As befits a new jazz venue, Brad Neal’s RG Club in Venice is kind of an improvisatory venture.
“This is so stupid, why would anyone do this,” Neal joked, surveying the bright Art Deco-inspired room, which opened seven weeks ago. “I don’t have any experience running a bar. I’m just a guy who loves music.”
Neal’s a real estate professional by day (albeit one who greets guests in a Hindu “Om” T-shirt befitting his hippie-ish home turf). But his new night job running a jazz joint might prove to be an extended solo.
RG joins Little Tokyo’s Blue Whale among a new, small crop of clubs drawing twentysomethings and thirtysomethings out for live jazz in upscale but unimposing settings. As young music culture in L.A. is increasingly dominated by electronic acts where performances are confined to laptops, RG could remind several generations of fans that the pleasures of a crackling live band are perennial.
RG inhabits a ‘30s-era room that for decades was a beloved Venice dive bar, the Red Garter. Though nearby Abbott Kinney Boulevard was recently named the Coolest Block in America by GQ, RG’s stretch of Lincoln Boulevard still has a touch of old-Venice seediness (watch out for the neighboring psychic shop’s creepy wizard statue, which may give unsuspecting pedestrians the heebie-jeebies).
Inside RG, however, it still smells like new furniture and fresh paint even after a rowdy new year’s party. About half of the venue is an outdoor patio strewn with agave plants and crimson couches that should make for placid summer nights; the interior is minimally appointed with low-slung black tables (and, admittedly, some un-night-clubby carpeting and harsh white lighting above the bar). It’s probably the only jazz club in L.A. with a fully illuminated roadside billboard dedicated to its show listings. But the walls are decked out in acoustic-treatment paneling that suggests the draw is all about what’s happening onstage.
Neal admits he has exactly zero experience in booking and promoting concerts (“I feel bad, I’ve gotten dozens of emails from really talented artists who want to play and just haven’t had time to get back to them”), but makes up for that in jazz-nerd enthusiasm and the sheer contrarian goodwill that a place like RG stirs up in its core audience.
Right now its resident act, the L.A. saxophonist Azar Lawrence’s quartet, has settled into a neighborhood niche with a revolving cast of guests and soloists. Lawrence played in groups with legends such as Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard and McCoy Tyner, along with pop turns on albums such as Marvin Gaye’s “Here, My Dear.” In the coming weeks, the guitarist and producer Julian Coryell (who has worked with Leonard Cohen and Carole King, and is the son of jazz-fusion guitarist Larry Coryell) will take over a weekly gig, and RG’s unexpected success has left Neal scrambling to book more shows.
“I just wanted an opportunity to be around great players,” Neal said. He’s gotten that wish, and diverse crowds have come out to join him.
Neal’s loopy good cheer sometimes comes at the expense of profits — neighbors have appreciated his no-cover policy for 90291 residents, but he suggests that’s going to have to change soon to keep the lights on. The relatively austere vibe of contemporary jazz shows comes with its own challenges for a club owner: “A jazz audience orders one drink and sits down for the night. I’m learning what it’s going to take to make this place viable.”
Still, it’s hard not to root for the place. The beach cities have never been much of a live music hub in Southern California (the indie-leaning Central SAPC, in neighboring Santa Monica, is an exception), let alone for a niche-like, high-minded jazz audience.
But even as onetime staples like Catalina age out, Blue Whale proved that a swath of ambitious fans are willing to pay to see excellent live jazz in downtown L.A. An upscale KCRW-ish Westside audience might be prepared to do the same for RG, especially if Neal’s plans to live-stream concerts online can draw curious locals. There are hurdles — like the need for reliable long-term bookings and a harder-drinking audience.
But right now Neal is a fan living a jazz dork’s dream, and he’s pleased to make it up as he goes along. “I asked Azar to autograph a record when he first played here.”