Jazz pianist Stan Kenton led his orchestra at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium and other venues in 1943-’44, a period when Pasadenans could escape the pressures of WWII at supper clubs and dance to big band jazz. But by 1984, when the Pasadena Weekly was launched with grit and hope, Old Town Pasadena was routinely described as a red light district.
Few vestiges remain from those days: Freddie’s 35er bar (which has dropped the “Freddie’s”), Le Sex Shoppe (now Romantix), the Crown City pawnshop at Colorado and Raymond that kept many a musician afloat during lean months … not much more. Hard-partying Pasadena-raised rockers Van Halen were ruling the charts with their “1984” album and singles “Jump” and “Panama,” but the Crown City was hard to see in their rearview mirror. Change, however, was looming.
Artists had been decamping to Old Town since the ’70s, attracted by space to create and rents they could afford. A resourceful, bohemian community evolved and gradually proved a magnet for kindred spirits. By the end of that decade the homey Espresso Bar & Café, tucked into an alley off Raymond Avenue, was providing a cheap place to mainline caffeine, play chess, jawbone about astrophysics or history, and savor original art, spoken word and live music. The E-Bar soon became a beloved institution, as did Tuesday’s Espresso Yourself Night with lipsticked host Maurice Illinois, whose checkered sartorial flair rivaled David Lindley’s. Regulars included future Hollywood director Tim Burton and pre-“Simpsons” creator Matt Groening, and musicians like Gwendolyn, Severin Browne, 8 Ball Blaines, James Intveld, Alfred Johnson, Kilgore Trout, Possum Dixon, Mike Watt, and the teenage Rubberband — later known as the pop-savvy Moore Brothers.
Toe’s Tavern opened in 1988 and fast became a rocking destination for bands like Agent Orange (featuring local bassist Sam Bolle), the Blasters, Thelonious Monster, and Dave Wakeling. Snotty Scotty & the Hankies held their album release party there in November that year. After first galvanizing audiences at the Ice House on the 54th anniversary of Elvis’ birthday, Jan. 8, 1989, hard-touring reggae-comedy-rockers Dread Zeppelin occasionally rocked Toe’s until the audience was sweating almost as much as Tortelvis. In 1992, Oingo Boingo’s rhythm section, bassist John Avila and drummer Johnny “Vatos” Hernandez, gave a memorable Halloween concert with their side project, Food for Feet, featuring guitarist Michael Tovar; a grainy video can still be seen on YouTube. (Contemporary videos of Avila’s jazz-singing daughter Leila, continuing family tradition, can also be found there.)
By the mid-’90s, Vatos could also be spotted drumming, often with a metal pyramid on his head, at eclectic Sunday afternoon jams at Dodsworth Bar & Grill on the corner of Colorado Boulevard and Fair Oaks Avenue. Street musicians were not uncommon. At night, music could be heard spilling out of Old Town clubs and restaurants like the Baked Potato, John Bull Pub, Moose McGillycuddy’s, Q’s, Roccoco, Tommy Tang’s and Twin Palms from blues, jazz, R&B, rock, salsa, soul and swing acts.
Upstream headlined reggae nights at Billy’s Dugout below Domenico’s while, across the courtyard, a dragon exhaled smoke above the bar at Art Jong’s Old Towne Pub, where the AllStars (later Cid) reigned as house band (a post later assumed by Snotty Scotty & the Hankies) and a sign by the window warned bands they’d get kicked off the suitcase-sized stage if they sucked. Pasadena-raised R&B legends Don & Dewey, aka Don “Sugarcane” Harris and Dewey Terry, resurfaced to promote a local show like old-school pros. Other performers from the mid- and late-’90s: Justo Almario, Anny Celsi’s Annyland, the Banda Brothers, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Brother Yusef (aka the Fattback Bluesman), Café R&B, Elliott Caine, the Congregation, Dave Shelton and Frank Simes’ Crimson Crowbar, Debra Davis, Susie Hansen, Hillbilly Soul Surfers, Ricardo Lemvo & Makina Loca, Mercy & the Merkettes, Rob Rio, Poncho Sanchez, Soulpoet, Lightnin’ Willie & the Poor Boys. Former PW Managing Editor Bill Evans fronted his own lively soul/rock cover band, Rev. Bill and the Believers; he conducted a roundtable with musicians active in the local scene, which they dubbed “da Soup.”
But that bubbling music scene lost its fizz as Old Town became more corporate and live music grew scarce.
In 1997 Santa Anita Race Track hosted a bluegrass festival featuring an up-and-coming San Diego trio called Nickel Creek. By that time local music lovers were commuting to Hollywood or the Westside to hear acoustic music — including the late Ron Stockfleth, who launched the Acoustic Music Series in part to avoid crosstown freeway traffic. From 1992 until not long before his death in 2004 he booked concerts (mostly at Neighborhood Church on Orange Grove) by the likes of Dave Alvin, Peter Case, Iris DeMent, Mary Gauthier, Janis Ian, Laurel Canyon Ramblers, Chris Smither, Ralph Stanley — and, in an inspired change of pace, gracious Afro-Peruvian diva Susana Baca. Meanwhile, local fiddler Tom Sauber and his multi-instrumental son Patrick were among the roots musicians performing at Cajun and contra dances at the War Memorial Hall in South Pasadena, and Covina favorite son Rick Shea was touring with Dave Alvin’s Guilty Men when not fronting his own trio at Bob Stane’s Coffee Gallery Backstage in Altadena or Sierra Madre’s Buccaneer Lounge.
Stane shepherded the legendary Ice House during its folk heyday throughout the 1960s and most of the ’70s. In 1998, he and Ash Grove impresario Ed Pearl sat down with the PW at the CGB to discuss how their legendary clubs helped make LA music history alongside Doug Weston’s Troubadour in West Hollywood. (Weston was too ill to participate, and died not long after.) They traded stories and insider wisdom, and talked about what was needed (“deep pockets”) Snotty Scotty & the Hankies to survive as more music venues around Pasadena closed. Most of the clubs cited above are gone.
At the Ritz-Carlton Huntington Hotel (now the Langham), Chef Denis was booking terrific Saturday night blues concerts by the likes of the Delgado Brothers, Janiva Magness, Rick Holmstrom, and Deacon Jones. Until a couple of years before his death in 2006, veteran jazz musician Jimmy Maddin could be found weekly at his Capri Lounge in Glendale, performing standards and sharing entertaining tales about Hollywood and Old Pasadena’s glory days. Pasadena Jazz Institute founder Paul Lines hosted hundreds of local jazz concerts until throwing a three-day farewell bash in 2009.
Into the first decade of the 2000s and beyond, longtime Poo-Bah Record Shop buyer, sometime band booker and original free spirit Richard Reese could still be found enthusiastically talking up local shows by the likes of Ace Farren Ford’s Mystery Band, Old Californio, Quazar and the Bamboozled, Ukefink, Mario Lalli’s Fatso Jetson, the Hubcaps, and Ben Vaughn. Reese’s death at 84 in 2018 and the 2017 loss of former Beachwood Sparks/the Tyde/Painted Hills guitarist Josh Schwartz to ALS at 45 sent sad ripples throughout the local music community.
2017 was also the year that, after 14 years of presenting free Americana, jazz, pop and international concerts in the Memorial Park bandshell (across Raymond from the long-gone Perkins Palace), Levitt Pavilion Pasadena became the Pasadena Pavilion for the Performing Arts, and ceased hosting free concerts throughout summer. The Old Pasadena Management District and the Playhouse District Association placed the Make Music Pasadena summer festival on hiatus that summer too; Scott Hildebrandt had already retired his Rose City Rocks festival.
But South Pasadena’s Eclectic Festival has continued. So has Brad Colerick’s Wine & Song songwriter series, now housed at the Arroyo Seco Golf Course’s Blue Guitar room; local favorites it has showcased since 2009 include ]Tony Gilkyson, Charlie Hickey, Claire Holley, Tim Tedrow & Terry Vreeland, Brett Perkins, Ed Tree, and David Zink. It’s a pillar of Pasadena’s acoustic music community, which is also supported by the Pasadena Folk Music Society (founded as the Caltech Folk Music Society in 1983 by grad students Simon Davies and Brian Toby), J.C. Hyke’s Tuesday night showcases at Matt Denny’s in Arcadia, and Bob Stane’s Coffee Gallery Backstage, which in recent years has hosted Pasadena-raised critical darling Phoebe Bridgers, Conjunto Los Pochos, I See Hawks in LA, Caroline Spence, Jim Stubblefield and Incendio.
Greater Pasadena’s home to a lively community of musicians, but notwithstanding Old Town venues like the hardy Old Towne Pub and Edwin Mills, and courtyard concerts at One Colorado, its roster of performance stages is not as robust. As Downtown LA nightlife becomes ever more dynamic with the opening of more live music venues, it feels like Pasadena is once again at a transition point.