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Ruth Price: LA's Jazz Jewel Keeping the Jazz Bakery Alive

Chuck Koton By

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The LA jazz scene has endured immeasurably painful blows over the years, from the post-World War II death of the once vibrant action on Central Ave (unequivocably among jazz history's most significant locales) to the more recent shuttering of memorable clubs like Shelly's Manne Hole, Donte's and, most recently, Charlie Os. Intrepid jazz entrepreneur Rocco Somazzi tried at least three times: with Rocco's, up on Beverly Glen; then Cafe Metropol, downtown when there barely was a downtown; and finally, in Culver City with Royal T, before giving up on Los Angeles and setting up stakes at Duende in Oakland, one of the hottest new spaces in the Bay Area.

Without a club, Somazzi continues to be tethered to the scene in Los Angeles by way of the Angel City Jazz Festival. The sixth annual Angel City Festival, which begins in October, promises to be another memorable Los Angeles jazz celebration. And yet, in spite of the failures, the financial aches and pains, and the miserable odds, Los Angeles continues to promise devoted dreamers hope that "if they build it, jazz fans will come."

One of the craziest of optimistic dreamers in the Southland is the indefatigable (seemingly), indispensable (unequivocably), and irrepressible (adorably), Ruth Price. A precious and dazzling jazz diamond, Price has been presenting the world's most compelling jazz in the Los Angeles metropolitan area for 20 years. In that time, musicians such as Charles Lloyd, Joe Henderson, McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones and so many more jazz giants, have graced the stage of the non- profit Jazz Bakery, of which Price is the founder and guiding light.

In 2009, the depth of Price's commitment to the music and the beautiful cats who create it was sorely tested. After nearly 15 years, her landlord decided that the world needed another furniture store in the Helms Bakery complex. Out of the blue, the profit hungry son of a...I mean son of the original landlord, terminated the Jazz Bakery's lease. A less evolved human being might have been driven by this act of crass, commercial greed to commit all manner of heinous acts upon all the new naugahyde ottomans, love seats and barcaloungers at hand.

But not Ruth Price!

Her devotion to jazz is as deep as the proverbial ocean, and burns as hot as Satan's fiery furnace. Rather than drown herself in the depths of a morphine well or contaminate her spirit with anger, hate and despondency, Price rolled up her sleeves (after a reasonable period of mourning and confusion) and got to work on resurrecting the Jazz Bakery.

AAJ: Ruth, let's start at the beginning. Can you tell me about the roots of your relationship to music?

Ruth Price: Music was always a part of my life, but at first, it had nothing to do with jazz. I was in ballet class from the time I was a little girl of five or six. Because I had rickets, ballet was one of the things I was supposed to do. That and take cod liver oil, which was not good. They put me in a dance class and it became apparent that I had a natural talent for dancing. So I heard all the ballet music. I remember I used to skip to school singing "Peter and the Wolf." My mother sang and played the piano but not professionally. They tried to give me piano lessons and I faked it until I got to the stage where it was obvious I really couldn't read the notes. That was that dyslexic thing.

AAJ: And when did jazz enter your life?

RP: I didn't hear jazz till I was seventeen or eighteen. There was no jazz station where I lived in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, outside of Philadelphia. I remember a couple of things about singing. I was in the church choir where the Rev. Woods encouraged me to pursue my God-given gift. I also remember very clearly that there was an area of town called "the Hill," where a few African-American families lived. My mother used to go there to visit a girlfriend. I remember one summer evening, sitting out front on the steps with five or six young black kids more or less my age. I don't remember what we were singing, but I remember them saying, "You can sing." And I remember thinking, "that's silly." Then they said, "No, you can really sing!" Their words stayed with me, and so I got involved with music like that.

AAJ: How about professionally?

RP: I began to work as a dancer, doing a little excerpt from "Sleeping Beauty Waltz" on what I used to call the "animal circuit." They used to send me out to the Elks, the Moose and the Eagles lodges and other clubs on weekends. And there was always a singer, male or female. I was working a club in Philadelphia one night and the house band was Philly Joe Jones, Paul Chambers and Red Garland, Miles Davis' rhythm section. But I didn't know that at the time. Well, I don't know what came over me, but when just the trio was playing dance music, I asked if I could sing a tune. After hearing me, Philly Joe decided that I could sing. So he took me down to the union hall in the afternoons. He also played the piano and saxophone, and he knew a lot of tunes. Then he started teaching me songs. At the time, he worked a club in Philly called the Blue Note. It was "the" club like Shelly's was the club out here. It had all the major guys come through, and I had the funniest job. You know how a Broadway show will have a stand by for the star? I was the stand by for people like Miles (Davis) and you name it. I would work with Philly Joe and the rhythm section and I would be there all the time. On nights when the star was "unavoidably detained," they would have me sing. That was my gig. I don't remember, but it was very little money. Maybe $25 if I got to sing and maybe $10 for my time if I didn't. And it was so much more fun than dancing because it didn't come from a background of being forced to study. It was just this incredible gift that got dumped on me and I could do it. So that was how I got started singing.

AAJ: Wow, what a way to start, with Miles' rhythm section.

RP: I was really lucky in that I always worked with great musicians. I wasn't famous enough to afford to carry my own trio, which was good and bad. I worked all those towns, as long as you remember that to me, Chicago was the West Coast. I worked towns like Detroit, Indianapolis and Cleveland and many more. They all had at least one great club and they all had at least one great rhythm section. So I got to work with so many wonderful musicians and, if nothing else, I learned to be really flexible. You know, you walk in and you only have a little time to rehearse.

AAJ: Being a female jazz vocalist must have had its difficult moments. I happened to see a wonderful video on You Tube of you singing with Stan Getz. How was it working with him?

RP: Oh, that was with Gary Burton, too. Well, I remember one time I had done a concert with Stan Getz at the Santa Monica Civic, which was a big place with lots of seats, and it was sold out. After the show, everyone complimented me. Well, he didn't. And when I went to pick up my miserable pay he said, " I'm not paying you." Just like that. And I was stunned and said, "But, but, but..." and he said, "Who's gonna make me?" Because I wasn't there with a guy, he felt he could take advantage of me. Shortly after that I was working at Shelly's. I worked there all the time. And one night, Stan was still in town and he came in when I was singing. We had a little band room in the back and he walked in and nobody said hello to him. Everyone was down on him for one reason or another. That band was Russ Freeman, Chuck Berghofer, Shelly Manne, of course, and Conte Candoli, a couple of horn players...and we we're all sitting there on intermission. So he (Getz) came in and said, " Well, is no one here gonna talk to me?" I spoke first and said, "Well, I might say hello if you paid me." And he absorbed that, and then Shelly said to him, "Yeah, and while you're at it, you can pay the waitress you stiffed last night." So he took out a wad of bills and just threw them on the floor. I got paid that way. After that I wouldn't go on the road with him. And he wanted me to. We did a bunch of gigs, including the television show you saw. You know, I was young enough to just be frightened of him rather than be angry. He kinda scared me. But boy he could play.

AAJ: Wow, quite an experience you had to put up with.

RP: And listen, I'd been on the road before. I was with Charles Mingus for a while. He was an angel compared to Stan. I was with him on a trip, going in a station wagon between gigs. We had just done a club in Toronto, which had a major club, and were on the way to Detroit. That was the trip where he (Mingus) pulled Jackie McLean out of the car and punched him in the mouth. I never saw Jackie again for years until he worked for us in the Bakery. He didn't remember me from back then. But Charlie was really good to me. And really fun (Ruth added, wistfully).

AAJ: How about jumping ahead a bit. Tell me about the genesis of the Jazz Bakery.

RP: Well, I really never wanted to run a place. A lot of singers do, but it never even crossed my mind. I was married to Dave Grusin for quite a while and part of our marital settlement was that I had ownership of a Grotrian piano, a real big one that he didn't really play very much. Well, at first, I had it stashed away at different musicians' homes until their wives would finally say two pianos was too much. Around that time, a photographer named Jim Britt, a marvelous photographer, came to some job I was working. he had apparently seen some photos of me some years before in San Francisco at the Hungry I. He said that I had lousy pictures. He was right, and he offered to do my picture. So I went down to his place, which was in the Helms complex, at what would become the original Jazz Bakery in 1992. He had a photography studio there, and when I got to know him I found out he really wanted to sing. Eventually, we ended up doing weekends there for two years.

AAJ: What was the original space like?

RP: Well, I went out and bought 148 white plastic chairs that didn't have arms. And they stacked. That was the important thing because it was my gig, and I had to put them out and away so he (Jim Britt) would have the use of his photography studio during the week. We didn't sell anything. We had a place in the back that had a little kitchen. My friend, Lee Wilder, (Larry Bunker's wife at the time), and I would make two big cylinders of coffee, bad coffee. One was "caf" and one was "decaf." I would go to this market that I passed every day on the way to work and buy pound cake and slice it. We gave it away. We didn't sell anything. Then I just started calling the guys. Tommy Flanagan was someone I just worked with in New York and he trusted me, so he came out. I had just done a song in a film score with Michel Legrand. He worked it. Dave Grusin worked it. And it was weird. I didn't know about contracts. They just trusted me, and they came out here and did two or three nights.

AAJ: Eventually, you moved from that location to where the Jazz Bakery would operate for roughly fifteen years. How did those first couple of years go?

RP: Well, the wonderful man who owned the whole complex, Wally Marks Jr., came to us and said because the original place was never intended for music, and we had big bands and everything, he was having problems with his other tenants. The original place had very thin walls. So one day, he came to me and said he'd prefer if we moved to another space, which was what you know as the Jazz Bakery. At that time, it was a storage area for an antique furniture store. But suddenly it became available. It was a cavernous space, and I literally just drew what I wanted and he turned it over to his architect who built the Jazz Bakery. And of course, it was delayed. I have that to look forward to. (The building of the new incarnation of the Jazz Bakery). And we finally moved over there. I even remember I, of course, was the guinea pig to test out the sound for the first show. The stage was twenty-two feet wide and about fourteen to sixteen feet deep, which is a great size. However, we hadn't done any "real" sound. We wouldn't have known how anyway. I had a great rhythm section. Everybody knew where "one" was, but "one" was different from one end of the stage to the other. The sound was being delayed so we had to fix that. And so we started there. But if someone had told me what it entailed, I would've said I can't do that. I would never, ever have done it. But it was just one of those things that happened. so I just kept doing it. And that's it.

AAJ: So there was a real spontaneous synergy that was behind these developments, sort of pushing things along.

RP: Yes, it was not at all intentional. Wally Marks Jr. had a vision. All that was there, on Helms Ave., was us. There was nothing there except, across the street, there was a bakery that was really decrepit. There was no business on that street. It was pitch black. Helms Ave. was just us. And what he saw (in his imagination), is what it became later. He saw it more as an artistic venture, a combined artistic venture. He (Wally Marks Jr.) was really the reason we could do it. We were always a non- profit from the beginning because I could never run a "business" business. Impossible! Our rent was little or nothing per square foot. He just did it because he had a vision and he wanted to see it there because he was really involved in the arts. He was a wonderful man. And it's been like that, things somehow coming together, with the new Jazz Bakery, too. We call them "bolts of lightning" that came to us. I certainly didn't have the courage to call Frank Gehry. I wouldn't call Annenberg...I wouldn't have called Culver City and said, "give us that land." But apparently we had enough of a reputation, way more than I ever grasped. It (the Jazz Bakery) went on for so long, eighteen or nineteen years, that people were impressed. Even important people, who I didn't know about and who really saw and loved what I was doing. And all I was doing was booking people I wanted to hear. The only stipulation I ever had with the Board of Directors, and it still holds today, is that I'm the only one whose taste is reflected, musical taste. I'm the president, but all I really care about is being the artistic director.

AAJ: How about putting the Jazz Bakery together?

RP: Well, we never had enough money to really do a professional sound treatment. We just kind of grew as best we could. People gave us baffles. We built baffles. At one point we got a whole bunch of left over stuff from the Hollywood Bowl when they remodeled. So it got better all the time. But when we finally bought those new chairs it was like a miracle. It took us 12 years to buy chairs. They cost about $12,000. We finally had padded chairs, and they acted like baffles. It made a huge difference in the sound. We still have them, and we'll probably use them in the "black box" theater. But we couldn't afford it for a long time.

AAJ: And eventually, there was that terrible day in May 2009.

RP: Well, you know what happened...the son of Wally Marks Jr., Wally III, heard I had broken my neck, and I was wearing one of those halos. So he called and said he'd love to visit me. I foolishly thought he had an ounce of humanity. I never would've expected him to visit me, but really, I thought it had to do with me almost dying. So he came with an envelope and gave me notice. We had a month to get out, but we talked him into giving us six weeks because I had people whom I had already paid and who had bought plane tickets. That was his decision. It kind of surprised me, but I already knew who he really was. Not long before that incident, our "domain" name expired and we had to renew it. Well, none of us were aware when it happened and within a day, guess who bought it?

AAJ: Don't tell me.

RP: Yeah, Wally III and his friend. So I went to him to get it back and he refused.So I went to his father and tattle- taled. And his father made him give it back. At that point I knew what kind of person he (Wally III) was. When your landlord goes behind your back and steals like that I learned who he was.

AAJ: The Jazz Bakery always had a student discount. I remember often talking to kids who had come to hear a band play as part of their class assignments.

RP: Well, these days most young people are not interested in coming into a jazz concert and listening to the music, but there are kids who get it. We always did a student discount at the Bakery. A lot of those kids came as part of a class assignment from one of the local jazz or music programs. And a lot of them would try and pay their money and then leave. But I had to sign to make it legit so they would get class credit. And I wouldnt sign their ticket or give them their money back unless they stayed. And eventually, over a period of time, because they had to stay, they'd hear the music and as they left they would come by and tell me they really liked the music. So that was really gratifying.

AAJ: Of course, one of the most stunning announcements you've made regarding the new Bakery had to do with Frank Gehry. How did his association come about?

RP: Frank Gehry's wife, Berta, used to come to the Jazz Bakery a lot by herself or with Frank, Sydney Pollock and Herbie Hancock. When we lost our lease in 2009, Frank read about us and thought, "I should do something for them." However, we never had any contact with him until years later, when suddenly everything remarkably fell into place.

AAJ: How about your recent collaboration with Angel City?

RP: Well, two years ago they asked me to present the last event of their series. All it really meant was that I advertised them and they mentioned us. There was no formal agreement, no money involved. But last year, the Board decided that we needed an executive director to do the kind of stuff I'm not good at nor want to do. We're dealing with a bigger project here with the new building, so we had to hire someone to take on this new role. We hired an executive head hunter and looked at a few people but, from the beginning, I really liked Jeff Gauthier. He had done a similar thing with the Angel City Jazz Festival, and he runs a successful record company, Cryptogramophone. So he knows the music business and, on top of that, I really like him and respect him as a person and a player. So Jeff agreed to come on board as a full time member of the Jazz Bakery.

AAJ: Last year you presented several of the Angel City Jazz Festival concerts. I remember that at the Ford Theater event, you announced another one of the surprises, or "bolts of lightning" that have struck during your Herculean effort to rebuild the Bakery. You told everyone that Wynton Marsalis had called to come aboard and lend his experience with creating the Lincoln Center jazz space to help you guys avoid some of the problems he encountered. And this year you're closely involved with the Angel City Jazz Festival again, as I've seen on the Jazz Bakery web site and Face Book page.

RP: The Jazz Bakery will be presenting concerts by the Robert Glasper Experiment downtown at Zipper Hall on October 12 and the Dafnis Prieto Sextet at REDCAT in Disney Hall the following night.

AAJ: I'm looking forward to the event, and we are all awaiting with unrestrained joy, the construction of the new world class jazz space coming to Culver City in the next couple of years. Thanks Ruth!

In addition to the Bakery's upcoming collaboration on the Angel City Jazz Festival, Price has kept the Jazz Bakery brand alive these past four years by presenting concerts called Movable Feasts. During that time, artists like Charles Lloyd, Nicholas Payton, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Brian Blade and many others have performed at several different venues in Los Angeles like the Kirk Douglas Theater (the new Jazz Bakery will rise next door), the Musician's Institute, and the Broad Theater in Santa Monica, among other locales. After the Angel City Jazz Festival, Price's next Movable Feast will be a performance by the SFJAZZ Collective on Oct. 19, at Zipper Hall in downtown LA.

Meanwhile, the momentum keeps moving forward. Recently, at an event held for private financial supporters, Frank Gehry, the world renowned architect and jazz lover who is donating his services "pro bono," unveiled a model of the the new Jazz Bakery. Here's a hint: it turns Gehry's Disney Hall creation "inside out." And Price has begun a fund raising campaign to finance the construction of the Jazz Bakery's new home on land donated by Culver City. Anyone able and willing to contribute to the construction of this jaw dropping space should contact Ruth Price.

As traumatic as the sudden shuttering of the Jazz Bakery in May 2009 may have been, it truly appears that it was all for the best. For more than fifteen years, Price managed to keep the non-profit jazz space open, against all odds, on a wing and a prayer. With a little more luck, sometime in the winter of 2015, a truly world class, non- profit jazz facility will open in Los Angeles, rivaling venues like Lincoln Center Jazz and the new SFJazz Center.

Photo Credit
Chuck Koton

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