By Charles M. Weisenberg
“How many club owners could distinguish between Miles Davis, a glockenspiel and a C clef?”
This question was raised about five years ago in an article by the poet Kenneth Rexroth who maintained that a jazz club is no place for a musician who considers himself a creative artist. Rexroth’s comments on jazz clubs were critical and very caustic, but with rather good justification. Jazz clubs have had a difficult time getting away from their speakeasy traditions.
At approximately the same time that Rexroth was writing about what’s wrong with jazz clubs, plans were being made to open a new one in Hollywood. Drummer Shelly Manne was behind this effort, and his success can be measured partially by the fact that it is the club’s fifth anniversary. Few jazz clubs manage to keep their doors open that long in Southern California.
There is a great deal of truth in the thought that jazz clubs have outlived their usefulness to this music and probably in the not too distant future, the jazz club will be found almost exclusively in the history books. Many clubs in our country’s leading cities have closed their doors; and I don’t think there is an important American city that doesn’t have fewer jazz clubs today than it had a decade or two ago. Even New York’s famous Birdland has become a rock joint.
There are several obvious and basic reasons why clubs have folded. The biggest one being expense. Musicians are demanding more money each year and if a west coast club wants to bring a man out here from the east he usually has to pay his plane fare. On the other hand, the musicians have become less anxious to play for clubs since they can make more money in a one night concert than six nights in a club. For instance, when Bob Dylan played at the Hollywood Bowl, he made about $15,000 for a one hour performance. Another reason is the audience. Shelly’s has a mailing list composed of people who like jazz well enough to fill out a card requesting that coming attractions be sent to them. The list is largest of its kind and it only numbers 12,000. This is a minute percentage of the Los Angeles listening audience.
Yet Shelly’s Manne Hole has, in the past five years, not only been a successful jazz club but has risen to the head of the list. Perhaps that is because the owner can tell the difference between Miles Davis, a glockenspiel and a C clef, but more probably it is because the club has a sound operating policy.
In an interview shortly before the Manne Hole opened. Shelly said: “If there were no jazz clubs it would have a terrible effect on the music. I feel that’s where all the great jazz starts. That’s where they learn to play their horns so they’ll be ready when the call comes from someplace big. Things are warm and flow naturally and that’s when things really happen. This country can’t afford to lose its jazz clubs because they will lose a lot of jazz.”
There is a lot to argue with here, but there can be no argument that the Manne Hole has accomplished its basic purpose — a warm place where things can flow naturally and where great jazz occasionally happens. Perhaps the decor has something to do with this warm feeling. Shelly’s partner, Rudy, says the place is decorated in a Dadaism style. “It has a certain flavor about it and reflects a quiet humor. You can’t really explain it, it’s just a feeling that kind of grows when you’ve been there awhile.” Stan Kenton commented when he played there recently, “All that seems to be missing is a toilet seat tacked on the wall”
Perhaps the club has succeeded because Shelly has given it a basic aesthetic purpose, or maybe it has succeeded because his partner Rudy knows bow to run things smoothly night after night. There may be a dozen or more reasons for the club’s success in a period when most jazz clubs have switched to a “topless” show or gone out of business altogether. When Shelly’s opened in I960, there were from 14 to 16 jazz clubs operating. Now there are only three: the Lighthouse, the It Club and Shelly’s. In any event, Shelly’s Manne Mole has become this city’s most important showcase of jazz talent on a year round basis. The schedule for the next several months reads like the Top Ten List in Down Beat. “We always get the best,” says Shelly.
Rather than dwell upon the club’s history, architecture or changes of policy in entertainment and refreshment, it might be well to observe its fifth anniversary by trying to see just what purpose a jazz club can serve. All jazz clubs today have a certain limiting effect on the jazz audience, and most clubs have a limiting effect on the musicians. Many teenagers have difficulty entering establishments that serve liquor, and many adults who might enjoy jazz don’t want to go to the kind of place where this music is performed. The musicians are usually limited by owners who are saloon keepers first and jazz promoters third or fourth. There was a time when jazz was brought in to sell the booze, now booze is brought in to sell jazz. Yet Shelly’s Manne Hole does serve a purpose for both listener and performer.
It may sound trite and familiar to say that jazz has become too serious or mature to continue living exclusively in jazz clubs, but there is so much truth in this statement that it must be made. I am speaking only of that brand of jazz that would have the label of high quality or serious (not somber). There is another kind of jazz that we can discuss further on. The jazz that is recognized as an important art form requires audiences that come primarily to listen, which means auditoriums, theaters and the like. Important music requires an appropriate setting, and without trying to he pretentious, we should acknowledge that quality jazz is important music.
This does not mean that high quality jazz can never be presented in a club. It has worked at Shelly’s Manne Hole on occasion because most people go there to listen. The club only recently acquired a liquor license, and there is no stand-up bar for serious drinkers. “We had been selling beer and wine,” says Rudy. But people don’t want beer and wine. You can’t have a dry nightclub, so we brought in liquor. It was an accommodation.” There are a minimum number of distractions once you accept the existing interior decorations. The focal point of the club is the music. The club is designed for listening, so people there tend to listen.
Shelly has had to battle with dozens of club owners in his own career. One of the reasons the club was set up was to provide a place where jazzmen could play and have a good time for themselves. This has helped produce good music. The purchase of a good piano, installation of fine sound equipment and the general attitude of the employees all contribute to the good feeling that usually exists on the bandstand. These are things that base made the performance of quality jazz possible at the Manne Hole.
There will be a place for such clubs as long as there arc adults who like to listen to jazz in an informal atmosphere. They also provide a relaxing stage for musicians who are becoming more involved in concerts and other formal presentations. Good audience communication has been a problem in jazz for years. More and more musicians have developed what has been called the Miles Davis syndrome: Put in the key, wind him up and he turns his back to the audience. A good jazz club can act as a stimulus to the musician by giving him better contact with the audience and an opportunity to have a good time. Trying new or different things in a formal presentation is difficult while these same approaches will he acceptable in a good club.
The jazz club also serves what might be called “light jazz,” which is basically entertainment rather than art. It is not always easy or even possible to distinguish between these two kinds of jazz. Both exist and they are different. Music played primarily for its entertainment value also requires a good platform. The audience may not be as attentive, but it involves another type of appreciation. To try and decide which is better is useless — suffice it to say that they are merely different.
The difficult economical situation surrounding jazz clubs generally means that one club has to serve both types of audiences. There is not enough money being spent on nightclub or night life entertainment to support very many clubs, even in a big city like Los Angeles. Shelly”s Manne Hole has been fortunate in that it has been able to attract both audiences and both types of musicians.
Los Angeles jazz clubs have opened and closed in recent years with the frequency of a busy pair of elevator doors. The oldest and best established club remains in Hermosa Beach. Known as The Lighthouse, this club was an important launching pad for West Coast jazz activities in the 1950s. The only other major jazz club is the It Club which has been operating for several years. There are, throughout the area, a number of places where jazz is heard sporadically but none that could be considered a major jazz showcase.
Shelly’s Manne Hole has become the city’s most important jaiz club and rivals anything in other parts of the country. It serves a purpose and serves it well — nothing more need be said.
— Charles M. Weisenberg
Howard Lucraft’s photos of Shelly’s Manne Hole captured the funky interior that Charles M. Weisenberg described in his article from FM & FINE ARTS in the November 1965 issue. A special thanks to Cynthia Sesso and CTSIMAGES where Howard Lucraft’s photography can be licensed for commercial use.