items on the menu, which always features a variety of fresh seafood in addition to veal, chicken and pasta, average $15. Drinks and wine by the glass average $4, and there’s also a wine list.
Popescu said that despite the recession, she continues to do good business. “With the quality of music and the place we have, we draw because we offer food for the soul,” she said. “People come here and forget about their problems.”
The owner works hard, sometimes 14 hours a day “if not more,” she said, adding, “So what? I really enjoy what I’m doing. . . . It’s an accomplishment; it’s happiness; it makes me feel good, and it shows on my face.”
Catalina Bar & Grill, 1640 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood. Open 7 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. (213) 466-2210.