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Unstaged Melodies : A lack of jazz clubs in Orange County masks what some say is a big market for the genre.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When vibraphonist Dave Pike moved from Europe to Orange County in 1973, he wanted a place where he could work with a band several nights a week, week in and week out. According to Pike, he couldn’t even find a jazz club.

So he created one.

“There was this little bar that served bikers and surfers in Huntington Beach,” says Pike, referring to Hungry Joe’s. “I . . . told the owner what I wanted to do. He was skeptical, but he let me start playing.”

Within a year, Pike was packing the place with a combo that included pianist Tom Ranier, guitarist Ron Eschete, bassist Luther Hughes and drummer Ted Hawke. People were driving from Los Angeles to hear them.

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Such stars as pianist Gene Harris, saxophonist Harold Land and vibraphonist Milt Jackson began filling in on the Pike band’s day off. A scout from Muse Records heard Pike’s group, which led to a record contract and four albums. Hungry Joe’s was on the map.

After three years, Pike would move to a Newport Beach location, and not long after, Hungry Joe’s burned to the ground. Still, for a while, it was the heart of the Orange County jazz scene.

Such is the often short, often sweet life of jazz clubs. Any number of jazz venues--El Matador in Huntington Beach, Cafe Lido in Newport Beach, Mucho Gusto in Costa Mesa, Randell’s in Santa Ana, Maxwell’s by the Sea in Huntington Beach--have come and gone in the past two decades. Often new ones rise to take their place.

Yet these days, there’s a dearth of jazz clubs in Orange County. Steamers Cafe in Fullerton is the only one seriously dedicated to the genre.

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A number of restaurants, notably Restaurant Kikuya in Huntington Beach and Spaghettini in Seal Beach, do feature jazz and other types of music. The music at such places can be first rate, although often accompanied by the clatter of dinnerware and the chatter of patrons. All draw on the wealth of musical talent in Southern California.

Pike, a cult hero of the vibraphone who will travel to London this year to perform, has played them all.

“I don’t care what the venue is,” Pike asserts, “it’s still a place to play, a place to be appreciated.”

Orange County has nothing on the level of the Catalina Bar & Grill in Hollywood or the Jazz Bakery in West L.A.--places that regularly book internationally known musicians.

While Steamers has presented its share of recognized artists, it mostly depends on the talents of the local musical pool. There’s another thing it doesn’t have that Catalina and the Jazz Bakery do: a high cover charge.

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If Steamers sits at the top rung of jazz venues in Orange County, then Kikuya and Spaghettini are on the second. Other restaurants that occasionally book jazz acts are Bistango in Irvine, Bistro 201 in Newport Beach and El Pollo Inka in Anaheim; these are a third tier, where the music often serves as background to dining and drinking. Still, frequently, especially at Kikuya or when Ed Slauson’s traditional-jazz band plays El Pollo Inka, music is the reason the patrons show up.

Kikuya presents a mix of jazz; fusion rules on weekends and mainstream jazz during the week (karaoke takes over two nights a week). Jack Wood, who has booked Kikuya’s Thursday night music for 4 1/2 years, says the key to drawing a crowd is to bring in familiar acts.

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“When we have artists with name recognition, like the guys in the Sinatra alumni band or [pianist and Grammy winner] Alan Broadbent, or well-known local musicians like [guitarist] George Van Eps, the place is packed. Or if the artist has a current CD release, that also helps.”

Wood began singing in the late ‘60s. Discouraged about the state of the music business, he retired in 1972 but reemerged in 1985. He found fewer clubs to play when he returned in the ‘80s than when he had started out.

“All kinds of places had live music then,” he said. “But with the advent of the VCR and home entertainment systems, [it seems] all that changed.”

Bassist Hughes, a veteran of the Hungry Joe’s scene who later booked strong lineups of jazz at El Matador and other locations in the early ‘90s, says things are a little different than when he came to Southern California in 1970.

“Places come and go. It takes a lot of time to establish a clientele, and most restaurant owners don’t have the patience,” Hughes said. “Advertising is important. . . . There’s definitely a market out there for people who like jazz, but it’s difficult to find owners or management that will give it a chance.”

Joe Sperrazza, who owned the Cafe Lido between 1981 and 1994 before a rent increase prompted him to close, says Orange County is a prime market for jazz.

“I had a ball when we had [the Lido], and we had wonderful crowds. When I see what the people at the [Labor Day weekend] West Coast Jazz Party are doing and the people they bring in, there’s no question about it: There’s a big audience out there for jazz, if it’s handled correctly.”

Not everyone agrees. Gary Folgner, owner of the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano and the Galaxy Concert Theatre in Santa Ana, said he books less jazz than he used to.

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A big name such as Miles Davis would pack the Coach House in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Folgner says. But in recent years, concerts by such well-knowns as saxophonist Wayne Shorter and pianist Herbie Hancock, as well as young saxophone sensation Joshua Redman, barely pulled a crowd.

“Jazz music in the clubs has been hurt tremendously by a lack of media attention,” Folgner says. “Rap and other types of music have taken over. It’s hard to promote jazz, especially without radio exposure.”

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Concert-hall performances help fill the gap. Jazz programs at the Irvine Barclay Theatre and Costa Mesa’s Orange Coast College and the Orange County Performing Arts Center showcase real jazz. Big names perform in the series in the center’s 299-seat Founders Hall, with a club-like atmosphere of tables and drink service.

Still, such venues can feel sterile next to the thrill of seeing jazz in a true nightclub--sitting close to the bandstand, watching the musicians perspire and improvise. There’s also a chance that the musician who wowed you on stage might be at the bar between sets, ready to accept compliments and answer questions.

And as long as places such as Steamers, Kikuya and Spaghettini provide a place for jazz, that opportunity will never disappear.

Bill Kohlhaase writes about jazz regularly for The Times Orange County Edition.


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