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 opportunity.
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 his 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 living room.)
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 40th anniversary. 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 friends."
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 another."
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).
It's 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!