LA’S CATALINA JAZZ CLUB HAS STRUCK A CHORD WITH MUSIC LOVERS FOR 37 YEARS. WILL IT LIVE ON?

This story is part of an ongoing Eater LA series about the last great jazz supper clubs of Los Angeles, where the pioneers of the jazz fusion era are on stage for their final curtain call.

On any given night at Catalina Jazz Club in Hollywood, owner Catalina Popescu does a final walk-through in the dark, converted warehouse minutes before a jazz show starts. Concert-goers wander across the worn red carpet, eyes fixed on a stage illuminated in deep blue, violet, and red lighting — the universal colors of jazz clubs. For the moment, the instruments are at rest. As the lights dim, the entire club seems to snap into place under an industrial checkered ceiling that fades into darkness as the performers, like iconic bassist Marcus Miller and his band, walk onto the stage.

Jazz clubs have a long history in Los Angeles that stretches back to the 1920s on Central Avenue, where fans listened to live performances at legendary rooms Club Alabam and the Dunbar Hotel. In 1945, bebop pioneers Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie played a two-month run at Billy Berg’s, a jazz venue in Hollywood. Elvin Jones’s 1972 Live at the Lighthouse recording in Hermosa Beach inspired post-Coltrane saxophonists like Michael Brecker, Bob Berg, and Bob Minzter.

When Popescu and her husband Bob opened Catalina Jazz Club in October 1986, a decade after leaving communist Romania, it was the heyday of LA supper clubs that showcased sophisticated postmodern jazz, a genre that blends complex improvisation with electric beats, as well as more pop-oriented smooth jazz. Studio City’s the Baked Potato, Westwood’s Bon Appetit, and other popular Valley venues Le Cafe and Cafe Cordiale had set the stage for Catalina Bar & Grill, fueling Angelenos’ appetite for contemporary jazz music. Kenny’s G’s sappy soprano saxophone hit, “Songbird,” was the number four track on the Billboard Hot 1oo, an unheard-of feat that was orchestrated by music mogul Clive Davis’s vigorous campaign. The feeding frenzy of live music venues surged with the bossa nova-leaning La Ve Lee in Studio City and smooth jazz-oriented Spaghettini down in Seal Beach. It was the late 1980s and Los Angeles was home to a resurgent live jazz scene.

A generation of postmodern jazz artists in their prime found a captive audience at Catalina Bar & Grill, originally located along a chaotic strip of Cahuenga Boulevard before it moved to its current 235-seat Sunset Boulevard location in 2003. “It was always a challenge crossing that street, but it was worth it for the customers, for a chance to see these great musicians,” says Popescu. She’s right. I was one of them.

In 1989, I was finishing my last year at the University of the Pacific’s Conservatory of Music and visited Los Angeles to catch a Brandon Fields set at Bon Appetit in Westwood. After graduation, I played in blues, contemporary jazz, and R&B groups in the Bay Area but often dreamed of moving to Southern California to play with LA musicians in its legendary jazz clubs. While touring with Bay Area blues legend Chris Cain in the fall of 1995, I made the move to Los Angeles to pursue a career playing saxophone.

Unfortunately, by the time I arrived in LA, Le Cafe and Bon Appetit had already closed. Live jazz in Los Angeles was trending downward following a series of events, including the 1990 recession, 1992 Los Angeles uprising, and 1994 Northridge earthquake. But I could still go to Catalina Bar & Grill to see every one of my favorite artists that came to town, and it quickly became a go-to haunt for me, where I could enjoy garlicky fries, seafood pasta, and long pours of sauvignon blanc while listening to inspiring, thunderous modern jazz sets by the likes of Michael Brecker, Mike Stern, and the Dave Weckl Band.

Almost 20 years later, on a chilly evening in October 2023, I returned to Catalina — now called the Catalina Jazz Club — to see Marcus Miller perform. I wasn’t the only one excited. The audience, mostly people in their late 40s, 50s, and 60s, had come to hear one of the world’s most influential jazz bassists play.

Eighties hits like shrimp scampi and blackened catfish still play prominently as entrees on Catalina’s menu.

Like many Los Angeles supper clubs, Catalina draws from the well of California cuisine and Italian food that is now seen as dated but soared in popularity in the 1980s and 1990s. Starters include a beet and mesclun salad punctuated by broken morsels of goat cheese and walnuts; fried calamari rings accompanied by chipotle aioli; and pork and tangy veal meatballs — Popescu’s favorite dish — under a tent of grilled ciabatta slices. Eighties hits like shrimp scampi and blackened catfish still play prominently as entrees on Catalina’s menu.

Our server Frank Chavez, who has worked for Catalina Jazz Club for 21 years, handed us a menu that now includes popular Mexican American starters like nachos, chips and guacamole, and short rib quesadillas. But the core of the supper club fare remains a selection of pastas and statement entrees — dishes like seafood fettuccine with caper-white wine sauce, a rack of lamb with rosemary cabernet tarragon sauce, and chicken piccata.

Miller kicked off the set wearing blue jeans, a black “Jazz Isn’t Dead” T-shirt, and his signature black felt porkpie hat. He switched between a pair of Sire basses and his trusty 1977 Fender Jazz Bass, laying down the funky, soulful grooves that have defined his career. As Miller soared with lyrical ease over the intro to “Run For Cover,” our mains arrived. A row of eight plump shrimp sat face down in a pool of buttery caper sauce, surrounded by a mound of rice pilaf and steamed vegetables. I dove into the ice cream scoop of mashed potatoes positioned next to an identical steamed vegetable medley — broccoli, two kinds of squash, and carrot — that came with the restaurant’s tangy, salsa-laced blackened Cajun catfish.

The food at these supper clubs doesn’t just have to come out fast. Kitchens at supper clubs are often small — and sometimes even nonexistent. When I was playing at La Ve Lee in the early 2000s, I remembered seeing pan racks being delivered from a local restaurant with salads, appetizers, and dinner plates covered in plastic wrap. The dishes were warmed up on-site, but jazz lovers gamely accepted it: Dinner and drink minimums keep the music flowing. One of the oldest jazz clubs in the city still only serves baked potatoes for food. Catalina’s menu is designed to accommodate all the guests arriving at the same time and placing orders just before the cats begin to play. There’s one constant about the audience: They are there to support live music, and the food is often secondary.

A spot like Catalina Jazz Club, with its retro Cal-Italian menu, may not be held in the same esteem as other Los Angeles institutions like Musso and Frank’s, Dan Tana’s, or Casa Vega, but remains a dining destination for Angelenos who support — and, in some cases, survive on — live music. Landmark restaurants like these possess a timeless quality and can be given a little leeway when it comes to their time capsule menus and design because they hold sentimental and cultural value.

Catalina Jazz Club’s plates of primavera pasta, served against mellifluous tenor saxophone tones, remind me of a time when Los Angeles was a vital center of live jazz. The supper club’s food is affordable, but, more saliently, it’s relatable to the crowd. Music lovers who frequent supper clubs would likely be turned off by expensive chef-driven menus that could render them unable to manage the cumulative cost of a cover, drinks, and dinner. While the club’s Italianesque dishes are dated compared to the likes of Bestia, Mother Wolf, or Antico Nuovo, to some diners, they satisfy like an encore.

Mixed green salad with goat cheese, red beets, and walnuts; a basket of calamari; Meatballs with grilled ciabatta.

At 67 years old, Popescu still works the room and books the bands, many of whom keep coming back out of respect for the unlikely jazz promoter. “I was not interested in jazz, but I came from a country where we couldn’t see [movies, television, or anything censored by the government] — but I was able to hear Dizzy Gillespie,” she says.

Catalina met her husband, Bob Popescu, an American born in Romania, in 1975 while he was vacationing at a popular Romanian beach on the Black Sea. “He wooed me by filling a taxi full of dozens and dozens of red roses on our first date,” she says. Following a long-distance courtship, the couple married, and in 1976 Catalina and her mother came to live with Bob in Los Angeles, where he ran several businesses. Although neither Bob nor Catalina had a musical background, they were attracted to the artists and their cultured audience.

“Jazz audiences are so sophisticated — savvy and educated people. I love jazz music. And, more importantly, I love jazz musicians,” she says. Before they opened the supper club, Catalina worked for a decade as a manager at Bullock’s Wilshire Tea Room, a swanky Art Deco dining room that served tea, finger sandwiches, escalloped white fish, and crab a la Newburg. It’s where Popescu learned about service and style in the restaurant industry. Though California-Italian food was the latest dining trend in the late ’80s, Catalina drew on her own experience to develop the menu and service model. “Our menu reflects comfort food that satisfies Los Angeles audiences, but we have to make sure it can also be ordered and served quickly,” says Popescu.

In 2014, jazz music was the least popular music in the United States. And yet Catalina Jazz Club stayed busy in its new location.

In the early days, the couple struggled to gain traction, but were able to charm artists like Gillespie to come play at Catalina Bar & Grill. According to Popescu, her husband cold-called the jazz legend, and Gillespie found his Romanian accent and jovial personality impossible to say no to. Throughout the year, Popescu stays in touch with her stable of artists like they are family. Birthday messages, holiday greetings, or just friendly check-ins are routine, and the support Catalina Jazz Club has given these artists over the years does not go unnoticed. “Our relationships with music professionals are very important to us. We nurture these relationships, and we depend on each other,” says Popescu. 37 years later, Catalina still gets on the phone, and the artists show up. In the late ’90s, Catalina Bar & Grill was one of the few places I could count on each week to see jazz legends for a very reasonable price.

In 2003, Catalina and Bob took a risk in moving what was already an established institution to a larger venue off Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. In the early 2000s and 2010s, contemporary jazz was in decline. By 2010, beloved local radio station the Wave had removed all references to “smooth jazz” in its branding, and in the same year, the introduction of the controversial Portable People Meter, or PPM, led radio stations nationwide to drop the genre overnight. In 2014, jazz music was listed as the least popular music in the United States according to Nielsen’s year-end report. And yet Catalina Jazz Club stayed busy in its new location. “Catalina is one of the rare great ones that pulled that move off successfully and still is thriving,” says professional drummer Bernie Dresel, band leader of The BBB Featuring Bernie Dresel.

For Los Angeles-based musicians like Dresel, Catalina was a place where musicians and jazz listeners could congregate during these lean years for the genre in the 2000s. As Catalina Jazz Club adapted to the diminished interest in the genre, the jazz community relied on Popescu’s knack for bringing everyone together. “[Supper clubs] have been important to the community of Los Angeles and to the musicians like myself that have called Catalina one of our favorite homes to play and hear music locally,” says Dresel.

After a long day of studio sessions for movies, television, and records, Dresel could look forward to playing with bands like all-star contemporary jazz powerhouse Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band; legendary composer Johnny Mandel; and former Happy Days star and jazz singer Don Most. Catalina Jazz Club, seeming unflappable, kept jazz alive in Los Angeles for its devoted fans, and provided a payday for top local musicians — that is until the COVID-19 pandemic suspended live music performances around the world.

In 2020, when the club remained closed during the pandemic, many of its staff members had to find work elsewhere. But Popescu had earned enough loyalty that servers like Chavez eventually returned when Catalina Jazz Club reopened on July 15, 2021, though with more seating restrictions and uncertainty. “Even though I was making more at [Century City’s] Toscanova, I missed being here and came back,” he says. Luis Guzman, the restaurant’s chef de cuisine, started as a line cook at Catalina 29 years ago. “Guzman started out as a dishwasher, but soon took over the kitchen, and we’ve worked together on the menu,” says Popescu.

Catalina has always provided a platform for jazz’s leading artists, but after more than 50 years, the heart and soul of this powerful genre is winding down, with many of its last performing practitioners passing away or retiring from touring. Chick Corea’s death in 2021 marked an unofficial end to an era. (“We are losing so many great musicians,” says Popescu.) On May 12, 2024, the most influential alto saxophonist in contemporary jazz, David Sanborn, died at the age of 78, whose nearly six-decade career defined the role of the instrument across all popular American music.

Even today, Popescu’s supper club relies on in-house promotions and its enduring hospitality to keep jazz lovers coming back. The unspoken truth about supper clubs is that there’s an interdependent connection between the artists on stage, passionate owners who keep famous rooms going, and the audience. If big-name artists decide to headline a show, that club becomes the place to be.

While legacy acts help to preserve the institution, Popescu is always looking for new talent. Recent performers include Dayren Santamaria, an acclaimed Cuban violinist, and Brian Justin Crum from America’s Got Talent, both of whom boast sizable Instagram followings. “We always adapt ourselves to the changing times and that includes finding new ways to reach audiences. We have the ardent support of our legacy acts, but we nurture new and emerging artists,” says Popescu.

Even after four decades, Popescu welcomes a community of artists, employees, and patrons with one purpose: to bring jazz lovers the music they can’t resist. Legendary percussionist Poncho Sanchez played on New Year’s Eve, and recent shows featured the great Cuban trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, and David Benoit, a top smooth jazz pianist. People from all over have come to Los Angeles to see their favorite artists at Catalina Jazz Club, like sports fans who dream of seeing a baseball game at Fenway Park or a soccer match at Maracanã Stadium. The supper club has defied the odds, and it’s showing no signs of slowing down. It may seem remarkable, but for Popescu, it’s a simple formula.

“Years and years — 37 to be exact — of hard work, persistence, lots of smiles, and great music,” says Popescu. The jazz supper club isn’t dead. Long live the jazz supper club.

2024-06-13T19:16:41Z dg43tfdfdgfd