Written by Jeff Babko, keyboardist on ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live.
[Can't see the videos from the Baked Potato's 40th Anniversary Concert at the Ford Amphitheatre, below? CLICK HERE to open them in a new window.]
Growing up just outside of
Los Angeles, in the glorious San Fernando Valley (Okay, who am I
kidding? The Santa Clarita Valley!), as soon as I became aware of jazz
music, I became aware of a little jazz watering hole called "The Baked
Potato". My father had been a few times to see its house band, Don
Randi and Quest, and would rave about it the next day. Sadly, I
think age ten may have been too young to experience this tiny bistro
with a prominent Jack Daniels mirror at its front door. But Dad
would expound upon how he'd seen the drummer from the Doobie Brothers or some
session great, and it seemed like such a musical beacon.
I began studying and transcribing hits of the radio
at age ten, and most specifically, the music of Toto, and soon
discovered that Jeff Porcaro and Steve Lukather were regular performers
at the "Potato." My curiosity deepened.
At age 14, my father took me to the Potato for the
first time, to see Don Randi—my first jazz club experience. My jaw
dropped at the sight of this giant Steinway piano in this tiny club,
and the power of the band and the energy in the room, not to mention
the taste of the enormous potato I had for dinner!
Simultaneously, Larry Carlton released his Last
Nite album, recorded, of course, "Live at the Baked Potato." This
seminal recording featured his A-list band working through standards
like "So What" coupled with Larry's originals. It's an L.A. classic!
I was hooked. I'd save my allowances (and later,
money from working at an amusement park) for cover charge at the Potato
(and the two Cokes I'd have to buy to cover the drink minimum!). Every Sunday, the L.A. Times
Calendar section would print a little ad for the club, announcing the
upcoming artists of the week. In my high school years, I sat mere
inches from performances from keyboardists Joe Sample, John Beasley,
David Goldblatt, Greg Mathieson, David Garfield, Billy Childs, with
studio legends, Lukather, Vinnie Colaiuta, Mike Landau, John Robinson,
Neil Stubenhaus, Jimmy Johnson—even Eddie Van Halen! This was the real
classroom—experiencing in such close proximity this magic of the Los
Angeles music scene.
It was 1997 when I had my first experience playing at
the "Spud", with Latin-funk group Cecilia Noel and the Wild Clams,
who had a residency playing every Monday night. The horn section would
spill into the bar, and everyone from Dave Weckl to Sheila E. to Simon
Phillips would sit in. After this, the Potato became my haven to "work
stuff out" with different bands, and I'm so thankful for that
Studio legend and pianist Don Randi happens to be the
owner and co-founder of the Baked Potato. He's also, as readers
probably know, a member of the seminal Los Angeles 1960's-70's studio
group, the Wrecking Crew. Randi played on such records as the Beach
Boys' Pet Sounds, and with Frank and Nancy Sinatra and countless
others, and at night would go "work
stuff out" at the Potato. Don explained to me that when the club
opened, patrons would be treated to impromptu performances from Sarah
Vaughn and Oscar Peterson on the house Steinway. (The Steinway,
which, back in the day, was single-handedly carried somehow from the
back storage room to the stage by one man, has retired to Don Randi's
The Baked Potato also had legendary band
residencies. In the '70's, Tom Scott's L.A. Express famously became
Joni Mitchell's touring band, thanks to their appearances at the Spud,
and guitarist Robben Ford auditioned there! Greg Mathieson has often
led bands there, and his late '70s workout Baked Potato Super
Live (with Lukather and Porcaro) became such a mainstay in Japan that
people would fly overseas JUST to visit the club in person! (Greg's
bands "Open Hands" and "Jazz Ministry" are still club favorites.)
The Yellowjackets' Russell Ferrante was one of the
regular players at the club. He explained, "The Baked Potato will
always be a special place for me," and continues, "When I first moved
to Los Angeles in 1977, it was one of the first places I went, and it was there that I first heard musicians like Abe Laboriel, Jeff
Porcaro, and many others. It also was one of the first places our then
newly formed band, the Yellowjackets, performed." Ferrante says that the
club is "still a great place to play and work out ideas without feeling
like you have to 'put on a show'."
Don Randi's son Justin Randi now runs day-to-day
operations at the club, and last month threw a much deserved
concert/party to celebrate the club's
So many L.A. jazz clubs have come and gone--Shelly's Manne Hole,
Donte's, Le Café, Bon Appetit, La Ve Lee--but the "Spud" still remains.
Of the recent 40th Anniversary Concert, Russell says that "it was a thrill," and that
"first of all, upon entering the venue, I encountered a who's-who of
Los Angeles musicians, some whom I hadn't seen in years. The event had
the feeling of a class reunion where you got to catch up with long lost
The back corner bar of the Baked Potato is a
gathering place for local musicians on their way to and from other
gigs, as well as just to check each other out. Russell noted the same
vibe at the anniversary concert, saying, " Throughout the day the music
was infused with a spirit of joy and comradeship. It speaks to the
affection and respect everyone has for the Baked Potato and one
Alan Pasqua was also a part of the anniversary
concert, as a member of the Tony Williams Lifetime (of which he was a
member) tribute group featuring Allan Holdsworth. Commenting on the
intimacy of the club, Alan says that as the Potato "is one of the
tiniest venues" he's ever played, "the audience is right on top of
you. I like that… they are part of the musical experience."
Other keyboardists performing at the 40th Anniversary concert were Steve Weingart (with Lukather), Mathieson,
Patrice Rushen, and Ed Roth (with Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith).
so nice to know that a club that lets us musicians stretch without any
pressure has lasted so long, and can celebrate four decades of business.
Ferrante may sum it up best by saying, "Hats off to Don and Justin
Randi and the entire staff for making
this a place where musicians and music lovers can hang out together in
such an intimate and informal setting."
So I suggest that when you're in North Hollywood, save
room in your stomach for a giant baked potato, and room in your soul
for some smokin' music!