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JAZZ HITS HIGH NOTE : A trio of venues is attracting new and dedicated fans who have a chance to hear top performers in a variety of styles.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Throughout its rich history, jazz has known its fair share of highs and lows. Sometimes exalted, sometimes orphaned, sometimes left to fend for itself in the ranks of publicly available music, jazz has proven itself to be not only “America’s greatest indigenous art form,” but also a stubborn current in the river of American culture.

When not afforded a decent place to do business and art, jazz has lurked in the corners and has been found slinking down back alleys. Venues will come and go. Public appetite will wax and wane. But jazz will win out.

Even in Ventura County.

By some definitions, jazz is a language forged out of urban experience, a blend of roots music, such as the blues and pop forms, but with more sophisticated harmonic and rhythmic elaboration. Ventura County has always been a region proudly cleaved from the metropolis, basking in suburban and ex-urban splendor. There was no reason to expect that jazz would take root here, and yet it has.

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At least two Ventura-raised jazz musicians have gone East and gained acclaim. Most notably, the ever-venturesome pianist Joanne Brackeen is a Venturan who has made very good. Alto saxophonist Dave Binney, currently with the tantalizing post-fusion group Lost Tribe, cut his musical teeth in his Ventura hometown, playing at Charlie’s and other places.

The point can be made that these and other musicians flourished by leaving. But Ventura County is home to a number of bold musicians who appreciate the easy commuting distance to Los Angeles. It can also be a musical stomping ground.

No one will say that jazz in Ventura County has enjoyed a feast, but the situation now lies somewhere between feast and famine--and closer to the former than the latter.

In the last few years, a prime locale for jazz has been that remote corner outside Ojai, Wheeler Hot Springs. Jazz first took root there in 1987, at a time when jazz in Ventura had become almost an oxymoron. The policy expanded to include showcase concerts by visiting artists of renown. What if Wheeler hadn’t picked up the ball, bringing jazz back to these parts?

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Lanny Kaufer, who has booked jazz at Wheeler for years, reasons, “nature abhors a vacuum, and something would probably fill the void. The market is still so mass-oriented that it’s still a challenge to get the word out to those few people who really value the kind of music we appreciate here.”

Wheeler’s jazz policy, which has grown over the years, has become a stable, stalwart fixture, but it’s not the final word in live jazz. It is now possible to fill an evening with jazz by crisscrossing the county. Begin your sojourn over dinner up at Wheeler on one of the weekends when the fine pianist Milcho Leviev is on the job. Later, head to downtown Ventura to 66 California to catch a set of the Johnny Veith Trio, frequently bolstered by various guest soloists or singers. Finally, head to Friends and Strangers, the promising new jazz showcase club tucked away in a frontage road location on the eastern edge of Ventura.

There is jazz to be found elsewhere, as well, in restaurants around the county with fickle or casual jazz booking policies, or at the Ventura Theater, through which popular pop-jazz acts breeze. But at this juncture, these three jazz venues add up to a kind of sturdy, hopeful triangle in a scene that’s subject to, and destined for, change.

FAR FROM THE MADDING MASSES

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* Wheeler Hot Springs, 16825 Maricopa Highway (California 33), Ojai, 646-8131.

No small part of the charm of Wheeler Hot Springs is the getting there. Twisting your way up the Maricopa Highway (California 33), ascending out of Ojai proper, the realization becomes ever clearer: You’re not in Ventura anymore.

There is an odd, enchanting aura about Wheeler as a musical venue, with an atmosphere at once living-room familiar and a bit mystical. On a good night with a good musician on stage, it’s one of the most distinctive listening experiences in Southern California.

Take the night a year ago in December that the late, great guitarist Joe Pass played in one of his last solo performances. Pass was, as usual, jovial and deceptively casual, interspersing his elegant fret-board maze-work with wry banter. No one knew that Pass, a very warm and alive presence that night, would succumb to cancer five months later. In retrospect, it was a beautiful valedictory.

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Then, last January, came the belatedly acclaimed tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson. Although he didn’t seem to reach his expressive cruising altitude with the pickup band on hand, it was reward enough to hear the mighty Henderson in such a nest-like atmosphere. He slipped into a lavish chorus of “Lush Life,” which was like someone slipping into a hot spring.

Although a core audience keeps Wheeler’s jazz concert series alive, jazz is never a sure sell, particularly when the programming veers off the tried-and-true course.

“We’re finding that the jazz audience is not your mass, popular audience,” Kaufer said, in understatement. “Obviously if we had Kenny G up here, we’d have to do five shows and have a waiting list. We’re committed to doing serious mainstream--I don’t mean serious in the sense of somber. I mean music with exciting improvisation, the stuff that real jazz is made of.”

At Wheeler, it all began in 1987 when the potent, well-connected jazz pianist Theo Saunders, who had recently moved to Ojai from New York City, developed a rapport with John Kaufer, then running the restaurant. A Sunday concert series began, featuring such friends of Saunders as John Scofield, Joe Diorio, Lanny Morgan and Bob Brookmeyer.

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“That just took off like gangbusters,” Lanny Kaufer said.

Then, tragedy struck. John was killed by a falling tree on the property in October, 1987, leaving the duties of tending the restaurant and its musical menu to older brother Lanny. “We had a jazz show planned for the day after (John) was killed,” Kaufer said. “We went on with the show and it turned into a big tribute to John.”

Music appreciation and promotion runs hot in the Kaufer family, which has contributed to the cultural pulse of the county. Brother Michael has long put on blues shows in the area and beyond, and his annual Bowlful of Blues in Ojai has become an institution. Meanwhile, Lanny has attended to the jazz terrain, bringing credentialed, legendary artists to the Wheeler hearth.

Was the Wheeler jazz series launched to fill a void? “I think there’s always been a void in this county,” Lanny Kaufer said.

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In 1990, Wheeler made official its policy of putting on Sunday jazz concerts, kicking things off auspiciously with tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd.

“Then Theo put a group together and (pianist) Larry Karush put a group together, but while, artistically, they were great evenings, they just didn’t have the draw, predictably, of a Charles Lloyd or a Mose Allison, who was our next show,” Kaufer said.

Next came another sold-out show with Charles Brown, the blues-jazz veteran. The list of musicians to-date includes Kenny Burrell (who will return Sunday), Lee Oskar, Oscar Brown Jr., Buddy Collette, Ray Brown, Dorothy Donegan, Chico Hamilton, Les McCann, Eddie Harris, Terry Gibbs, Bobby Watson, and a Robben Ford/Roger Kellaway show in November.

Apart from the special dinner-concert events that happen roughly once a month, some of the pianists booked to play during dinner are worth making the trip to hear--especially when that pianist is Milcho Leviev, a Bulgarian emigre who is one of the finer players on the West Coast.

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As for the jazz dinner/concert series, which includes pianist James Williams on Jan. 22, Kaufer hopes to keep the flame alive with mainstream reliables, while stretching into more adventurous fare and hiring younger, lesser-known musicians.

“We hope that once people have come to a show here . . . they will learn to trust our judgment . . . so that even if we bring someone they haven’t heard of, they’ll know that it’s going to be worth coming to.”

FLATLANDER JAZZ

* 66 California, 66 California St., 648-2266.

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It may lack certain jazz club trappings, but 66 California has centrally located written all over it. The name is the address. The venerable Ventura City Hall, with its ornate imperiousness, looms nearby. Down the street several blocks, past the Holiday Inn, is the beach.

In case the music steers you off course, the decor gives you a sense of bearing. Design paraphernalia--a set of oars over the door, a “Beach” sign pointing left, are all trappings of a Southern California beach town.

But there’s a jazz aura around the makeshift stage, where walls boast photos of Betty Carter, Freddie Hubbard, Art Pepper and the West Coast titan of the modern saxophone, Harold Land. Land, in fact, has graced the humble stage as one of the guests of the house band led by pianist Johnny Veith.

Jazz wasn’t always welcome here. 66 owner Frank Barong had been serving up acoustic blues, with scant success, when pianist Jim Petrarca, a longtime Venturan, suggested that Barong give jazz a try. That moment of transition, two years ago in March, led to a successful jazz takeover at a time when downtown Ventura was desperately in need of a lift. Vibist Fred Raulston, who now decamps at the Red Lion in Santa Barbara, did the honors of breaking in the place.

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Raulston, with bassist Henry Franklin and drummer Jim Christie, established the eatery as a long-awaited forum for a live jazz revival in town. After several months with Raulston at the helm, Barong bought a baby grand piano and realized that he needed someone to work the thing.

“I decided to make a switch,” he said. “I talked to some musicians and asked ‘What is more common for jazz?’ I’m just learning about this myself. The piano is more a standard jazz-oriented instrument than the vibes. People relate to it more.”

Veith, who lives in the San Fernando Valley, settled into the 66, bringing with him a sometimes startling flexibility: campiness, be-boppish gymnastics, crooning and musical style-bending are all within Veith’s grasp, depending on the night and who the special guest might be. This past year, the guest list has included tenor sax greats Land and Pete Christlieb, trumpeter Stacy Rowles (who returns on Jan. 14), as well as a host of vocalists, who tend to appeal to a different brand of jazz fan and a broader base of listeners.

Recent Fridays have belonged to Carole Diamond, a seasoned singer who oscillates between world-weary suavity and bluesy sass. On a recent date, Diamond, in a red-sequined gown, worked the room. “My plumber is a hummer,” she growled softly, smirking in sync with the camping band, which that night was composed of Veith, bassist Franklin--who commutes from Perris--and wily drummer Chuck Flores. She finished a set, and the trio kicked into the customary brisk, swinging break tune. Veith’s fingers flew.

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Veith can be heard a few times a week at this address, and the jazz schedule is getting denser. Recent Sunday nights have featured pianist Theo Saunders, the influential local jazz figure who now lives in Santa Barbara, along with drummer Christie.

“I’ve had people come in from out of town and really like it,” said Barong. “A gentleman came in from Vegas last month and said, ‘you know, we don’t have jazz this good in Las Vegas.’ It’s just a matter of getting the word out.”

One of the secrets to success is luring an audience from outside of Ventura. “I have a lot of people on the mailing list from L.A. and Thousand Oaks, Simi Valley and that area. A lot of people come because they know the musicians who are coming here from L.A., so that’s a good draw also.” One of his allies in Los Angeles has been sagacious jazz deejay Chuck Niles, who promotes the 66 regularly on station KLON.

Many restaurants have tried jazz, only to back away without giving the music a chance to find an audience--and vice versa. In this case, the jazz experiment appears to have paid off. Encouraged by the response, Barong plans to move and expand the stage this year and try out larger shows with bigger-name players.

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“It’s relaxing,” he said. “You’re not going to the Bombay or the Metro Bay club. Even though they offer good music for that clientele, that’s not what I want. I don’t want a bar with music. I want a restaurant that has music, and cater to that crowd. The more people figure what’s going on here, the better my business will get.”

USER FRIENDLY

* Friends & Strangers, 6635 Ventura Blvd. Ventura, 650-8850.

The newest jazz venue on the block differs from the others in many ways. For one thing, Friends & Strangers is off the beaten path, and not necessarily in a quaint and endearing way, a la Wheeler.

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Located at edge of Ventura, across from Oxnard on the frontage road of Ventura Boulevard, the place is an odd triangular sliver of a structure sandwiched between Korb’s and Toys R Us. The main tip-off as to what goes on inside is the sign out front--a golden, glowing saxophone.

Location notwithstanding, this does happen to be the best-equipped jazz showcase club around. Whereas other venues are restaurants first, jazz haunts second, everything about Friends & Strangers is oriented toward the music itself. Equipped with a respectable stage and a good sound system, the club is open only on weekends and features different acts each week. It stands a chance of becoming the intimate (capacity: 100) club venue that the county is otherwise lacking.

The partners in this musical venture didn’t meet in a jazz environment but on a football field. Dwayne Johnson was a defensive back and Joe Turner a wide receiver when they met at Ventura College in 1979. Turner went on to a scholarship at USC and Johnson to the University of Louisville. But they renewed their friendship back in Ventura County, where both worked with the Youth Authority.

They had a brainstorm, not unlike other would-be club owners who dream of starting their own place. “What really helped us, " Johnson said, “was going to 66 California and seeing that that was the only jazz venue in Ventura. We thought, ‘Hey, we should really try to make a move and find some folks who like jazz like we do.’ We went with that. It’s history in the making right now.”

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The place that was to become Friends & Strangers had once been a club called Deja Vu. When the partners first saw it, the interior was splashed liberally with fluorescent shades of paint. “We went in and it was thoroughly trashed,” Johnson said. “It was discouraging.”

The partners, along with wives Robin Turner, Monica Johnson and Dwayne’s sister Drende, did much of the renovation work themselves. To remedy the previous tenants’ color bombast, they applied liberal coats of black paint.

The club opened in late October with famed keyboardist Ronnie Laws, one of whose hits was “Friends and Strangers.”

“We had a friend of a friend who contacted him and he was honored that we would name a club after his song,” Johnson said. Laws is slated to return on Jan. 21.

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So far, the music at Friends & Strangers has leaned toward contemporary jazz, mostly from Los Angeles. Among the locals of note who have taken the stage are saxophonist Tom Buckner, who can slip in and out of funk-lined jazz with ease--as he demonstrated at a pre-Christmas gig--and the jazz-R&B; group Domino Affect.

But Johnson says the musical horizon isn’t limited. “We’re not set on one type of jazz, actually. We would like some of that nice old classic stuff. . . . We want to get someone, if they come in with straight-ahead music, to be really good, not just average. We want to get the pure jazz lovers in.”

Word has slowly spread and while business has been less than stellar so far, the proprietors are optimistic. “Quite honestly, we’ve come out of pocket a couple of times,” Johnson admitted. “Almost every week, new people pop in and they leave saying, ‘We’ll be back. This is what we need.’ We just need staying power. I’m positive that, by the summer, it will be hard to find a seat, because people will say ‘Hey, this is the place to go.’ ”

With three places to go, there is a new sound of hope for resident jazz fans, right here in the ex-urban back yard. On almost any weekend, jazz has--at very least--a relatively happy home here.

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