The Scene: Art Music, L.A. Style at Mr Musichead Gallery

The Just Jazz concert series brings creative improvisers to a Hollywood gallery every week

The Jeff Parker Quartet performs at Mr Musichead in L.A. (photo by: Bob Barry)

“It’s certainly not your straight and narrow,” Los Angeles jazz impresario LeRoy Downs says of his emergent weekly concert series, Just Jazz. “You’re not going to get standards.”

Fair enough. You’re also not going to get a standard jazz venue. Instead, Just Jazz occurs within Mr Musichead Gallery, a modest Hollywood art space with shiny blond wood floors and track lighting. Established in 1998 and standing across from the Guitar Center on Sunset Boulevard, Mr Musichead sells photographs and paintings of musicians, famous and infamous, living and dead. It was the first and remains the only L.A. gallery devoted solely to musical subjects.

Stars from across the jazz galaxy now jam here every Wednesday night, thanks to the many connections Downs has built throughout his 25-year career. Performers have included such stalwarts as reed player Bennie Maupin, bassist Nathan East, and drummers Marvin “Smitty” Smith and Steve Ferrone, all of whom have regaled listeners with their improvisation in the presence of large-format portraits of David Bowie, Beyoncé, Mick Jagger, Nina Simone, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane.

Los Angeles is home to a number of mainstay jazz venues, including bluewhale, Sam First, and Jazz Café, but Downs believes his operation allows for more musical experimentation, addressing a local need. “I want people focusing and concentrating on creating new music,” he says. Audiences, he adds, “need to hear what else is going on.”

“We have a little niche in the market,” says Sam Milgrom, who owns the gallery. For more than two decades, he was the owner of a record store in his native Detroit called Sam’s Jams, where he hosted live jazz events. The late Nancy Wilson once made an appearance there, and Dianne Reeves sang for him. Now, L.A. benefits from his and Downs’ curatorial talents.

Just Jazz was launched last year, when Milgrom, Downs, and music producer Fred Smith, Jr., of The Late Late Show with James Corden, “hatched a plan,” as Milgrom puts it. They bought a baby grand piano and some new lights, then set up tables and chairs to give the gallery the feel of a nightclub.

Adding to that feel, beer and wine are available pre-concert and fresh eats from chef Anthony Goosby are for sale. Ticket prices range from $20 to $25. Downs, who is affiliated with KJazz 88.1 FM, also broadcasts live interviews with his guests on site.

Milgrom believes that the pictures on the walls contribute in an unquantifiable way to the success of the performances. “Musicians feel comfortable here,” he says.

He and Downs must be onto something. Just Jazz celebrated its one-year anniversary in May. All Downs wants, he says, is for people to attend with an open mind. “And generally,” he notes, “it can be pretty fantastic at Mr Musichead Gallery.”