There are more than a few ambitious souls who dream of opening a restaurant or bar. It sounds ideal: Find a cool location, create a compelling ambiance, serve great food and drinks, maybe even have some music, and a favorite nightspot is born, popular and lucrative.
While the dream is alluring, the reality is something less than attractive; long hours every night of the week, irate customers and incompetent and possibly dishonest workers, a never-ending to do list of cleaning, maintenance, and shopping for goods and supplies, and perhaps the worst part, a gnawing fear of running out of money and failing to make rent, payroll, or settle your debts, with an always-present possibility of losing the place to bankruptcy or foreclosure.
All that stress can manifest itself in ways that are less than edifying. Having live music only serves to heighten the stress level of the club owner, for now he must add to his lengthy list of duties the jobs of booking agent, contract negotiator, promoter, and doorman. Dealing with musicians on top of simply trying to keep the club open might explain why club owners can be often times difficult to deal with and in some cases just plain assholes. It should be noted that the preceding doesn’t legitimize such behavior, nor does it guarantee it, but it can at least serve to explain it. It is entirely plausible that owning a wanna-be reputable establishment might turn a friendly and well-intentioned entrepreneur into a beacon of depravity and a garden variety douchebag.
If there was one whom we could use to describe the opposite of douchebag, it would be Joon Lee. Since he opened the Blue Whale in early 2009, the humble but stylish club has enjoyed a meteoric rise in reputation and popularity, making Downbeat Magazine’s list of 150 of the best jazz clubs in the world, capped by an upcoming visit from NPR when they broadcast their annual national New Year’s Eve radio show, Toast of the Nation. Through it all, Joon has maintained his love for music and an unwavering respect for the musicians who grace his stage. The formula for success seems simple, provide great jazz music and great ambience, have a great club. If it really were that simple, however, there would be many more clubs out there that have been able to replicate the success of Blue Whale. If only one thing is to be gleaned from all these words, it would be that no one should think that what Joon has done is that easy, to the contrary, it is nothing short of remarkable.
It is not remarkable that Joon lets the musicians play whatever they feel like playing; what is remarkable is that he pays them to do so. It is remarkable that he views the artists who play there as respected guests rather than temp employees whose sole existence that night is to bring income into his club. It is remarkable that he takes chances on booking out of town musicians with little or no prior track record of success in Los Angeles. Joon does things that most club owners would not bother with, such as opening up his space on off-hours to community amateur musician rehearsals and workshops, and booking select musicians for multiple days or a weekly appearance, otherwise known as a residency, to borrow a term from the art world.
The discussion of these weekly residencies are where this much too long introduction was supposed to lead to. The residency concept is wholly an artistic convention, dating back centuries where a wealthy patron would provide funding and housing for a lucky artisan to have the freedom to create great works. The establishment of a residency as a common practice for artists really took hold at the turn of the 20th century and is now a well-worn tradition in virtually every form of the visual and performing arts. Joon would not consider himself ‘wealthy’ but he cannot avoid his identity as a material and inspirational patron of jazz musicians everywhere. Artists in residency at the Blue Whale have included saxophonist visionary Robby Marshall, the increasingly famous band Kneebody, and stellar bassist and New York transplant Tim Lefebvre (coming soon).
In January, the Los Angeles Jazz Collective gets a chance to earn the gift that Joon has bestowed on us by providing four nights of music in our first ever weekly residency on Wednesday nights at the Blue Whale. We hope to provide an overview of some of our favorite jazz musicians in Los Angeles and abroad, such as Anthony Wilson, Matt Otto, Larry Koonse, Darek Oles, Joe Bagg, Mark and Alan Ferber, Vardan Ovsepian, Gilad Hekselman, and Jonathan Kreisberg. As this article is already rather lengthy, previews of all the shows will be forthcoming in subsequent writings, but in the meantime check out the links to the individual shows on our events page with band and personnel listings and times. Also, here is a cool picture postcard!