It's just 'round midnight at the Howling Monk, and the old refurbished Inglewood storefront has taken on the fervor of a revival meeting. Drummer Winard Harper's jazz sextet has a crowd of about 60 people--mostly African American, mostly over 30--clapping time to a version of Bobby Timmons' "Moanin'," shouting out from their rows of chairs, steaming up the plate glass windows, dancing in the doorways thrown open to Market Street.
The venue here is new, open only nine months, but the ritual is old, older than Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, even Louis Armstrong, whose photographs hang framed above the makeshift bandstand. The mix of Saturday night party and Sunday morning congregational assembly is familiar to Inglewood, but this is neither a bar nor a church. In fact, it's something that almost doesn't exist in Inglewood: a coffeehouse.
"There's no natural connection between coffee and jazz," chuckles Ken Moore, 53, a tall, charismatic, instantly likable man who greets customers at the door with a big handshake. Dressed in a chocolate brown, knee length dashiki, black trousers and sandals, he roams between the stage and his large espresso bar, nodding and clapping with the band. "This creates quite a marketing dilemma for me. It's difficult, but I'm involved in two of my passions, so that takes some of the bite out of it."
The Howling Monk is very much the timeless image of the local jazz joint--lighted mostly by the streetlights outside, a low $5 to $10 cover, packed with sweaty bodies, emotions running high, a sense of drama in the room. Black-and-white photos of icons hang on the walls, including Billie Holiday and the house's patron saints, Howlin' Wolf and Thelonious Monk. But absent from the party are the haze of cigarettes and the clink of cold beer glasses.
It's part of Moore's mission to offer straight-ahead jazz for the purist without the negative impact that alcohol has had on his community. But replacing it with coffee? Let's just say that the gourmet coffeehouse explosion that has transformed Western civilization into coffee junkies has yet to deeply penetrate Inglewood.
"The fact of the matter is that there are only a couple coffeehouses out here," Moore says, adding only half-ironically: "Of course, some of the big-name coffee companies are holding our customers hostage. And we're still trying to get 'em out a man at a time."
Part of his strategy is to jazz the place up: to move coffee by making a reputation for nighttime entertainment. During a quiet piano break in the standard "In a Sentimental Mood," a lady fanning herself against the window calls out, "Play for me, baby, play for me," as easy as if she were sitting in her living room. Moore says he feels "blessed" to have had this atmosphere right from the start. It might also be the key to his success: In a town where neither gourmet coffee nor Coltrane-era jazz are hits with the youth, making a spiritualized place to congregate might keep the doors open long enough to get established.
A Vision Emerges
Moore's vision for the Howling Monk was more than a way to make a buck. He'd already handled his share of money working 23 years as a production accountant for movie studios in Hollywood. For the last 10 of those years, he was looking for a more constructive purpose. He wanted to put something back into Inglewood, where he's lived since the late '70s. He's a longtime connoisseur of exotic coffees, so the coffeehouse phenomenon was just what he'd been waiting for.
In 1998, he began roasting his first coffee under the brand name Howling Monk, a full-bodied Sumatra Mandheling blend he called Mysteriously Dark. Over the next three years, seven more Howling Monk coffees emerged, each using premium AA Arabica beans and named after heroes of jazz or African American culture. The 100th birthday of Duke Ellington (whom Moore considers "the greatest artist of the 20th century") is celebrated in his Mood Ndigo blend, using Colombian Supremo-Buccamaranga coffee. The coffeehouse was to be the bridge between coffee and live jazz performance. But Moore had to wait until the coffee business would support the kind of straight-ahead jazz he loved, which is not as popular now as the R&B-inflected; "smooth jazz." "If you really study coffeehouses up until the Starbucks explosion here in America, you'll find that coffeehouses always served a very intimate community function," notes Moore. "The very first coffeehouse was in Mecca. And it served a purpose there, for people wanting to gather without an intoxicating beverage." Alcohol is banned by Islamic law.
"So we came into it with that in mind," he continues. "Inglewood is really similar to a small village. I see it serving the community as a gathering place."
Finally, fate intervened with what Moore considered the perfect location. As part of the redevelopment of Market Street, which has been landscaped with islands of trees and shrubbery and refurbished with gaslight-style fixtures for nighttime pedestrians, the city offered Moore a stylish--though challenging--location. It is situated in a largish corner storefront with a big sidewalk patio area featuring a flowing fountain and benches for taking in the night air. The ambience of the club flows out into the street by night. By day, however, Market Street's mix of beauty shops, discount stores and boarded-up theaters doesn't offer a lot of foot traffic. Moore put his faith in the music and opened on Dec. 1, 2001.
By day, business is steady but light. The place rings with the wheezing of milk steamers. Customers do the same stuff they do in coffeehouses everywhere: read books, do homework, take meetings. Local politicians drop by to hold informal quorums. Moore says he's got a long way to go to get the coffee flying out the door.
'A Special Feeling'
On Friday, Saturday and some Sunday nights, however, it's a different story altogether.
"When I get here," rasps New Yorker Winard Harper between songs, "I hang so hard people think I'm from here. That's because I love y'all." Three or four people shout back, "We love you too!" Thanks in part to that enthusiasm, the band's first set at the Howling Monk stretches to 2 1/2 hours.
"It does give you a special feeling to play places like this," says the high-energy Harper, autographing copies of his latest CD, "Faith." "The people here are with you."
Nationally recognized acts like Harper are quickly giving the Howling Monk a reputation for both local talent and major stars. Harper, a former sideman with Dexter Gordon and Betty Carter, stormed the Billboard jazz charts in 1991 with "Remembrance," a recording with his Harper Brothers Quintet that stayed at No. 1 for two months. This night, his new sextet's deepening involvement with African drumming sets off his at-times-raucous, straight-ahead style to turn each piece into an extended jam. Trumpeter Patrick Rickman and tenor sax player Brian Horton trade off leads on bebop-oriented pieces like George Cables' "Circles," but the exchanges between Harper and percussionist Kevin Jones drive the pieces into edgy territory.
The effect is explosive, and by the time the band--rounded out by bassist Norrie Shioto and pianist Jeb Petton--reaches the set-closing "Allah Akbar (God Is Great)," with both Harper and Jones on congas, the music has transcended form to reach a bone-rattling crescendo, setting people back in their chairs. Man, there must be something in that coffee they serve.
By all reports, dull nights have been rare at the Howling Monk. Drummer Sherman Ferguson, who's played with Kenny Burrell and Pharoah Sanders, performs there regularly, most recently with vocalist Elissa Lala. Former "Arsenio Hall Show" bassist John B. Williams brought his trio there Aug. 23 and 24, with pianist Llew Matthews and Ndugu Chancler on drums.
Local Talents Welcome
Local talents young and old find a warm welcome, especially at the Sunday "Ultimate Jazz Jam Sessions."
"This place is important, because folks here are doing what they can to revitalize this area, and it's working out real nice," says Wally Ali, a guitarist and keyboardist sitting at the coffee bar taking in the sounds. A regular performer at BB King's club on Universal City Walk, Ali hangs at the Howling Monk because as a resident of Culver City, it's local for him.
For Moore, who grew up in Chicago in the late '50s listening to his big brother's jazz records, the biggest thrill is when he gets to see his heroes.
"We haven't had Max Roach in here yet, or Sonny Rollins," he says. "I'm looking forward to that day when Sonny Rollins will call me and say, 'Hey, Ken! I heard about Howling Monk and I just want to come down there and play.' And that's when I'll fall on the floor, you know?"
Howling Monk Jazz Coffee Bar, 344 S. Market St., Inglewood. (310) 671-8551; www.howlingmonk.com. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 6:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Fridays, 6:30 a.m. through 9 p.m. show. Saturdays, 6 p.m. through 9 p.m. show.