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Rocco Somazzi: The Downbeast Interview

How do you piss off a musician?
Get them a gig.

-old witticism

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Rocco Somazzi is juggling two cellphones, and a third might be in order. It's Tuesday, less than one week before the highly anticipated Labor Day debut of his Angel City Jazz Festival. Many will be watching (and, no doubt, grousing at) this newest attempt to re-shine the spotlight on the city’s Creative Jazz community. Yet the guy is calm in that breezy, effusive European way. It’s probably what has gotten him through the last decade of being (a) a novice restaurateur (b) a jazz music promoter (c) a club owner (d) broke and near homeless (e) a waiter (f) a restaurant manager and, now (g) jazz-festival organizer. Which of course is all shorthand for one title: survivor.

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Rocco is five years into his latest (4th) incarnation of his Rocco in LA club at the Café Metropol, which has achieved a steady rep as a space to hear The Weirdness in a profoundly sublime and romantic setting: a candlelit brick-walled European-style café in the heart of the scruffy downtown Artists’ District. Rocco is married to the bewitching Japanese pianist Motoko Honda, who will also play the festival alongside some pretty big names from the extended Crypto crew: Vinny Golia, Steuart Liebig, and chief boo-pah Jeff Gauthier. (For more on the lineup, go here. Go here for Brick Wahl's preview in the L.A. Weekly.)

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During our sit-down at Cafe Metropol, Rocco jumps phones yet again to arrange the buying of his first official L.A. "commuting car." As it turns out, at 8am sharp the day after the festival he’s starting a new full-time day job (!?!) managing a new cafe/art gallery/teahouse in Culver City called the Royal T. He’s still doing his Saturday night shows at Metropol, but he’s already thinking of bringing his music-promotion skill sets to the new venue, featuring more electronic-based fare than the contemporary acoustic improv he’s been showcasing downtown. Oh yes, AND he's putting together two shows at the Barnsdall Gallery Theatre and Redcat in November for Dutch ensemble the Willem Breuker Kollektief.

Which, taken with this weekend's festival, arguably means Rocco Somazzi is all healed up and ready for further punishment. And we can thank those temperamental Gods of Adventurous Music for it.

The Downbeast: We’re a little surprised you agreed to do this interview at such a late date. We’d thought you’d be too slammed.
Rocco Somazzi: Well, luckily I had a lot of things pre-prepared so I think it's relatively not too hectic and things seem to be in control. Of course the bureaucracy was the hardest to deal with, the insurance and the liquor license. I just picked up my one-day license yesterday morning so I now have all the documents. The only worry is the money; at this point, we don’t know how much we’re going to make back. I’m putting in all the money from my own savings, so it’s a big risk.

Is it coincidental that this year is the 10th anniversary of you opening the first Rocco club in Beverly Glen Circle?
RS: Yes. Originally, when I was thinking about this festival, the subtext was going to be “celebrating ten years of celebrating creative music” or something like that, but then I thought that that might not make too much sense to people…So I settled on “celebrating ten years of not really celebrating 10 years," more of a personal celebration.

When did you first get the idea do do the festival?
RS: I’ve been thinking about it for a long time; I would say about five years. Partly, where I grew up we had this jazz festival every summer in Lugano, Switzerland, and it was an amazing experience for me. That’s how I got into music to start with. I saw Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach playing for free in the public squares of the city…So the idea of a festival was always appealing to me, although I never saw it as a reachable goal in terms of financing it or organizational skill, just ‘Some day I might do this’ but obviously never quite ready. After I started working at Metropol, it was the first time that I didn’t own a business, which was great because I was actually paid to do my music programs. I started saving money. It was the most stable time in my life, after all of these crazy projects and adventures…After three years here of very safe and balanced living [laughs], now I’m ready to risk everything again.

You’re in your mid-thirties, part of the rock and roll generation: Why did jazz and creative music grab you over rock or punk or even hip hop?
RS: It was a real natural progression. When I was a teenager, I listened to a lot of classic rock—Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd. I liked it, but something about it always felt a bit unimaginative in terms of the musical arrangements, the melodies, the harmonies…I liked the energy but I always felt something was missing, something more spontaneous. I can’t really remember what the first jazz music was I heard, but jazz immediately made sense to me, it was so open and complex and intriguing and stimulating. It was an instant love. Then I heard the Naked City album with John Zorn and Joey Baron and Wayne Horvitz, who’s playing at the [Angel City] festival. Here was music that had the inventiveness of jazz and the balls of rock and put them together in a mind-blowing way. After that I saw a documentary called Step Across the Border about [guitarist] Fred Frith that opened up the whole idea of doing music that is not based so much on rhythm or harmony, something I never thought was possible. That was the second revolution for me. Jazz combined with rock and then the free improvisation scene where you can stretch the boundaries of music. And from then I’ve been always seeking the most far-seeking concepts in music, that’s become a passion of mine.

If you were blown away by Zorn and that whole downtown loft thing, why come to Los Angeles and not go to New York?
RS: When I moved here [in 1993], although I was already a big music fan, I had no aspirations of being involved in the music business in any way. Just an average fan, buying CDs and going out to hear new music. When I was a philosophy student in Geneva [Switzerland] I met an analytical philosophy professor from Riverside [Howard K. Wettstein] and I moved here to study with him. I ended up enrolling at UC-Riverside and did three years there. Then I got tired of philosophy…so I decided to move to Los Angeles and I went to the LACC film school. I decided that film was not for me, but while I was at LACC I started meeting more musicians…The first musician I met there was Matt Piper. We were in Japanese class together, and we started talking about music, listening to a lot of music and jamming together on guitar…He came from a heavy metal/hard rock background where he grew up but he also discovered jazz, so we had the same musical frames of reference. We started checking out music around the city but we were horrified by what we saw. Sometimes they had great musicians but in a very bad setting, like a loud restaurant/lounge sort of thing. That’s how we met Todd Sickafoose, one of our favorite artists, in a restaurant playing this weird duet where nobody was paying attention, and we thought, ‘Man, this guy is amazing!’ On the other hand, we went to nice clubs but the music was very old-fashioned outdated uninspired music. So we started thinking we could do something about it.

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Odd, because the first Rocco club was in Bel-Air, not the type of ‘hood you’d expect to showcase improvisational music—and a restaurant to boot.
RS: We just ended up in Bel-Air, that was not our target area. For almost a year we were looking at all these spaces that were way too expensive. That was the cheapest place we could find! It used to be an Italian restaurant called Adriano’s. The guy there was in trouble, he owed rent to the landlord, and now I understand why it was so cheap. It was a very difficult place to do business. The restaurant was aging and it needed a complete makeover. Nobody wanted to touch the place. So he pretty much was giving it away. And me, I am so naive, thinking, ‘Man, this is the cheapest place, I’m up in Bel-Air, this is nice!’ [laughs] The place was doing pretty well for awhile. It really became a destination for music lovers with a very dedicated fan base that was growing. I think the cause of my demise was my own inability to run the place. I mean, it was my first restaurant! I really set it up the wrong way and I was in debt when I opened, and I got into a bad relationship with my landlord who started suing me. I just lost control. But the music there was great. It was a dining room designed to be a serous music-listening space. It was magical, and ten years later a lot of people still talk about it. And it was open only 3 years!

That must be very gratifying.
RS: Yeah it is. I felt honored that it had such a strong impact. Especially coming out of an idea between two students, and since we were smoking pot a lot of the time we were probably high when we came up with it. Still, it's a concept that people remember.

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OKIRO Large Ensemble (with Rocco's future wife at the piano, far left) at Rocco in Hollywood, 7/21/02 [photo by Nick Oldark]

Most would have retreated under a rock after that experience. But you came right back with the second Rocco location in Hollywood.
RS: I knew right when I closed the first space that I was going to do something else, soon. I knew we had something really good and unique going, especially because the fan base was so enthusiastic. It was just a matter of finding a different arrangement. I still can’t imagine a business plan that would actually allow the freedom of creative booking the way we were doing and still be able to pay for everything. Our idea in Hollywood was ‘Why don’t we just cut all our costs?’ Keep the music, get rid of the napkin rings. We did cut a lot of costs, and we didn’t realize it but once you cut a lot of the costs, you also cut a lot of revenue! You don’t have beer or wine or a kitchen, so there’s nothing to sell, so you’re just depending on the cover, which we were giving almost all to the musicians and the bands. At some point, I was doing it all by myself--the sound, the door--so I didn’t have to pay anybody. And the only expense was the rent. That worked for awhile but it was draining. I had to sell my wine collection and my CDs to pay rent.

Jeez, you really gave it your all…
RS: I must say, I have been at Café Metropol for five years but the music actually has been happening for only 3/12 years, because when I first came here I came here just to work, I needed a job, and I put the music behind me for awhile, I say, ‘I’ll take a break.’ After Bel-Air I was still optimistic, but after Hollywood, I was worn out. By the time I shut down the Hollywood operation, I met my future wife. I booked Wadada Leo Smith’s band and she was playing in it at the time. She is very business savvy; she grew up poor and always had to work for money and save everything she made, and she’s so good at it. She told me, ‘You’ve got to clean your act up, you can’t live without knowing how you’re going to pay next month’s rent.’ I had no car, no job, no bank account, no credit cards. I was almost homeless. I was living in a room with a bunch of people in a bad area. I went down to the bare bones. I had no possessions whatsoever. What really killed me was when I had to sell my piano to pay for my Freddie Hubbard show. That piano was the last thing I owned outright.

So, you came down to Metropol to be a manager?
RS: No, a server.

Wow.
RS: I became a manager after awhile. And I didn’t even think of doing music down here until one of my customers from my old place in Bel-Air happened to be a friend of the owners here, and they told them, ‘You have Rocco working here? Did you know he was great jazz promoter?’ The owners approached me and asked if I wanted to try to do something.

Were you hesitant to get back into it?
RS: By the time they found out about me, I was ready. I had worked here almost one year, so there was enough time to recover and resort myself and try something again… Meanwhile, I had been doing shows at Barnsdall [Park] once every month or so while I was working here…and I noticed how hard it was to stay in contact with the people when you do only one show every other a month. So I was striving to have some regularity on which to build on. So I bought a new piano, sound system, started getting it set up, and the rest is history. The first two and half years were great, until we started having problems with the neighbors.

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Oy vey. The noise?
RS: No. Well, those first two years I had a lot of the loudest electric stuff here, like Elliott Sharp with Nels Cline, Andy Milne’s Dapp Theory and Kneebody…Nobody said anything about the noise and then all of a sudden when the owners decided to apply for a liquor license. They had to notify all of the tenants and that’s when everybody came out of the woodwork, in force, complaining. We didn’t even get the permit. So we had to shut down for three or four months because of that, to try to find a resolution and negotiate. Now, we came to an agreement: I can only do acoustic groups, and up to four people only.

Seems like you may not have handled that as well if this were ten years ago. What do you know now that you didn’t know in 1998?
RS: Before I really believed that if you have a really good vision and you just stick to it, something’s going to happen. That was my business plan: ‘Forget what it’s going to cost, just do it the best way you can and everything is going to fall into place.’ Now, I realize that in order to realize your dream you need to sit down and have a plan. Have the vision first and then figure out how to finance and organize it.

In plotting out what you wanted for the ACJF, did you attend any other jazz or music festivals?
RS: No, just the one in my hometown. I really liked music but I never really traveled to see it. I would just go out to see the people who would come to my hometown. In this country, I’d really like to check out the Earshot Festival, the Portland Jazz Festival, the Guelph Festival in Canada—those festivals are doing something really different and really try to feature creative music.

Is there a difference in conception between European ideas of jazz festivals versus those in the U.S.?
RS: Yeah, European jazz festivals are usually funded by big organizations, banks, governments, so they are usually very big events. One thing I’ve seen here is something you could never do in Europe: Here you can have your own little festival. There’s a lot of these little independent, self-sponsored festivals here and there—I go to Japanese festivals because I love the food, and every weekend there’s a festival somewhere, like the Greek festivals. That’s more like what I am basing my plan on for this one, rather than the big ones. Let’s do a community-based festival and throw in a kick-ass lineup.

I imagine it was easy to come up with the lineup because of the bonds you’ve forged with so many great players.
RS: Yeah, that was the easiest part. And the hardest part was that I filled a lot of the slots too fast and left out a lot of people. Once I realized that I had too many people it was already too late…so maybe next year I will take it more slowly and take more time to make a complete list of candidates.

I notice you settled on the “Angel City” moniker despite that a good portion of the players are from New York and Japan.
RS: I definitely wanted it to be associated with Los Angeles, because although I invited people from all over the place, I wanted people know that there is a subculture of creative jazz in Los Angeles. That’s what I know: I know the people, I know the musicians. But I also wanted it to be a bit of collaboration with artists from out of town.

I like the slogan, too: “Rethinking Jazz.”
RS: That was a tough time to find the actual subtitle for the festival. Between me and my P.R. guys and friends we came up with about 100 different lines. At first I chose "Celebrating Creative Music" but then I wasn’t too happy about it, so I decided to email Greg Burk and I asked him, ‘What would be one simple slogan that would just capture the spirit of what I’m doing?’ After 30 seconds, he emailed back: "Rethinking Jazz." That was it. Everybody loved it. Truth is, I was able to find one of my sponsors, Saturn, because their slogan was "Rethink American."

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Rocco in his environs [photo courtesy of The JazzCat]

Some might say that this new music can’t be called jazz at all.
RS: I definitely think it’s misleading to call it jazz and leave it at that, yet there is no other term that is representative of what that style is. It’s not jazz, but it’s related to jazz, part of its evolution. All these people have backgrounds in jazz and have developed their improvisational skills out of that discipline. But it’s definitely not what people think of when you say “jazz.” That’s why I wanted subtitle that implied really that it’s not what you might think of this music, to put away your preconceptions about it.

Did you consult any experienced people for advice?
RS: Yeah, a guy who came to many of my shows, a music afficianado who’s a big expert on festivals. His name is Titus Levi, and he worked for the city at some point as a consultant for festival management. He helped me see the big picture and to get everything ready. And you know what, after the details fell in place, you think about the concept of a festival, it’s not that difficult. I’ve been doing a lot of concerts, just imagine those concerts all put together on one day. [laughs] The most difficult and time consuming thing now is getting all the information right on the programs and keeping it all updated…I can’t get it all under control, there’s so much information!

Are you getting any sleep by the way?
RS: I’m actually getting too much sleep. Sometimes I feel like I am too relaxed. I should be more nervous, not calm and watching TV.

What would you say to someone who comes up asking what your best piece of advice should be regarding organizing their own scruffy little indie music festival?
RS: Just keep it simple and small. My original conception of it was so much bigger when I started. In my mind I had this ‘Avant-garde Tent’, ‘Electronic Music Tent,’ ‘Video Art Tent’, ‘Dance Installation Tent” and on and on and on. And now my best advice could be: You can’t be too simple. Focus on what is really important: the line-up, the musicians, but don’t add any more complications. Do it well, but do it simple.

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