Late-night jazz shows have people partying like it's 1959

CURT HUDSON / FOR THE DAILY NEWS Bruce Klauber and Andy Kahn swing the Great American Songbook.
CURT HUDSON / FOR THE DAILY NEWS Bruce Klauber and Andy Kahn swing the Great American Songbook.
Posted: March 19, 2014

THE FUTURE is where we are headed, like it or not. And, generally, it's where we want to be. But sometimes it's nice to turn back the clock and remember how things were, say, between the end of World War II and the emergence of the Beatles.

Back then, unlike today, show business was primarily for and by grown-ups. "Youth culture" meant kids playing with dolls or toy trucks. Every big city had at least one room where, late at night, adults could listen to sophisticated music as they ate, drank and smoked cigars and cigarettes.

Well, smoking in public places may be relegated to the ashtray of history, but Center City does boast a place where you can get a taste of how lounge life used to be: the Prime Rib restaurant inside the Radisson Blu Warwick Hotel.

Every Saturday night from 10:15 till closing, the upscale steak house, a favorite of the local power crowd, presents the All-Star Jazz Trio under the banner of "Late Night Lounge at the Leopard Room" (so named for the space's big-cat-inspired decor).

The All-Stars are composed of three veteran musicians, pianist-vocalist Andy Kahn, bassist Bruce Kaminsky and drummer Bruce Klauber. The unit is certainly not a dance band, but neither does it provide mere musical wallpaper for diners.

"Doing it late-night is different," Kahn said. "It's a different atmosphere, a different mood. The whole atmosphere changes the minute I hit that first note. It's show business then. We're here to entertain, to get people to snap their fingers and bob their heads and want to stay here."

Other venues around town and in the region are also dipping into the jazz songbook and the late-night vibe. And while the audience at the Late Night Lounge skews older and affluent (not surprising, given the Prime Rib's expense-account level price points), this scene is also finding fans beyond the AARP crowd.

"The kids are into [jazz and pop standards] now," Kahn said. "Youth is always rebelling against their parents' music; their parents' music is rock 'n' roll. . . . They're looking for something else, and they've discovered [jazz] through Michael Buble and Harry Connick Jr. and Tony Bennett singing with Lady Gaga."

According to Tom Moon, Kahn's right on the money.

The NPR music critic (and former Inquirer pop-music writer) is also a saxophonist whose Brazilian-jazz group, Ensemble Novo, has a once-a-month residency at Time, a popular Midtown Village restaurant-bar.

"With the influx of young people moving here, there's been this increasing demand for different kinds of bars and venues, including those that offer live music in comfortable surroundings," Moon said.

"All you have to do is walk around Center City or Northern Liberties at midnight on a Wednesday or Thursday to know that there's a market. People are out, they've maybe just had an awesome meal and are looking for a place to hang, talk and encounter music that's different from the typical DJ thing."

The sophisticated jazz-room concept isn't confined to Center City, either.

Earlier this month, Robert and Benjamin Bynum - who owned Center City-based jazzateria Zanzibar Blue - and chef Al Paris opened the Paris Bistro & Jazz Cafe inside the Chestnut Hill Hotel. The eatery includes a separate, 60-seat space boasting a Thursday-through Sunday-night performance schedule.

The Bynums and Paris "saw the need for an upscale, yet not pretentious, comfortable place for people to go and enjoy good food and good entertainment in a sophisticated setting," explained Wendy Wolf, the eatery's general manager and talent booker.

All that jazz

For those whose antennae quiver at the word "jazz," the All-Star Jazz Trio's music is not meant to impress with the kind of dissonant, experimental sounds and supersonic-speed playing that appeals to snobs and purists.

That's not to say these cats can't jam.

They're seasoned musicians, and their sets are primarily instrumental. But from the first chord to the last, the All-Stars are planted firmly in the musical mainstream.

On a recent Saturday night, the set list included numerous tunes familiar to even casual jazz fans, including the Gershwins' " 'S Wonderful"; Duke Ellington's "Take the A Train"; "That Old Black Magic," by Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen; and "My Funny Valentine," by Rodgers and Hart.

Sure the group occasionally digs a little deeper into its trunk - "Little Dog" by Neal Hefti, perhaps best known as the composer of the iconic theme song to the 1960s TV series, "Batman," was performed that evening - but that is the exception, not the rule.

"The repertoire is based mostly on the Great American Songbook," Kahn offered. "It's jazz for the people, not hard-core. It's more . . . melodic, swingin', toe-tapping. It doesn't get avant-garde, it doesn't sound like people dropping trash cans."

Room to grow

The "Late Night Lounge" opened last November, when Prime Rib managing partner Garth Weldon finally relented after years of entreaties by Kahn and prominent customers, including Frank Giordano, president and CEO of the Philly POPS. All insisted there was a need for such late-night entertainment, and that the way the Prime Rib is set up made it a perfect venue for a small jazz band.

"Several customers have told me over the years, 'There's no place to go in this area after theater, after dinner,' " Weldon noted.

Kahn was in a perfect position to create the Saturday night program. Not only has he been a go-to player in Philly for more than three decades, but he was already part of the Prime Rib family. For years, he and his life partner, Bruce Cahan, dined nightly at the restaurant. And Kahn took over the Thursday night dinner shift in 2012, upon the death of celebrated pianist Don Wilson.

So far, admitted Weldon, he hasn't seen a dramatic spike in attendance or revenue late-night Saturday, but, he suggested, "The people who are here stay here. [Revenue] is not offsetting expenses yet, but it's growing."

As musicians, Kahn, Kaminsky and Klauber - who also perform every Wednesday at Square on Square in the Rittenhouse area - are thrilled to have a regular gig. But the importance of the Late Night Lounge transcends merely having an audience to entertain, Kahn said. That's why he said he won't mind if the concept becomes so successful it spawns multiple imitators and competition for the All-Stars.

The group, he said, is "clearly all about disseminating this music, Not only because we love to play it, but because it needs to be kept alive. This is a major focus of mine. If somebody else wants to do it, they're only going to validate what we're doing."


On Twitter: @chuckdarrow

Blog: philly.com/Casinotes

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