Catalina's in the mood to move

Times Staff Writer

Wandering into the peach-and-pink interior of Hollywood's Catalina Bar & Grill in the middle of the day is a bit like stumbling in on a rendezvous -- jarring, its participants startled, half-dressed.

Instead of the glow of the usual tableside lamps, the club is shot through with long blades of white sunlight; the two-tops and four-tops not yet set with table linen and silver; its bandstand nearly empty, piano pushed to a far wall.

Just as disarming is catching the room's famously forthright proprietress Catalina Popescu -- midday, mid-thought -- in Black Fila track pants and an Op tank top, rather than her requisite sleek skirt or flowing pants; her honey-blond hair clipped up rather than wrapped into an elaborate chignon, worrying about mundane things like why the bathroom towels have yet to come back from the launderer.

And of late, add to Popescu's duties the outsize task of stripping this now-famous jazz room down to its bare walls and rebuilding it -- twice the size -- just a few blocks away.

In 17 years, against advice, against trends, against logic, Popescu -- a Romanian immigrant just 10 years in this country when she opened Catalina's -- built what ultimately evolved into Los Angeles' premiere jazz club. Now in the final days in this idiosyncratic room on this idiosyncratic block of Cahuenga Boulevard, she's upping the ante: refocusing her imagination on bigger ideas and the bigger venue she finally will have to accommodate them. The test of her ambition begins Tuesday, when the new incarnation of Catalina's, on Sunset Boulevard just down the street from the ArcLight Cinemas, has its official opening night.

New York had (and has) its Birdland, as well its triangle-shaped cellar room, the Village Vanguard. Chicago has its Green Mill and Jazz Showcase. L.A. also has, over the years, had a bouquet of rooms strewn about -- Shelly's Man-Hole, the Lighthouse, the Parisian Room, Jack's Basket, Concerts by the Sea -- that affectionate old-timers wax poetic about. The place where they met their wife or husband. First witnessed Mingus. Understood 'Trane. Saw Carmen McRae dress down a crowd. Just where Catalina's club fits in the story-spinner annals is still in the hashing-out phases.

Popescu, though, isn't feeling sentimental -- not yet anyway. As the club on Cahuenga moves from working room to memory, she's too focused on the future to worry about the past. Too many things clutter present space. The details -- all that's behind the high art, or the lowdown, of a night of jazz that few of us think or care about. Unless something goes wrong -- an incessant talker, a busted mike, a ticket snafu.

And more than usual, Popescu is swimming in these brass-tack details. The lighting, the weight of the silver, the bookings. Running a jazz supper club of note, in a city cluttered with chattering distractions, is as much about the top-drawer acts she is able to attract seven days a week as it is about smoke and mirrors -- the ambience that is "jazz," a vibe is as alluringly elusive as it is tangible; creating the rush that adds up to a night on the town.

This is on Popescu's mind as she, after all the years at this intimate 110-seat location, contemplates her move. "Not too far," she and the rest of her staff have been assuring clientele. They're settling in just six short blocks away. To a room twice the size, and nearly $1 million in the making. "With covered parking. A patio. A dance floor," says Popescu, "if the mood hits."

A day in the life

It's Friday around 2 p.m. First set is at 8:30. Doors open for dinner just before 7. But in those short hours, Popescu will have to move mountains. Check the reservation books. And the menu. Write checks. Make sure the food and laundry orders are in, and that the kitchen is running smoothly. Added to her regular checklist has been tending to the new club -- permit applications, future bookings, visiting the new site, pulling together the design elements. "I want something new," she tells Christine VanFossan, a restaurant-supply purveyor, as they narrow the selection for new table settings, "but I also want people to know it is still the same place."

Then Popescu ties up the loose ends so she can head over to the new site at Sunset and McCadden. "To see where things are ... , " she says with a hopeful sigh. She winds her way to a back office crammed with three nondescript office desks, hers piled high with ledgers, notebooks, calendars and other ephemera. "Nobody touches it. I kill," she says, laughing.

A collection of loud, musically themed ties is tacked to a sidewall, "in case one of the staff forgets," she explains. Photos of past staff members and musicians and their backstage antics fill wall space. On the opposite wall, sagging shelves hold dusty holiday decorations -- Christmas, Valentine's and New Year's. Next to them are generic medicinal bottles marked tellingly, "Stomach Relief" or "Headache Relief." The phones ring incessantly.

"Tonight is Dave W-E-C-K-L," Teia Paun, Popescu's mother, intones into the mouthpiece. "W-E-C-K-L." She pushes out the letters, then again each word, stretching them out phonetically. "Contemporary jazz or fusion. Showtimes?, 8:30 and 10:30." Paun -- better known as "Mama" around the club -- lives with the Popescus and has been coming to the club every night since it first opened, some days walking a brisk three miles from their home to get there. "She's 79. She takes care of the bank," Catalina Popescu explains in an "enough said" sort of way as she settles into the middle desk. A torrent of staffers with questions piles up like memos.

Bob Popescu, Catalina's husband and the club's booking agent, in a linen aloha shirt with the arms of his reading glasses not quite clearing his temples, is running his finger through the "booking bible" -- the lineup for the new room. He's already confirmed Jane Monheit, Roy Hargrove, David Sanborn, Ahmad Jamal, Marcus Miller, Bobby Short, Art Ensemble of Chicago.

Across the room, Manuel "Manny" Santiago, manager and the "face" that meets you at the door, is on another line, running down dinner hours, dress code. "Nice slacks. Shirt. No shorts," a pause, "Levis are OK." As crowds press in, Santiago is usually the bearer of the good news or the bad news -- "I've got your table right here." Or, "The only thing I have is near the drums...."

Like the music that fills this room every night, so much, Catalina Popescu knows, has to be left to improvisation. The vibe of the room. Whether the dinners will come out on time. If there will be any unexpected drama.

On any given evening, she's played hostess, sous-chef, waitress, plumber, in her heels and hose. She's bused tables. She's bounced a few folks out on an ear for talking. "At the new place, they tell me I'll have to get a security guard. We'll see," she says. "I never needed a security guard. That's because I was the security guard. But you close one door ... open another."

Slipping into her red Ford Focus, she slogs through the beginnings of rush hour toward the new site. This plan, she explains, has been in the works for 2 1/2 years. She wanted a place that was bigger, but not too much. She wanted to be able to attract some names who tended toward the concert halls -- say, Diana Krall. She wanted to stay in Hollywood.

Following her own act may be tough

Whether this move is a crazy venture remains to be seen. A bigger room? For jazz? Ruth Price, who runs the Westside concert space, the Jazz Bakery, across town knows how huge the gamble is. "If you come at it from an insider's view it's craziness! Los Angeles isn't a night town -- at least for jazz."

But jazz thrives anyway. And the names that sign on for a week's run in these rooms prove it. Enough so that there is real competition. The players are there; it's the crowds that are the tough part. "What I realized a long time ago is that there are only 52 weeks in a year. You mean to tell me there aren't 104 musicians who can play any given week in L.A.?" says Price. "If the two of us had these rooms in any other city there wouldn't be moment that we'd have to worry. Here it is because we don't have a large amount of people who go out." That wasn't always the case, Price recalls. She'd cut a figure through the local scene as a singer back in the day, scoring a golden gig at Shelly Manne's place on Cahuenga where she sang every night, from the early '60s until the club at that location closed in 1973. She's long observed the evolution. "What has disappeared is the idea of jam sessions."

Many of jazz's marquee names -- the Joshua Redmans, the James Carters, the Branford Marsalises -- play more festivals and concerts than clubs. The reason is simple economics -- it has become increasingly difficult to string together a necklace of dates across the country as the number of clubs that cater solely to jazz has diminished over the years. Jazz has changed. And so has the territory around it.

You can count on one hand the rooms across the country that offer musicians more than a two- or three-night stand. "Everything in the industry has gotten harder," says composer and pianist Billy Childs, who travels nationally and internationally, but is based in Southern California. "It seems like there are a lot of great musicians and a lot less places to play in." The worry, says Childs, is that jazz might lose its connections with clubs -- which is not just part of its lore, but is its life force.

Over the years, even in hard times, Southern California has had a range of rooms: darkly lit clubs, restaurants that make room for jazz, and the carousel of Valley clubs -- Donte's, Carmello's, the Money Tree, Alphonse's -- that were well-known musician hangs particularly in the '80s, says bassist Jennifer Leitham.

"Catalina was something special. You didn't really go there to hang," says Leitham who has gigged there over the years, recording a live album not too long ago. "It's a little too expensive for that." But it accomplished what Catalina set out to do. "A quality jazz club," Leitham continues. "You knew if there was an act settling in at Catalina it was worth catching." Though she has experimented over the years -- fusion and eclectic, vocalist and instrumental, local and national, Popescu set her own standard. "She's gone out of her way to have the best jazz talents. And it's been tough," says guitarist and educator Kenny Burrell. "I'm sure that there are some weeks she doesn't make money, others when she does, and she has to balance it out to survive."

That's part of Chuck Niles' worry. Niles has for years been "the voice of jazz" radio on L.A.'s airwaves, currently spinning his trademark menu of straight-ahead jazz on KKJZ-FM (88.1). He's haunted the best of the clubs in the worst of times. "Catalina's has increased L.A. presence -- putting on jazz seven nights a week," says Niles, but he lodges a concern. "I've seen intimate clubs go to broader pastures and flop. You've got to make money. Agents want more money for their acts. You've got to fill a room. I wish her the best. But the old place will be missed."

That's been a recurring theme of late: the "intimacy" of this old room; the memories people have embroidered there. Nightclubs, particularly rooms that feature jazz, trade heavily on their aura and their mythology. And Popescu has learned that creating a successful "spot" is as much about the room and the consistency of its bookings as it is about the public's expectations, the romanticism strung around it. "We learn from our mistakes," she says. "Plenty."

At the new spot, the first of improvements are visible: a valet and covered parking. We walk up a walk that allows a stroll past the new patio -- for dining both day and night. There are trees and a fountain. But through a cut in the wall, one can see there is much to do. The floors are still a dust of plaster. Wires explode out of the ceilings and walls. The fine details are left to imagination. A vivid one at that. But if you squint, you can see what they are after.

It is less old world European cavern in feel -- with its vast ceiling. "Higher," explains Popescu, "so the sound will be better." There is a certain austerity looking at the room in a barest of bare-bones way -- with all of its clean lines, spaciousness and mingling spaces. But Popescu assures there are ways around it. "We will bring the lights down lower, to create the illusion of a low-slung ceiling. And paint it black." The spaces will be lighted and painted in different colors to create an intimate feel within each section.

But one thing she can't quite cast to imagination is her worry. Ed Aavazian, the contractor, mills around the site. Popescu sidles up to him. There is some friendly-ish banter, but that wears down in moments. For 15 minutes, Aavazian and Popescu face off. All jabbing fingers and elaborate shrugs. Their alternating choruses: "You promised me!" "It takes time." Annoyance and frustration have a common language: It's gesture.

This is a glimpse of the other side of Popescu that anyone who has spent a few seasons in the club knows can bloom when need be -- she's been clear, she's been cordial, but now the line has been crossed. Now the opening, originally slated for Nov. 6, is looking like a pipe dream. They go back and forth for a bit more. Then she whirls away, her eyes narrowing. "I don't think people are used to a woman coming out strong. So I think it startles them," she quickly says, shrugging. "But I've learned over the years, calm or crazy, it still is going to happen."

As we reemerge from the front door, Popescu shows off the entryway, where they will place the host stand. Manny's new post. And something seems to settle her. Soften the edges. Behind it, she explains, will be a big blowup photo of Dizzy Gillespie -- nearly 6 feet tall. "Because he's the one who started it all."

Not what you know, but who you know of

Gillespie was the most she knew about jazz -- the only name she knew. "Back in Romania, he was the only one they allowed to play there. He was part of the Friendship Tours," Popescu explains.

She left Romania in 1976, while the country was still under communist rule, to follow her husband, who had already made a life for himself in the States. "I left with my mother and 35 kilos [about 77 pounds each]. What can you carry in 35 kilos? Not much."

She dug in. Took on a series of jobs, and stuck with one in Bullocks Wilshire's fine-foods section. In time she moved up, became a buyer and helped manage the vaunted tea room. But she was itching for something else. The Popescus had been kicking around the notion of starting a seafood restaurant. They pooled their resources and found a spot at 1640 Cahuenga -- a tiny little room on that mix-it-up strip of the boulevard. Business was steady, but not hot. They began to cast about for ways to increase their visibility and customer base.

Someone suggested jazz.

"I got a call," woodwind player Buddy Collette remembers. "Five o'clock on a Sunday. It was Bob. 'Buh dee. I just talked to our friend, a customer, Jim Cox, and he said you know something about jazz.' " Collette makes the trek there. "I go on in. And I see her. She's really beautiful; 25. And I look around the room and think, 'What can we do here?' "

Collette made a list: a stage, sound, lights, some booths, a good piano, a room for the musicians -- for starters. "There was a big partition down the middle. Two different parts cutting it up. Wouldn't work if you had a full room of people," recalls Collette. "That had to go. They stood there nodding. Saying yes."

When Collette returned to check on things, they'd gotten much of it done. "Now," they asked, "will you play opening night?"

He did.

Trios, quartets, bands cycled in and out. But, Catalina Popescu recalls, "We ended up losing money instead of making it. You had the pay the musicians."

They needed bigger names. They made another call to Collette. "I just asked him if he knew how to get to Dizzy Gillespie. He was the biggest name I knew."

Collette was gentle. "He's big. Very big. That might be hard." But he produced a phone number. Bob Popescu called and after listening to the crazy proposition, Gillespie agreed. "I'll do it, but it will cost you."

"A contract?"

"I don't need a contract. If it goes well, I'll come back again."

It was Easter weekend 1987. Usually unforgivingly slow. But for the first time the line stretched not just out the door, but down the street and around the block. "It was crazy! I mean it was just full of people," Catalina Popescu says. Not just fans but other musicians in town that weekend. Sarah Vaughn was in for a suite of shows at another club. So was Joe Williams.

"I was at the door. I had no idea who all these people were," Popescu recalls. But there was one figure she'd never forget. "One man kept coming in and out of the door. Talking with people. Finally I said: 'Either in or out.' " A little bit later, Gillespie, who was sitting with a group including Alice Coltrane, called Popescu over to his table and whispered in her ear, " 'Do me a favor, when you get a chance could you tell Miles Davis that he should come over here and join our table?' I said: 'Which one is Miles Davis?' And Dizzy said, 'The guy you've been buggin' all night long.' Then I talked to him like we're friends since 1912. I mean, what could you do?"

It's been a long way since that weekend of shows that put the little club on the map, when Popescu could mistake an artist of the trumpeter's stature for a loiterer. And that weirdly located, dimly lighted seafood restaurant, has grown to host some of jazz's brightest lights and their fans, from Clint Eastwood and Oprah to most infamously, of late, Robert Blake.

She can be blunt. She can be flinty.

"She's a woman and she's not a musician," says longtime customer and now friend Barbara Brighton. She's survived, says Brighton, because "when you do business with her, you know the deal."

She's learned the business as she's learned the music, its changes and progressions. As this room and its expenses grow commensurately, Popescu knows she'll have to juggle the national with the local, the progressive with the traditional, keeping an eye on it all the while.

A bigger space means bigger dreams, and that, longtime local jazz writer Kirk Silsbee says, "I think is hopeful."

Saying goodbye to a good room

Earlier this month, as the final night approaches, the room begins to buzz. Regulars filter in to pay their last respects. People who have moved to different cities, different states, check in and pass on their well wishes. Closing week's featured artist, singer Nnenna Freelon, kicks off a six-night run with a party. But before the quintet sails into its set, a cake arrives dotted with candles celebrating Freelon's 10 years with her label, and Popescu's 17 years keeping jazz alive in Los Angeles. Popescu is called up to make a speech.

In the spotlight for the briefest of moments, she's quick and to the point. She thanks her mother, the regulars, her staff. She's not blinking back tears just yet, she says later, it's just the glare bothering her. There's still too much to do.

"A lot of people tell me that they would like to see me around all the time, going around and talking to them. They tell me that they don't see me as much anymore.

"The time has come for me," she says, "not that I'm getting old

But she's up again. To the phones. Then back to the kitchen to eye the line. Again, to the front to say her evening greetings. The dance of the unfolding night, dressed up and in full swing.

"Some nights people come in and they see the room is jumping, full of life, and they say, 'Catalina, you're lucky!' And I stop and think," she says with a befuddled shake of the head, "oh, you don't know what's behind this luck."

Lynell George can be contacted at lynell.george@latimes.com.

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Catalina Bar & Grill

Where: 6725 W. Sunset Blvd., Hollywood

Opening act: Ahmad Jamal, Tuesday-Sunday

Upcoming acts: David Sanborn, Dec. 9-14; George Duke, Dec. 16-21; Norman Brown, 26-28; Steve Tyrell, Dec. 29-Jan. 4

Info: (323) 466-2210 or

www.catalinajazzclub.com

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