On any given night, Jerry Mandel can be found enjoying Broadway show tunes sung by celebrated legends, hearing chamber orchestra music led by expert conductors or watching captivating ballet danced by renowned artists.
As president of Irvine Barclay Theatre, Mandel showcases a wide range of programming in contemporary dance, music and theater at a venue that has become an important center in the Orange County arts community.
But every Thursday evening, he gives a concert of his own.
Mandel, 77, plays weekly at Bayside Restaurant in Newport Beach with pianist Ron Kobayashi. They perform contemporary jazz, R&B and selections from the Great American Songbook.
“This is my home away from home,” Mandel, an Irvine resident, said on a recent afternoon in the restaurant’s main dining room.
It all started with a birthday present.
As the former president of Orange County Performing Arts Center — now the Segerstrom Center for the Arts — Mandel had long admired touring jazz musicians and singers.
He had played the saxophone in high school but stopped.
“I was awful,” Mandel said. “It was horrible.”
For his 60th birthday, his wife, Whitney, surprised him with a saxophone and suggested he re-learn how to play it.
A neurobiologist friend told Mandel that he should keep his brain active by learning new information in retirement. Taking up music would be a good option.
Mandel studied instruction books in one of the center’s rehearsal rooms, practicing two hours after work every day. Saxophone instructor Gary Matsuura, who teaches jazz studies at Chapman University, served as his mentor.
Matsuura, who was in need of a pianist for Mandel’s lessons, called Kobayashi, a musician and composer who teaches at the Orange County High School of the Arts and Biola and Vanguard universities.
Kobayashi gave him a few pointers and soon invited him to play with his band at the Bayside.
They clicked. The duo have played together for over five years.
“Jerry just got better and better,” said Kobayashi, who once performed for President Bill Clinton. “He’s doing incredibly well for someone who never played full-time before. With him, it was a quick advancement.”
“He also swings,” Kobayashi said, noting the term describes a musician playing with a great amount of jazz rhythm. “Every night there’s people he knows who come in and say, ‘Jerry, wow, I didn’t know you played sax.’”
As a tenor saxophonist, Mandel has also performed at the Pageant of the Masters, Laguna Beach Live! and the Granada Theatre Santa Barbara. He has twice joined the Lenore Raphael Trio in New York City.
Mandel also knows the soprano sax and has mastered 100 songs.
A few weeks ago at the Bayside, Mandel said a group of women in their 80s requested a standard. He performed “It’s the Talk of the Town.” The women smiled and danced.
“It just made me realize the connection with music,” Mandel said. “I’m not a great player, but they can appreciate it.”
Though he’s proud of his musical accomplishments, Mandel said he’s particularly thrilled with the recent achievements at the Barclay.
Three years ago, a UC Irvine administrator called, asking if he would come out of retirement and help lead the Barclay for three months.
Having been a vice chancellor at UCI before joining the Orange County Performing Arts Center in 1997, and missing the theater, Mandel agreed.
The 756-seat performing venue, which opened in 1990 on the edge of UCI, was a bit of a change from the Costa Mesa center’s nearly 3,000-seat opera house he was used to.
On his first day at UCI, Mandel asked to meet the marketing team.
The team ended up being a department of one.
“Financially, we didn’t have the staff,” he said. “I knew if I carefully planned and only booked people who were the greatest, but were good people too, we’d get excitement.”
Mandel added jazz and Hawaiian music series and an arts outreach program.
What started with 42 shows during his first year has grown to 70 planned for 2018. His goal for next year is 100.
And what began with $200,000 in annual fundraising is expected to grow to $500,000 by this June.
Earlier this year, the Barclay welcomed Broadway stars Chita Rivera and Tommy Tune, presented “Glee” star Jane Lynch and plans to feature Mandy Gonzalez, who is currently starring as Angelica Schuyler in “Hamilton” on Broadway.
The Barclay also has featured author David Sedaris and singer Linda Eder. The stage continues to spotlight the UCI Symphony Orchestra and the UCI dance department’s annual production, “Dance Visions.”
“I don’t consider it work,” Mandel said. “I’m not finished here until the job is done.”
Ron Kobayashi Duo with Jerry Mandel on saxophone plays from 6:30 to 10:30 p.m. Thursdays at Bayside, 900 Bayside Drive, Newport Beach. For more information, call (949) 721-1222 or visit baysiderestaurant.com.