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1 great spot for live jazz in LA - the Blue Whale - and 6 classic live jazz albums you need to own

by Sean J. O'Connell | Off-Ramp®

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Jazz pianist Mark de Clive-Lowe and owner Joon Lee at The Blue Whale jazz club in downtown LA's Little Tokyo. Sean J. O'Connell

Sean J. O'Connell is a writer and jazz pianist who unearthed swinging ghosts in his book Los Angeles's Central Avenue Jazz. He writes for Off-Ramp, Downbeat, and the LA Times.

The Blue Whale just celebrated 7 years in Little Tokyo and has become - despite its location on the top floor of Weller Plaza - the definitive room for hip, progressive, youthful jazz. And the audience at the club has gone from 3 awkward dudes nursing a Pepsi for two hours to a diverse, packed, engaged crowd.

And like the Village Vanguard and Birdland in New York, or Shelly's Manne-Hole and the Lighthouse here in LA, more and more artists are recording albums at the Blue Whale. Several have already been recorded at the club, and on Friday, Feb. 17, and Saturday, Feb. 18, keyboardist Mark de Clive-Lowe is throwing an album release party at the club called "Live at the Blue Whale." Mark can get them dancing in the aisles but he can also play a straight-ahead Ahmad Jamal groove all day long.

Joon Lee admits he didn't pick the best time to start a businesses, especially one in an obscure corner of an obscure mall in downtown LA. "I built it Winter 2009. It was bad timing. Everything was going down. And we had many nights when there were more employees than customers ... for at least a year. I was thinking at least two years, I'm gonna lose money for sure." Why has he succeeded when other jazz clubs have failed? "First of all you have to believe in this music. And then you have to believe in this community." 

Mark says, "There are some clubs where you're fighting with patrons who don't want to hear music, or staff who wish it was the rock night. When I play The Blue Whale, creatively it feels like a safe space. Whatever I want to do - and I've seen this with other musicians, whatever they want to do - is accepted by the audience and the venue. The staff culture here is really strong, supportive, and friendly. The space is made for music; the only reason for it to exist is for people to perform their art."

Off-Ramp jazz correspondent Sean J. O'Connell at the piano at The Blue Whale in downtown LA's Little Tokyo.
Off-Ramp jazz correspondent Sean J. O'Connell at the piano at The Blue Whale in downtown LA's Little Tokyo. John Rabe

Make sure to listen to the audio, because it starts and ends with people performing their art: Sean's stellar rendition of "All the Things You Are" and Mark's meditative "You Don't Know What Love Is."

And if you're just starting your jazz collection, here's a sextet of classic live jazz albums you need to include, and Sean's tasting notes.

1. & 2. Duke Ellington: Newport 56 and Dizzy Gillespie: At Newport

Jazz doesn't get enough credit for being fun. Clearly these 2 bandleader-innovators enjoyed the hell out of pushing their bands' buttons.

3. Wes Montgomery & Wynton Kelly - Smokin' At the Half Note

Pure exuberance and swing for an energetic crowd. The band is audibly loving every minute.

4. Dexter Gordon & Wardell Gray - The Steeplechase

Live albums permit a lot more excess than a studio date would ever excuse. But when the crowd is pounding on the stage, blow, Daddy-o. 

5. Bill Evans Trio - Sunday at the Village Vanguard

An exquisite performance from the trio but also a master class in attentive listening from the audience. 

6. Lee Morgan: Live At the Lighthouse

The definitive beachside jazz club hosting pure fire. A double LP totaling four tracks!


The Blue Whale is in Suite 301 at Weller Court, 123 Astronaut E S Onizuka St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. It has a full bar, food, and is open every night at 8.

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