Music Scenes: Creating Space for Creative Music at LA’s Blue Whale, by Alex W. Rodriguez

by Mike D'Errico on June 21, 2013

Performance Room

The city of Los Angeles has long been known as a jazz hotbed—in fact, the first documented occurrence of the word “jazz” appeared in the Los Angeles Times in 1912. But in the summer of 2009, in the wake of a crippling recession, the jazz community was struggling. Well-paying studio gigs continued to dry up, the prestigious Thelonious Monk Institute had left its longtime home at USC for New Orleans in 2005, and the city’s most-celebrated venue, The Jazz Bakery, had closed its doors two years later.1

Meanwhile, a Korean-American jazz singer named Joon Lee was in the middle of recording his first album, when he began to harbor a humble aspiration: “I had a fantasy about a little venue that people can come and play music,” he told me in an interview last year for NPR Music. When he heard that a run-down karaoke bar in the corner of a Little Tokyo strip mall was on the market, Lee decided to check it out. As he told me, “The only really attractive thing about it was that the elevator was really close. That way, the musicians can bring their gear.” From there, Lee completely redesigned the room, bringing the small but spacious new ambiance into being as Blue Whale. Resolved in his belief that, as he put it, “this was the time that we needed to have some seriously good music,” Lee found himself suddenly intertwined with a new presence in the LA creative music community. Opening a jazz club in the middle of the Great Recession was only one of the challenges facing this ambitious upstart – for a while, even the elevator didn’t work.

But as the late jazz icon Miles Davis is known to have said, “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.” When bassist Dave Holland first recounted this famous epigraph in a 1975 interview, he was referring to the trumpeter’s relentless pursuit of new sounds, musical statements that existed beyond the habitual patterns of his musical collaborators. Lee has followed this approach in the three years since he opened the club, which has since blossomed into a uniquely vibrant space for improvised music in Los Angeles. In this paper, I intend to situate the arrival of this club in the context of the broader jazz scene, informed by interviews that I have conducted with Lee, some of his employees, and a handful of the dedicated musicians that have made Blue Whale their creative home base. In doing so, I suggest that Davis’s mandate to play what’s not there can manifest itself in many musical contexts, including spatial ones.

In his book The Production of Space, French sociologist Henri Lefebvre puts forward a provocative philosophy of space as practice, stating that “spatial practice consists in a projection onto a spatial field of all aspects, elements, and moments of social practice.” In my conversations with Lee and other musicians who frequent the club, the words “space” and “energy,” two important variables in Lefebvre’s conception of social practice, were invoked frequently to describe what makes the club unique. As pianist Josh Nelson explained, “Joon has a really good business model in that he has created a space that’s comfortable for the musicians. Joon has just created… the right energy.”

That the Blue Whale has “created a space” has also meant that the club has “created space” for a certain kind of music-making. But where exactly is this space located? The easy answer would be its physical location, in the third-floor corner suite of Weller Court, a small shopping center in the Little Tokyo neighborhood of Downtown Los Angeles.

The unusual address, 123 Astronaut E.S. Onizuka St., adds a bit of mystique to this physical dimension. In this photo, the club entrance is illuminated on the far-right side of the frame. This geographical locus of the space is a manifestation of recent changes in the global landscape of jazz performances of a certain kind, aided by the physical space created in the rebound from the recession, in which many of the businesses and restaurants in Weller Court, part of LA’s Little Tokyo neighborhood, were bought up and renovated by Korean investors.

Weller Court

The club also exists within a network of social relationships that make up the jazz community. Following David Borgo, I suggest that this network comprises a complex adaptive social system that features emergent qualities at four main levels. Considering the social production of this space—in Lefebvre’s terms—as a complex manifestation of spatial practices allows for a reading of these emergent qualities at different scales, with each scale reflecting unique observable social phenomena. One could hear jazz, then, at any of these levels: an individual group, a subcommunity or “scene,” a metropolitan area, or the global network that distributes jazz sounds and discourse all over the world. But any hearing or reading of these different emergent phenomena is only momentary and is not disconnected from the complex networks from which they arise. Even the diagram below is slightly misleading, implying a correlation between the number of people and the size and location of space—in practice, these spaces are not so smooth and hierarchically related.

Network Levels

According to Arjun Appadurai, “The complexity of the current global economy has to do with certain fundamental disjunctures between economy, culture and politics which we have barely begun to theorize.” Lefebvre, too, considers the distortions and gaps in the contradictory logic of neocapitalism as important constituents of what he calls representational spaces. The current global jazz network is similarly complex, full of its own disjunctures and conflicts, but it is in these disjunctures where space can be found—and an opportunity to “play what isn’t there.” Jazz musicians have always taken it upon themselves to “play the breaks,” to insert an improvised articulation of individuality, into these spaces. Lee’s creation of Blue Whale, spurred by an improvisational response to a moment of economic serendipity, could be considered an articulation of Davis’s mandate on its own terms, as a representational space. It could also be considered a form of spatial practice that allows for what might be called “more playable breaks” for other musicians in the jazz community. Significantly, the club interacts with all of these four levels—individual, subcommunity, metropolitan, and global—in different ways, serving as a point of confluence between these social spaces.

At the individual level, Lee is himself a musician although he rarely plays at the club. Instead, he books the venue by developing individual relationships with musicians whom he respects, relationships which participate in the construction of a creative music community as well as form the foundation of his curatorial approach. Musicians who frequent the club as curious and engaged listeners, such as pianist Josh Nelson whom I quoted earlier, tend to perform there more frequently, as do musicians whom they recommend to Lee.

At the subcommunity level, the club has been used as a resource to showcase the communal visions of certain groups through monthly residencies curated by a certain community group or leader. In April 2012, for example, Lee handed Wednesday nights over to guitarist Anthony Wilson, who shared the stage with a variety of musicians with whom he frequently collaborates—in this example he performs in a trio with organist Larry Goldings and drummer Jim Keltner.

That month, Wilson also led a variety of other projects, as well. Lee has intentionally sought out a diverse range of jazz subcommunities to perform at the Blue Whale, from free improvisers to modernist composers to bebop mainstays, all of whom continue to embrace the venue. Lee prides himself on his eclectic approach to booking the club, and takes particular pleasure in connecting prominent members of different groups who have not previously heard one another play.

The club contributes to the metropolitan area level by providing a public showcase for the musicians and drawing in jazz fans and fellow musicians throughout the city. Its location in the fast-growing Downtown neighborhood of Little Tokyo has allowed the venue to attract neighborhood arts-lovers as well as jazz fans from other areas who are used to driving into the city center for an evening of high-quality music. The club’s capacity is approximately 100 people, and attracts a significant cast of regular patrons, providing an opportunity for musicians to connect with an audience beyond their most loyal fans. Also, it would likely not exist without the depressed real estate market that has given way to new development Downtown, thus Lee’s vision in founding the club was not only borne out of necessity for “seriously good music,” but opportunity.

Lastly, Blue Whale interacts with the global network by occasionally booking prominent acts from outside of Los Angeles, usually from New York City, which is where many of the musicians and much of the jazz global network infrastructure is located. Longtime LA jazz promoter Rocco Somazzi explained the club’s unique vibe, and its ability to attract prominent out-of-town acts, as follows:

The people that are at the pinnacle . . . they have nowhere else to play [in Los Angeles], they normally wouldn’t play at clubs this small. So the Blue Whale has this unique opportunity to present music that is really at the highest possible level . . . in an intimate setting.

According to Somazzi, it is precisely the space created by the recession—the lack of globally-networked venues—that has allowed Blue Whale to occasionally present globally prominent musicians in such a small venue. Last summer, for example, two of the world’s most prominent young jazz stars, Ambrose Akinmusire and Walter Smith III, led a quintet at the venue that packed the house, fostering a frenetic buzz that is more difficult to create in larger venues such as Jazz Alley in Seattle or Yoshi’s in San Francisco, the sorts of places that would usually book a high-profile group like this one. The club also frequently hosts collaborations between like-minded artists from different cities—this past February, for example, New York pianist Dan Tepfer performed a scintillating duo set with LA-based singer Sara Gazarek.

Blue Whale is significant in part because it does enact space within all four areas of spatial practice; furthermore, how the space serves to inspire creativity in those who perform there is equally important. To consider that, I’d like to step inside and consider the venue itself as a representational space. The club consists of two main sections: the entrance and bar room, and the performance area. Here’s a photo of the bar. Lee designed and constructed most of what you see:

blue whale bar

This shows the performance area, which Lee also designed with three important features in mind, inspired by his experience as a jazz musician. First, Lee installed upholstered cubes as the bar’s seating, which are movable.

Performance Room

They are colored blue for the performance room and brown for the bar area—according to Lee, this represents the sea and the land, respectively. Second, the performance room does not include a raised stage—instead, most musicians perform between the pair of columns in the middle of the room. But the flexibility allows for musicians to be creative in how they arrange the space—for example, with the cubes clustered in the middle and the musicians surrounding the audience, or as Josh Nelson did in a recent performance, with a video screen hung on one wall and the musicians playing in front of moving images controlled by a video DJ.

Musicians seem to love this unorthodox setup, giving them the opportunity to decenter both the musicians and audience, and explore different spatial relationships between the two.

Ceiling

The third and perhaps most surprising feature of the performance space is actually on the ceiling, where Lee emblazoned large slabs with mystic poetry, such as Hafiz’s “A Great Need” seen in this photo. The presence of this detail gives the room a more spacious quality because of the intention that went into every dimension of it, even the ceiling, an area that is not usually noticed when people enter a room. It compels the audience to look up occasionally and perceive the third dimension of the space, a powerful feeling especially when accompanied by music.

Speaker

It does bear mentioning that, despite the unqualified enthusiasm and support for Lee’s venture expressed by everyone that I talked to, the club’s Achilles heel in terms of the design is acoustic. Until recently, the space used the pair of overburdened Bose speakers as its PA system shown here; combined with the room’s odd angles and hard surfaces, this made it difficult for some musicians to hear themselves while they perform, especially those who require electronic amplification such as vocalists. This is mitigated to a certain degree when the house is full, but only to a certain extent. Lee, aware of this limitation, has recently invested in a much more robust PA setup, which has also greatly improved the room’s acoustics.

Of course, the room’s energy is most vibrant when it is full of people, as it is most evenings from about 8 p.m. to midnight. An appreciative and musically informed audience brings a degree of interactivity for which the small yet spacious venue is ideal. This brief clip shows the audience taking in a bit of the Joe LaBarbera Quintet:

Having emerged from an unknown club struggling through a recession to one of the city’s most celebrated performance spaces in just over two years, Blue Whale has some important lessons for arts advocates hoping to cultivate locally sustainable creative communities. For all of the recent enthusiasm for the creative placemaking movement—driven in large part by the National Endowment for the Arts—perhaps a more useful model would be creative space-making, informed by Lefebvre’s call for a unified concept of spatial production and social history. At Blue Whale, Lee has sought to carve out space in a community that needed it—his own—acting assertively, creatively, and virtuosically within both the physical and social constraints and disjunctures of his environment. Through his own desire to “play what’s not there”, this space has galvanized a community of creative collaborators to join him.

Alex W. Rodriguez is a writer, trombonist and PhD student in ethnomusicology at UCLA. His current research focuses on jazz clubs around the world and the creative improvised music communities that surround them. Alex also contributes jazz coverage to NPR Music, is the Managing Editor for the open access academic journal Ethnomusicology Review, and maintains a blog, Lubricity.

 

  1. The Monk Institute returned to LA in 2011; The Jazz Bakery recently announced plans to repoen in Culver City.

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