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.


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