What's in a Space?
When it comes to the power of performance space, jazz vocalist Ruth Price could more or less write the book. She spent her career singing at legendary jazz venues such as Birdland, the Village Vanguard, the Black Orchid, and Shelley’s Manne Hole, accommodating her performance to the peculiarities of each space as necessary. “Each room you go to work in is like a member of the band,” she said. “That room and that sound become another part of your band which you all adjust to.”
So when Price decided to establish her own jazz venue, she knew exactly what she wanted the location to include. Good acoustics were a must of course. She also didn’t want the distractions of clinking glasses, dining service, or smoking. Not only would this create a purer listening experience, but it would enhance the action onstage as well. “When [band members] can actually hear each other perfectly on the stage, a whole other thing happens in terms of their communication and how they grow,” she said. “If you're hearing the most delicate thing that you're doing with each other and can respond accordingly, it's really magnificent.”
Using these principles as her guide, Price founded the nonprofit Jazz Bakery in 1992 in Culver City, California, and continues to serve as its artistic director. Housed in the historic Helms Bakery building, the intimate, 235-seat space was in many ways the ideal jazz venue, and quickly gained as beloved a reputation as the storied clubs Price once played. The Bakery presented two concerts a night, 52 weeks a year, and was once named "the most prestigious jazz space in Los Angeles" by LA Weekly.
But in 2009, the Bakery lost its lease—one of the biggest blows an organization can suffer. For most, the loss would be a death sentence; after all, it’s hard to maintain a venue without an actual venue. But taking a lesson from her art form, Price decided to improvise. Almost immediately, the Bakery began its “Moveable Feast” series, presenting roughly two concerts a month in rented theaters and concert halls across Los Angeles. “It's not easy to pull off,” Price said. “But it keeps our audience involved with us.”
The lack of brick and mortar has also provided the Jazz Bakery with a certain degree of freedom, allowing it to enter neighborhoods and reach audiences that it might not have otherwise. To support that effort, a recently announced FY 2014 Art Works grant will allow the Jazz Bakery to present three NEA Jazz Masters at a diverse set of venues. 2010 NEA Jazz Master Kenny Barron will perform with his trio at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center, named for one of LA’s first prominent African-American politicians and, according to Price, a frequent visitor to the former Jazz Bakery space. 2007 NEA Jazz Master Toshiko Akiyoshi will perform at the Japan America Theatre in Little Tokyo, and 1998 NEA Jazz Master Ron Carter will be performing at the Zipper Concert Hall at the Colburn School—a performing arts academy—where he’ll also teach a master class to the next generation of jazz musicians.
Although the show has gone on for the Jazz Bakery these past four years, Price’s team is looking forward to the organization’s next spatial iteration: a 250-seat venue and black box theater custom-designed by Frank Gehry, who had reached out after reading about the Bakery’s plight. With Gehry’s support, $2 million in seed money from the Annenberg Foundation, and a land donation by Culver City, Price is hopeful that a permanent home is not only in view, but that it will be as exceptional as its predecessor. Given her unwavering vision regarding the purity of space and sound, this goal seems right on track.
“[The Jazz Bakery] is a listening situation. You forfeit all of the income that the nightclub counts on [from food and drinks] just in order to be able to do that,” she said. “But it's worth it. It's so worth it.”
Click here to learn about our 2014 class of NEA Jazz Masters, and how you can access the live webcast of the upcoming NEA Jazz Masters Ceremony and Concert.