By Don Heckman
Charlie O’s closed Wednesday night. It happened without anticipation, and without warning.
My first awareness of the bad news came with an email from Jo-Ann Ottaviano, who has been running the club – along with her brother Mike – since the death of her husband, Charlie Ottaviano in 2008. It arrived at 6:19 p.m. with the message “after 11 years of amazing jazz at Charlie O’s, tonight will be our last presentation. The lights will dim forever after the last set. “
I’ve seen jazz clubs disappear in the past. But never with such startling suddenness. I”ve loved Charlei O’s since the first time I went there, and I described it in the Los Angeles Times as the “ultimate jazz bar and restaurant.” It reminded me, in many respects, of some of the Greenwich Village rooms I frequented in my New York years. But it was more than nostalgia that made Charlie O’s a welcome destination for me. It was also the laid-back ambience, the intimate closeness to the music as it was being made, the bookings that were made with musical, rather than commercial intentions as the primary requirement.
No wonder the long, long list of players who spent time on Charlie O’s up close and personal stage was a virtual directory of the Southland’s finest jazz artists.
Why did it have to happen?
Jo-Ann made it clear yesterday: “The stress of trying to keep it going in this economy was just too much. The club was just not staying above water. I realize lots of folks have lost their jobs and money is tight. I also know that the first thing people stop doing is spending money on entertainment, whether that is going out to see live music, or for dinner and drinks.”
Characteristically, Jo-Ann is far too modest to have mentioned how tough it must have been when Charlie passed away, and the complete management of the club fell into her hands. Remarkably, she continued to do so, despite being diagnosed with breast cancer in late 2009 – somehow managing to keep Charlie O’s alive and swinging while beating the disease.
But that’s all in the past now, suddenly and unexpectedly. And maybe not so unexpectedly, given the fact that Charlie O’s shut down a day before the government reported that the economy had generated no new jobs in August. So, unless someone like a Herb Alpert or a David Geffen steps up to enable the phoenix-like return of Charlie O’s, jazz has lost another vital home.
If nothing else, it went out in style. When singer Janis Mann was getting ready for her performance Wednesday night the last thing she expected was to serve as Charlie O’s final act. To her credit, she took it out superbly. Backed by pianist Andy Langham, bassist Chris Colangelo and drummer Roy McCurdy, she displayed the musical and lyrical versatility that are her specialties. Moving convincingly from ballads such as “With Every Breath I Take” and Henry Mancini’s too rarely heard “Slow Hot Wind” to a samba-driven “Never Let Me Go,” a sexy “Evil Gal Blues” and a touching version of Abbey Lincoln’s “Throw It Away, Mann offered an appropriate musical finale — a celebratory program of song.
And a poignant reminder of the eleven years of musical pleasures that took place, almost every night, at the now sadly departed Charlie O’s.
Photo of Charlie O’s by Tony Gieske.