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Santa Monica Hotel Lobby Doubles as Ideal Spot to Check In on Jazz Scene

<i> Zan Stewart writes regularly about music for Calendar</i>

The atrium lobby of the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel seems to have been designed with listening to music in mind.

The space is airy and light-filled, with tasteful furniture and eye-grabbing flower arrangements, and it ascends four floors to a glazed glass ceiling. The sounds that emanate from an adjacent lounge can be heard easily from anywhere in the atrium.

Take a recent Friday night, when Stephanie Haynes--whose latest album, “Here’s That Rainy Day” on Discovery Records, features the Cedar Walton trio--was entertaining in that lounge, backed splendidly by pianist Dave MacKay, bassist David May and guest drummer James Harris.

A visitor could sit on a comfy faded blue and lavender striped couch--there are several of these that, along with pink and red granite coffee tables, create a living-room ambience--and relax as Haynes’ version of “My Shining Hour” gently caressed the ear.

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Or, in the middle of the atrium, one might plop into a padded cane chair next to the koi pond, where the babble of a small fountain and the comings and goings of the fish added an agreeable accompaniment to Haynes’ efforts.

Still, the optimum place to fully appreciate the music was in the lounge itself. This small, cozy room--just off both the lobby and the hotel’s bar--contains a scattering of stuffed armchairs and low tables that allowed listeners to experience Haynes and her companions for the most part without visual obstruction or the interference of loud conversation.

One rarely hears a singer of Haynes’ quality, or a pianist of MacKay’s poise and warmth, in a hotel’s lobby lounge. After two instrumentals by MacKay’s trio--the bucolic “Cascade of the Seven Waterfalls” and the opening “Shining Hour,” Haynes launched into the tender, evocative “Someone to Light Up My Life.”

Haynes, dressed in a green satin jacket and black slacks and shoes, next offered an upbeat version of “The Song Is You,” where her flexibility with lyrics and rhythms--especially as she stretched words out over a beat or two, yet never lost her footing--clearly pleased some people.

“Man, she’s got great time,” said Chuck Niles, the KLON-FM jazz disc jockey.

“I love her voice. It’s sexy,” added Niles’ daughter, Tracy, a college student who was visiting from San Diego.

In the bar, where birds and sky are painted on the ceiling, only a few of the clientele seemed interested. One of these was hotel guest Guillermo Flores, 40, an investment banker from San Pedro Sula, Honduras.

“She’s very good. She’s singing a lot of my favorites,” he said as Haynes segued into a mellow, bluesy “Don’t Take Your Love From Me.”

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Flores, like Niles, was a repeat customer at Loews. “This is my hangout when I am in town,” he said. “They treat me well, and the music is fantastic. It’s a good place to come and sit after dinner.”

A spritely version of “When in Rome” and a brief up-tempo blues number closed the set. Haynes, who is based in Orange County, has been appearing at Loews at least one night a week for five months.

“It’s a nice room, and the audiences have been wonderful,” she said. “It’s a little slow tonight, though.” She said she relishes her freedom there--"I can sing anything I want to"--and the support she receives from MacKay.

“He’s absolutely one of the best accompanists in music,” she said. “He has incredible sensitivity, yet he can dig in without being obtrusive.”

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The music policy at the Loews lounge, where jazz is heard seven nights a week, is under the direction of pianist and composer Daniel May, David’s brother.

Daniel May, 30, came to the hotel in November, 1989, at the behest of managing director Sherrie Laveroni, for whom May had previously worked for several years at the Dana Point Resort. Laveroni had joined Loews that October.

“The woman is the hippest manager I’ve ever heard of. It’s kind of like having a patroness, as if I’m the court pianist at Loews,” said May, who recently completed the soundtrack to the upcoming film “Pizza Man,” written and directed by J. F. Lawton, who wrote “Pretty Woman.”

“She gives me a free hand about choosing the music, and she has good taste,” he added. “She’s always shied away from conventional hotel music fare,” such as schmaltzy solo pianists, he said.

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When May arrived at Loews, he described the music as “pretty bad, like they would have a pianist playing tunes from ‘Cats’ with a rumba beat.”

Things changed quickly. May and Laveroni felt that what was called for was acoustic mainstream jazz trios, often featuring a vocalist, and usually without drums. And, except for a brief experiment with rock in the summer of 1990, to coincide with the concerts on the nearby Santa Monica Pier, that’s what they’ve stuck with.

“We keep the music at a conversational level so people can talk; they don’t have to scream,” May said. “The challenge is to have music hip enough so that people will want to listen, and mostly it ends up being that.”

The current lineup, which runs through September, spotlights a variety of artists, including three members of the May family.

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On Sundays, it’s guitarist Ron Eschete and bassist Benjamin May (a third brother); Mondays, Daniel May and Eschete; Tuesdays, Daniel and Benjamin May; Wednesdays, Daniel May, David May and drummer Harris; Thursdays, singer Kate McGarry, with Daniel and Benjamin May; Fridays, singer Mary Ekler, with guitarist Mark Waggoner and David May, and Saturdays, Stephanie Haynes with Dave MacKay, David May and occasionally Harris on drums.

Entertainment hours are 6 to 10 p.m. Sundays through Wednesdays and 8:30 to midnight Thursdays through Saturdays. There is no cover charge.

Jazz is also on tap for the hotel’s Sunday brunch from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saxophonist Dave Moody’s trio performs. The charge is $31.

The lounge features a full bar, with well drinks averaging $4.25, call brands $5.25, and premium brands and blended drinks about $6.50. Bottled beers average $3.50, and there are several wines by the glass, priced from $5 to $8. Free hors d’oeuvres are served from 5 to 7 Mondays through Fridays; a small appetizer menu is also available.

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Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel, 1700 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica. Valet parking available; self-parking under the hotel (enter off Ocean Avenue on the south side of the hotel). (213) 459-6700.


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