Keeping the Jazz Bakery cooking

The Jazz Bakery is a nonprofit organization. To followers of the scene, that statement is a redundancy, of course. In Los Angeles, saying a jazz club doesn’t make money is like saying a restaurant doesn’t serve scrap iron.

In 18 years as president and artistic director of the Jazz Bakery, Ruth Price has always known that fresh music doesn’t translate into hefty profits. Lately, though, Price has found it harder to offer quality at a discount. Last May, the Jazz Bakery lost its space in Culver City’s old Helms Bakery complex when its philanthropic landlord, Wally Marx Jr., died. Since then, Price and the Jazz Bakery’s 13 directors have scoured the city for a new permanent location. They report some excellent prospects but can confirm only that the club will remain on the Westside and that its status as a quiet concert venue will continue.

Jazz Bakery: An article about the Jazz Bakery in Thursday’s Calendar section misspelled the last name of the organization’s former landlord, Wally Marks Jr., as Marx. —

While the hunt proceeds, the Bakery has been distributing loaves and fishes across L.A. County with innovative “Movable Feast” concerts, which have included a sold-out performance by veteran pianist-singer Mose Allison at Largo at the midtown Coronet Theater, a presentation of singer Tessa Souter at Venice’s Ivy Substation and a well-attended show by pianist Hiromi at the Japan America Theater in Little Tokyo.

Its next concert, which features drummer Antonio Sanchez’s quartet, will occur at the Musicians Institute in Hollywood on Saturday, followed in April by performances featuring the Tomasz Stanko Quintet and the Benny Golson Quartet.

The Bakery opened with French pianist Michel Legrand in 1992 and has hosted a consistent roster of top talent, including swing originators such as Benny Carter and bebop dazzler Phil Woods. It has booked singers of standards (Oscar Brown Jr.) and masters of the cool (Lee Konitz), offered avant-garde hero Cecil Taylor and counterculture bridge builder Charles Lloyd. The club has explored fusion with Stanley Clarke, New York modernism courtesy of Dave Douglas and everything in between.

“Some jazz fans tend to be very resistant to the idea that there will always be new musicians coming up,” said Price recently while lounging in her Benedict Canyon home. “Yes, I believe that Miles and Trane and Diz [ Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie] are irreplaceable, but that doesn’t mean that there’s not a forward motion.”

Price, who doesn’t like to reveal her age, radiates youth. She’s proud that she’s never had plastic surgery. Her preferred couch posture is a balletic split derived from her early days as a dancer, before the great drummer Philly Joe Jones picked up on her singing talent and started teaching her tunes. Her speech pours out in a spontaneous stream.

The energy has been a major asset. For the Bakery’s first decade, Price did nearly all the work herself, including booking and coordinating artists, and logging credit-card information. Volunteers and an assistant have lightened the load, but there’s no question whose vision this is.

“I wondered what would happen if you gave players everything,” said Price. “Really good lights, a really fine piano, really well maintained, nobody talking, no serving, no distraction. And it was miraculous.”

Price never intended to be an entrepreneur. A photographer lured her to his Helms Building studio on the pretext of taking her picture, then pitched her the idea of presenting music there. She bit. After a couple of years, the complex’s other renters pressured her about the noise, and she moved to a bigger space nearby. When the Bakery lost that one after Marx’s death, the club took to the road.

Although listeners and musicians are glad for the “Movable Feasts,” they miss their regular hangout and Price’s fervid MC work.

Dwight Trible, for instance, a wailing local vocalist with an African groove, has played the Bakery many times and feels lost without it. “The Bakery gave Los Angeles its cultural hipness,” said Trible, echoing many musicians’ thoughts. He added that he appreciates the other major jazz club, Catalina’s in Hollywood, but “they can’t afford to bring in an Andrew Hill or a Kahil El’Zabar.”

Los Angeles jazz is experiencing tough times, especially around the edges. Weekly adventure zones such as Dangerous Curve downtown and the Cryptonight series at Culver City’s Club Tropical have closed, while a valiant program at the South Pasadena Music Center is in transition.

Valuable monthlies such as Alex Cline’s Monday Evening Concerts in Eagle Rock and Hans Fjellestad’s ResBox series in Hollywood continue, as do gigs in small venues across the city at places such as Silver Lake’s Echo Curio, Leimert Park’s World Stage and, downtown, the Museum of Neon Art and the Blue Whale.

In Studio City, Vitello’s has surged thanks to refined booking, and the nearby fusion institution the Baked Potato often packs its small room.

“L.A. has always been a difficult stop for touring jazz artists,” said Angel City Jazz Fest co-promoter Jeff Gauthier, who is exploring the possibility of co-producing shows with Price. “I’m a big fan of the Jazz Bakery.”

Neither enthusiast does it for money. Asked why, as a Philadelphia jazzer, she reversed the usual process and left the East Coast for the West, Price sighs. “Everything I ever did in my life had to do with love.”