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It probably goes without saying that most people have been starved for live musical entertainment over these last few socially restricted months – but we’ll say it anyway.
So most reading this will probably welcome a new collaboration between the Irvine Barclay Theatre and Bayside Restaurant.
The two have joined forces to serve up “Summer Jazz Lunch @Bayside” at the Newport Beach venue every Saturday through September 26. It’s a series that, according to spokespeople from both the Barclay and Bayside, “gives patrons a chance to experience ‘dining as art’ on the patio at Bayside Restaurant in Newport Beach.”
The series was launched on Aug. 15 with a sold-out performance by the Sara Gazarek Quartet and was followed a week later by Eric Marienthal, also sold out. Upcoming performers include jazz organist, pianist and composer Akiko Tsuruga and local favorites John Clayton and Jeff Hamilton.
The series is the brainchild of Jerry Mandel. After a lengthy tenure as president of the Orange County Performing Arts Center (now the Segerstrom Center for the Arts), Mandel moved into the administrative seat of the Irvine Barclay Theatre, but the longtime jazz artist had already been enjoying life as a jazz saxophonist, including guest appearances at OCPAC (sitting in on a 2010 concert with vocalist Lynn O’Hearn Wagner at Samueli Theater, for example).
Well before the lockdown – in fact, going back to 2012 – Mandel had been playing sax at least once a week both at Bayside and at its sister Irvine restaurant, Bistango.
Both venues are owned by Marc Ghoukassian, his sister and their dad. In late May, when some Newport Beach restaurants began to reopen for dine-in service, Bayside was among the first to start serving again. The Ron Kobayashi Trio provided the music for the restaurant’s first night under the new restrictions, featuring Mandel on sax.
Mandel mused, “Why did we do the jazz series?”
He said that when he received the call on March 14 to shut down, he thought, “We’ll be open by June.”
Obviously, that has not been the case. “By (May) we realized, we may not be open until January. Arts leaders didn’t know what was going to happen and were getting on Zoom every couple of months (to chart a course of action). Everyone – orchestras, theaters, everyone – were all taking different directions.”
Thinking Outside the Box
He and his staff at the Barclay “decided to become aggressive and go for broke.” They installed new seats and air conditioning at the venue in hopes that it could begin hosting events as soon as January.
Once it became clear to Mandel that the pandemic could easily forestall the reopening of entertainment venues everywhere, he started brainstorming outside of the box.
Even as the Barclay, he reasoned, presents live music, “you don’t have to present it just inside a hall.” The thought occurred to him: “What if we try to put together a jazz series?”
Having played jazz sax at Bayside since 2012, he began to devise ways to showcase jazz outside of conventional venues like his. In early July, he approached Ghoukassian with the idea of having a “jazz lunch” every Saturday for most of August and September.
Well before this new series, Bayside’s patio had already begun following state guidelines for outdoor dining, including regulations requiring social distancing, use of face coverings (optional once you’ve taken your seat) and attendees having their temperatures taken upon entering the venue.
“It’s a beautiful, tented space, with great food and service,” Mandel said, “so we thought, ‘Let’s see if this would work.’”
If You Build It, Will Anyone Come?
“The first issue,” he said, was, “will anyone come? So we did a survey of our patrons and asked them, ‘Are you ready to come back to theater?’ Around 25% said they were ready to come back. Another 30% said they weren’t ready to be inside, but almost all said ‘yes’ if the events were outside.”
Mandel said Bayside agreed to provide the venue and food if he would produce the concerts, hire the performers, and handle ticket sales through the Barclay. Greater Los Angeles, he said, is home to “some of the greatest jazz musicians in the world,” and Mandel began his phone pitches by asking if they were willing to keep jazz alive in the face of COVID-19’s various restrictions.
He said the response from performers was wholly positive: “All said ‘Let’s give it a shot.’ It took him just a couple of weeks to put together a two-month lineup (the program is dark over Labor Day weekend) featuring the likes of Marienthal, Jeff Hamilton, Anthony Wilson, Akiko Tsuruga, Josh Nelson and John Clayton. His motivation in the endeavor was “to prove to people it could be done.”
Ghoukassian referred to the change-over from normal restaurant operations to the current, pandemic-oriented scenario as “major.”
“We had to move everything from indoors to outside in the parking lot, so yes, this was major.” Tables are “six feet or more apart” and “the chef is wearing a mask, (we’re doing) all sanitizing required, and checking the temperatures of both customers and employees.”
And since re-creating Bayside as an al fresco venue, Ghoukassian said he’s been tweaking things to create the best possible experience for patrons.
Mandel echoed this, saying that since the jazz series began, he and Ghoukassian have been “constantly tweaking – the service, the food, the safety issues.”
Mandel said that all during the changes wrought by the pandemic, the current social climate reminds him of our last national crisis – the days immediately following 9/11. That period, he said, “has been in the back of my mind, so I thought, ‘we gotta try this’ (jazz lunch).
“Being absolutely honest, I didn’t know it would be this successful. It has been more successful than I thought it would be.”
Speaking in general, Mandel termed live music as “real,” saying “it’s about taking chances and risks” – meaning not just artistically but in practical and logistical terms too.
‘There’s Nothing Like Live Music’
The jazz lunch events accommodate as many as 120 customers. Reservations are required, however, if you show up without a reservation, you’ll still be welcomed if seating is still available.
“At each show I say a few words, including that I know we’re doing the right thing (by having the series),” Mandel said. “I didn’t know it would work when we started this. There’s nothing like live music. People are so grateful for a live music experience.” He said watching patrons’ faces and seeing their smiles indicates that “they forget about (problems like COVID-19).”
“You should have heard Eric Marienthal” (at Bayside on Aug. 22), Mandel noted. “He’s one of the best in the world, and he comes on stage and says ‘it’s so great to be playing in front of people.’” The artist’s concert was sold out and patrons were being turned away at the entrance. “If we had the room, we could have doubled the size of the house.”
Nelson’s upcoming performance on Saturday, Aug. 29 is being billed as “a satisfying musical confection of standards from the Great American Songbook.” The raft of familiar material, which will no doubt prove comforting in such anxiety-laden times, will be complemented by some of Nelson’s own pieces.
Joining Nelson is jazz guitarist Anthony Wilson, who’s being featured in the series’ penultimate slot, where he’ll be joined by Grammy-nominated pianist-composer Larry Goldings.
Being featured on Sept. 12, John Clayton refers to himself as “a natural-born multi-tasker” who not only plays jazz bass but also composes, arranges, conducts, produces and teaches, and he and jazz drummer Jeff Hamilton are familiar to Orange County audiences as the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. They’re frequently joined by jazz guitarist Graham Dechter, as will be the case at Bayside.
Dechter and Hamilton will close out the series on Sept. 26, joined by jazz organist and pianist Akiko Tsuruga.
Though Bayside is the location for the summer series, it’s not set up to handle reservations for the events. That’s all being handled by Mandel and the staff at the Barclay – so do yourselves, and everyone, a huge favor and be sure to call the theater with any questions and call the box office or visit the website to obtain tickets.
Mandel was asked what happens after this series comes to a close. “We’d like to continue it, maybe into October, but then weather becomes a factor – so we’re thinking about next year, possibly doing an entire year of shows at Bayside next year.”
It’s all uncharted territory for most involved in live entertainment, but count on Mandel and those like him to help chart a new course.
Eric Marchese is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org