Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Donte's Jazz Club - Two Remembrances

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Recently, a list member raised the subject of Donte’s Jazz club on a chat group devoted to West Coast Jazz that brought forth a whole host of remembrances of seeing various musicians at that venue from 1966 until its closing in 1988.

Everyone from the Clare Fischer Big Band, to Med Flory and Buddy Clark’s Supersax, to the quartet the pianist/vibraphonist Victor Feldman co-led with flute player and saxophonist Tom Scott, to Mike Barone’s Big Band to Michel Petrucciani with Charles Lloyd’s Quartet to tenor saxophonists Warne Marsh and Zoot Sims along with a whole host of other Jazz groups was put forth as a string of “those-were-the-days,” pleasant memories.

The editorial “staff” at JazzProfiles was so accustomed to it being at its familiar location on Lankershim Blvd. in North Hollywood just up the street from the offices of Universal Studios that it didn’t realize Donte’s was closing until it read this column by the esteemed Jazz critic and author Leonard Feather in the April 2, 1988 edition of the Los Angeles Times.

We thought it would be fun to share it with you along with a “Caught in the Act” feature about the 1973 appearance at Donte’s of the Patrick Williams Concert Jazz Orchestra that Harvey Siders filed in the March 15, 1973 edition of Downbeat to give you a sense of the club’s history and the many unique performance that took place there in the 20+ years of its existence.

Leonard Feather in the April 2, 1988 edition of the Los Angeles Times.

“Carey Leverette sits in the booth-sized, litter-cluttered office in back of Donte's. At 63 and in uncertain health, he looks tired. He says he has been tired for years.

Soon, though, there will be time, not for booking musicians and taking out trash and washing dishes and filling salt and pepper shakers and buying food and liquor and paying bills, but time to lie back and reminisce. After tonight, Donte's, the room he founded 22 years ago and that became one of the world's most famous jazz clubs, will no longer be his property or his burden.
As he talks about the future--about Koichi Akemoto, the Japanese businessman who will take over the club next week, redecorate it and make all the improvements for which Leverette has had no money--he flashes back to the past.

"It all began," he says, "when I was a dancer and choreographer. I met a lot of musicians at MGM and all the studios where I worked; I loved their music. With a partner, John Riccella, I found this empty building on Lankershim (in North Hollywood). We fixed it up and opened with just a piano bar.
"That was June 22, 1966. We started with Hampton Hawes on piano and Red Mitchell on bass. John didn't think we could afford a drummer, so I took some money out of my own pocket and hired Donald Bailey.

"In October, Sunny McKay, who was a waitress here when we opened, and her husband, Bill McKay, bought out Riccella. Bill took care of the kitchen and Sunny handled the staff, the hosting and all that stuff; they were here in the daytime and I'd come in for the evening and look after the bar, the bookings, the publicity. So there were three of us to share the responsibilities."

Soon it was decided that a piano bar wasn't enough; it was replaced by a bandstand, and Donte's began to book small groups, even big bands--first, Mike Barone, who was there every Wednesday for five years; then national name bands, starting with Stan Kenton, who one night observed: "You're probably wondering how Donte's can afford a big band. Well, our guys can outdrink the customers."

The glory years saw Woody Herman, Mercer Ellington (soon after he inherited the band from his father) and Count Basie, who, says Leverette, "was so eager to play he'd sit down at the piano and start a set before we'd had time to turn the room over and cover his fee."

Buddy Rich, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Gerald Wilson, Don Piestrup, Don Menza and Bill Holman brought in their big bands. So did Louie Bellson, who was a Thursday regular for almost three years.

"I remember Redd Foxx used to walk in, take over the mike and tell dirty stories--particularly when Pearl Bailey was here with Louie; it made her very nervous," Leverette says.

Comedians liked Donte's; Mort Sahl became a popular attraction.

"We'd book him only on weekends, because he brought in the doctors and lawyers who had to get up early and couldn't be here on weekdays," Leverette says.

In the early days certain rituals were followed. Once a year Sunny McKay, who was of Iranian origin, celebrated Persian New Year with appropriate cuisine. Every Monday for years, the late Jack Marshall, a studio guitarist, organized "Guitar Night," at which Joe Pass was a regular for most of a decade. Larry Carlton, in an augury of things to come, broke records with his early fusion group.

Off or on the bandstand, celebrities used to flock to Donte's. Clint Eastwood, a big band fan, came in often. Frank Sinatra was there, and Herb Alpert. Carmen McRae, who worked the room often, attracted fellow singers.
"One night," Leverette recalls, "Sarah Vaughan and Morgana King came in to hear Carmen, and the three of them were on stage singing together.
"Dizzy Gillespie came in one night and sat reading the fourth trumpet parts in Bill Berry's band. Doc Severinsen did the same thing once with Bellson's orchestra. Actually, Tommy Newsom brought in the entire 'Tonight Show' band several times, without Doc. He loved giving the men a chance to really loosen up and play at length."

About 10 years ago Sunny and the ailing Bill McKay (now deceased) sold out their interest in the room. Operating it more or less single-handedly--despite the help of such aides as veteran bartender Bob Powell--proved difficult for Leverette and the room began to fall on hard times; the national names gave way to local, scale musicians; checks, as Leverette readily admits, began to bounce. He remembers what he calls the "faithfulness and unfaithfulness" of certain musicians.

"Art Pepper would never play anywhere else; he said I helped him out in lean times, and he became our regular New Year's Eve attraction. But I felt very hurt when I would call certain other musicians, some of whom got their big break here, and ask them to play for one of our anniversary parties, and they'd be too busy or refer me to a manager."

Caught in the Act - Pat Williams  Concert Jazz Orchestra - Harvey Siders
Donte's, North Hollywood, Calif. Personnel: 20 strings, including 10 violins. 4 violas, 4 cello, 2 contra basses, Tom Scott, reeds, (lutes; Larry Carlton. guitar; Clare Fischer, piano; Jim Hughart. electric and acoustic bass; Mark Stevens, drums; Larry Bunker, percussion; Brandy Artist vocal.

“Considering today's shrinking budgets, film and TV producers prefer composers who can coax big sounds from small forces. That's just one of the reasons that Pat Williams gets so many scoring assignments. The same rule of economics applies to clubs. Give them duos and trios, but keep the big bands away. Now put the two realities together and that means Pat Williams brought a combo into Donte's and made it sound like the Los Angeles Philharmonic, right? Wrong!

He brought in his Concert Jazz Orchestra, which consists of 20 strings, plus the half-dozen swingers listed above.

Where did Donte's put them all? They did what they do every time they book the Mormon Tabernacle Choir: they removed enough tables so that the artists nearly outnumbered the patrons. The tragedy there is that not enough people heard this holiday for strings.

Williams had to wait for his fiddlers to seat themselves before he could inch his way through the wall-to-wall crowd to his wall-to-wall ensemble. It left him with just enough room to conduct.

In contrast to the congestion. Pat's charts revealed the type of expansiveness that marks his orchestral thinking. For starters, Adagio (from Bach's Toccata. Adagio and Fugue in C for Organ) gave Williams a chance to juxtapose a standard string quartet with the full complement of strings. Both sounds were gorgeous.

The members of the chamber group were widely separated, yet the intimacy of their phrasing and the consistency of the dynamics never suffered. When the full strings reinforced the theme, the result was not the high-caloric sounds one hears from Muzak; this was the full-bodied, highly disciplined blend one expects from a symphony orchestra.

The rhythm section entered unobtrusively, with Bunker shaking a chocallo (show-ki-yo) about the size of a pepper mill. Scott's flute doubled Carlton's guitar over a polite rock beat while the strings continued their legato comments.

It came to a typically baroque ending as the minor mode resolved to a simple major triad. With the nervousness of the opening out of the way. Pat turned to his fans and remarked; ‘25 years at the conservatory, and here we are in a saloon.’

There was a Bachian flavor to the intro of the next number. What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life, but it quickly dissolved to a subtle jazz waltz with Scott playing tenor in the alto range over the descending root tones of Carlton's guitar. Lush strings flirted with a genteel rhythm section until Bunker soloed on vibes. Then the flavor became more rock bound — but never unsubtle — as Scott returned on tenor over Fischer's intense com-ping.

After Carlton took a brief guitar solo, Williams somehow managed to skip four bars and sent the strings into a tricky modulation for the out chorus without the rhythm section. When the rhythm section realized what had happened, they quickly and unobtrusively filled the gap and very few in the club could have been aware of the short-lived harmonic detour.

The Not So Fast Blues, like the previous Chart, was done by Jack Cortner (I don't know who he is, but based on the sounds he creates, I'd like to know him.) The tempo had a teasing come hither quality, and the head was comprised of flute doubling vibes. When Scott took off on his own, it was that half-breathed, half-played, "Kirkish" [Rahsaan Roland Kirk] sound that found Scott doubling himself.

It was deliciously dirty, especially effective against sustained string chords. Stevens laid down a triplet beat to lend a 3-against-4 feel. And there was the usual intelligent comping by Fischer. As for his locked hands solo, it was so full and so sweeping, the only way to label it is "body by Fischer."

Following another mallet solo by Bunker, the strings were supposed to reinforce the out chorus, but Williams' vague cue managed to bring in only some of the string. But their response was a high register do, and the petal point added to the momentum. The others eventually joined in and it built to a very satisfying climax.

Williams told the crowd (or was it a rhetorical aside to Cortner?) "Never write blues with a pick-up bar." But the warning was too "in;" only a handful of listeners could have realized anything had gone wrong. It's a wonder there weren't more mishaps, considering the whole project had been preceded by one three-hour rehearsal!

A newcomer named Brandy Artise sang three numbers and made a fine impression. She's deep-throated, with a clear voice quality and equally clear enunciation. She conveys a Nina Simone flair for dramatics, but there's a slight wobble to her vibrato on sustained tones, which should make up tempo tunes her forte.

Yet her best effort came on a slow, wordless Williams original. The Witch And The Lady. It was introduced by a rhapsodic cello solo by Gloria Strassner and highlighted by the interplay between voice and cello and then voice and flute. Also to the singer's credit is her firm intonation, which she displayed on another Williams tune. Act of Love. (It has a tricky release that would throw the average vocalist.)

Williams then gave us an exercise in the relationship between melody and counter-melody with a piece he calls Governor in Missouri, an arrangement of a Robert Farnon countermelody to Shenandoah. Fischer opened it with a solemn statement of the familiar tune, then the strings, in all their resonance, came in with their flowing counter theme. The chart was an excellent showcase for Scott's alto and the whole setting had a gentle repose thai carried over to the next offering, Silent Spring.

This and the Adagio were the only familiar-sounding charts in the set, thanks to Pat's recent A&R recording, Patrick Moody Williams: Carry On — a familiarity that breeds contentment. As on the recording, cellist Strassner was featured, and her warm silken tone turned the lyrical interlude into the highlight of the set for this pair of ears.

The middle section featured flutist Scott over a tranquil rock foundation, and the final section heard cellist Strassner soaring over massed strings and that persistent yet mild rock pulse in one of Williams' most inspired amalgams of legitimate and pop conceptions.

Silent Spring successfully embodied the essence of the evening's experiment: written and improvised solos cast in a symphonic mold, yet never far removed from the soulful syncopation of jazz-rock.

One further observation about Silent Spring. It is constructed to reach an inner climax, then to let the listener down gently, fully satisfied —something akin to Samuel Barber's Adagio For Strings. That intent was successfully executed, which must have been a source of extra comfort to Williams, even "in a saloon."

For a set-closer, Williams unleashed the awesome collective dexterity of the strings in a unison flurry called The Witch — reminiscent of the breathtaking speed Bartok called for in the finale to his Concerto For Orchestra.

Those dazzling presto runs plus some electronic effects turned The Witch into a highly visual piece, underscoring Williams' approach to writing: his arrangements aren't merely charts; they're cues. He could easily have persuaded us that this was a chase sequence from one of his recent assignments. The Streets of San Francisco.” — Harvey Siders


  1. I have bookmarked your blog, the articles are way better than other similar blogs.. thanks for a great blog!
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  2. I was a cocktail waitress at Dontes when I was 20 - I lied to the owner Carey and told him I was 21 and he hired me. The bartender was Lee Ving - from the punk rock band FEAR - great musicians and music I got to meet and hear! SO lucky...that was 40 years ago...

    1. I was a 20 year old jazz hound and had no idea who the bartender was . but once I brought a friend who had no idea who jazz artists were but immediately recognized Lee Ving as the bartender.

    2. I also worked at Donte'sin 1977 1978. I never felt like it was work. Awesome entertainment. May Leverette, Cary's wife and I were great friends. I would love to touch base with her or their children.

    3. Thank you. Really would love to hear from May, Marylyn, Paul, or Christopher

  3. I'm sure I heard Roger Kellaway play there. He may have just sat in for one song. He was having a blast playing NORWEGIAN WOOD. The year escapes me- anywhere from 1964-1972,

  4. I remember hearing Roger Kellaway really enjoying playing NORWEGIAN WOOD. He could have been booked or just came up to the piano in a break and played one tune.It had to have been between 1964-1972.

  5. You did hear Roger Kellaway there, as did I. I saw him a few times myself. First time I heard anyone play piano with his elbow. He was one of my favorites, along with Blue Mithchell, Art Pepper, Zoot Sims, John Hammond on the piano, and the day with Stan Kenton. But the best night there for me was with Carmen McRae it was the last set, just me and a few others. It was a magical night.

  6. Does anyone remember if Gabor Szabo layed there in the 1970,s

  7. I remember going to Donte's in the early 70's and listening to Gary Foster appearing with Laurindo Almeida?

  8. Anyone ever catch Donte's before it was Donte's in Hitchcock's Psycho?

    around 15:18ish

  9. I came to Donte's around 1984ish with my date,Valerie,if my memory is still correct, Dave Benoit played that night! (subject to double checking)anyway I was trying to impress her with my taste in music! I was looking for my next ex-wife. The show was great and it started raining as we we're leaving,walking through the raindrops to my car. I drove her home,kissed her goodnight!Ironically,Donald Fagan put out NightFly album, with Walking through the Raindrops, unforgettable night (p.s.I ended marrying another girl!) Thank you, Humphrey Beem (


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