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SWINGIN HOT SPOTS WHEN JAZZ WAS KING.

Byline: DENNIS McCARTHY

The Valley was jumpin' with jazz spots as the 1970s dawned, and a couple of guys named Don Randi and Tom Monteleone decided to join the party and open their own clubs - the Baked Potato in Studio City and Monteleone's in Encino.

Everywhere you looked, from the East Valley to the West Valley, the landscape was dotted with jazz joints dating back to the '40s, '50s and '60s that were packing them in seven nights a week for some great music. There was the Shalimar Club, Ram's Horn, Dante's, Chadneys, Whittinghills, Alphonse's, Samoa House, Ruddy Duck, China Trader, Money Tree, Tail o' the Cock, Smoke House and many more.

Today, the old clubs are gone except for the Baked Potato and Monteleone's West in Tarzana.

A few newer clubs, like Jax in Glendale, have replaced them, but not many. The Money Tree in Toluca Lake went through some transitions and ownership changes over the years, and it has also recently returned to its jazz roots six night a week, said current owner Francis Ruggieri.

``One by one, the old clubs just faded away,'' said Randi, whose Baked Potato is, at 31, the oldest jazz club left in the Valley, and maybe the entire city, he says.

Why so many popular jazz spots faded away has as many opinions as musicians have riffs. But there is one thing the club owners, musicians and band leaders agree on.

They'd all love to turn that clock back to the days when the Valley was a hotbed of great jazz, and just about every neighborhood had a club in it.

The place was swingin', they said.

``When I opened in '71 at Balboa Avenue and Ventura Boulevard in Encino, there was the Smoke House across the street with jazz, the Ram's Horn just east of me, Travaglini's Restaurant with its lounge down the block, and the Samoa House playing jazz about three blocks away,'' said Monteleone, who also opened Monteleone's West in Tarzana in 1980.

By the time he closed his Encino club in 1984 to concentrate solely on the Tarzana location, the nightly jazz crowds were already beginning to thin.

``People still wanted to hear the music, but not more than one night a week,'' he said. ``The clubs began to lose that flow of steady customers coming out two or three nights a week to hear good jazz.

``But everything really took a hard left turn in 1990 when Mothers Against Drunk Driving hit the scene. A lot of clubs came tumbling down because a majority of their business was the bar, not food.

``Instead of three or four drinks, people would have one or two, and nobody was hanging out after 11 p.m. Nobody wanted to walk outside and look at a black and white (police car).''

One of the keys to their own clubs' success and longevity, both Monteleone and Randi agree, is booking jazz acts that draw people in. And that ain't easy.

``There are certain bands in this town that for one night a week are the hottest band in town,'' Randi said. ``Two nights a week, they ain't.''

The implication is pretty clear. Once they run out of family, friends and a few fans showing up that first night to jam the place, the club definitely takes on a vacant look that second night.

``Years ago, you could book an act in your place for two months and do well,'' Monteleone said. ``Today, it's one night and out.''

Veteran jazz musicians Carole Kaye and Kenny Kotwitz caught the jazz wave from the '50s through the '70s in the Valley.

``I miss the old spots,'' said Kaye, a renowned jazz guitarist and studio musician who also teaches young jazz rhythm players at the Henry Mancini Institute at UCLA.

``When I started playing the clubs in the Valley around 1955, people were serious about listening to the music. They weren't there to pick up anybody.

``It was mainly a radio crowd, not people who grew up on TV,'' she said. ``They listened, not talked and looked around.''

Kotwitz, who has been playing the piano and accordion at Barbata's Steak House in Woodland Hills for the last 17 years, broke into jazz playing at the old Samoa House in Encino back in the late '60s.

``Every place had a little life in it for a while, but they all faded,'' he said. ``But I think the audiences today are about the same as the audiences back then. People who love jazz still love it.''

True, Randi says, but when he looks out from behind the piano keys at the people sitting in his Baked Potato today, he's seeing something he didn't see more than 50 years ago when he broke into jazz.

``I'm seeing more young people, and more mixed audiences today,'' he said. ``It's not just black or white like it used to be. People of different colors and races aren't so afraid to go out and enjoy some jazz together anymore, and that's wonderful.

``It's been a great 30 years, and I want to thank the people of the Valley for making us one of the survivors,'' Randi said.

The dean of jazz band leaders in the Valley - the man who played all the clubs starting back in the late '40s at the old Shalimar Club on Ventura Boulevard in Encino - thinks jazz is only a star away from regaining its place at the top of the musical mantel in this country.

``We need a guru, somebody like an Elvis Presley,'' said Del Simmons, whose New Year's Eve show at the Sportsmen's Lodge sold out, and had to be moved to a bigger room.

``I thought for a while it would be Kenny G, but he's beginning to fade. We need someone with great energy.''

Until that someone comes along to make jazz king again - a Louie Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday or Ella Fitzgerald who did it for another generation - we'll just have to bide our time and get by with the one-night stands.

But it's going to happen someday because the audience is still there, still hungry for good jazz, Simmons said.

``Standing up there on stage New Year's Eve after selling the place out, I felt so big that it kind of embarrassed me,'' he said.

``People I haven't seen in 25 years were asking me if I still remember their song. I lied and said sure, but help me out a little, hum a few bars.

``But the great thing was to see them bring their grown children along, and to watch these kids react to the music and have such a great time, just like their parents and grandparents did when they were young.

``It isn't me,'' Simmons said. ``It's the music. Jazz is just too good to ever fade away.''

Amen.

CAPTION(S):

2 photos

Photo:

(1) Tom Monteleone enjoys a performance by singer Gina D'Onofrio at his Monteleone's West jazz and supper club in Tarzana.

Charlotte Schmid-Maybach/Staff Photographer

(2) Don Randi mans the mixing board at his Studio City club, the Baked Potato, which has been a San Fernando Valley live jazz emporium for 31 years.

Phil McCarten/Staff Photographer
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Oct 11, 2001
Words:1204
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