Requiem for a J-Town Jazz Club

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Jon Hatamiya performs at the Blue Whale in Little Tokyo in 2018. (Photo courtesy Jon Hatamiya)

The Blue Whale, a jazz and blues club in Little Tokyo’s Weller Court, has closed its doors permanently.

In a message posted on Facebook on Dec. 30, the management said, “For the past 11 years, it has been our absolute joy and great pleasure to serve you and our music community. With our deepest regret, we are saying our goodbye today to embark on our next chapter. Thank you from bottom of our hearts for your support and being part of our incredible journey. Please stay safe and positive until we see each other again. Happy New Year.”

The Little Tokyo Community Council posted, “Since Bronzeville, when the famed Central Street jazz scene stretched into Little Tokyo, jazz has been part of Little Tokyo’s soul (see Little Tokyo Historical Society’s work around Bronzeville and ‘breakfast clubs’ like the Finale Club, which Miles Davis and Charlie Parker played at). Little Tokyo was blessed to have Blue Whale continue that jazz legacy in Little Tokyo, and we are so sad to see them close. Thank you Blue Whale for 11 years of good times, good music, and continuing to provide a space for jazz in Little Tokyo!!!”

A sign thanks patrons of the Blue Whale after the announcement of its closure.

The 100-seat club had announced in March that it was closing temporarily due to COVID-related health concerns: “It has always been our goal to provide a space to support musicians and the arts community, but everyone’s health is top priority. We hope to reopen as soon as possible … Thank you so much for over 10 years of love and support. Take care and stay safe.”

Established by Joon Lee, a Korean immigrant and an aspiring jazz singer, the Blue Whale became a fixture in the local jazz community.

News of the closure prompted more than 400 comments on Facebook, many of them from musicians who had performed at the club. A small sample:

Jon Hatamiya: “I am both incredibly sad about the Blue Whale closing and grateful to all it brought to the Los Angeles music scene. It was my favorite venue in the world, both as a performer and an audience member. Joon Lee and his team didn’t require your group to have a proven track record, and they welcomed new projects and experimentation, putting complete trust in the artists.

“So much of the amazing creative music that has been surging out of L.A. in the last decade is thanks to this mindset that the Whale set as the standard. Many amazing musicians were able to kick their careers into gear simply because the Whale welcomed them with open arms. It became a second home to so many of us over the years, and I can only hope that once live music comes back, Joon and the team can bring us all L.A.’s next great venue.”

Jon Armstrong: “As the Blue Whale transforms into an honored ancestor of the L.A. creative music scene, I find myself saddened but grateful for Joon Lee, a patron saint, a wonderful musician, and an incredible human being. I have countless treasured memories of being in that space, as an audience member and performer. Thank you for inviting us to play, we love you, and we will tell your story.”

Once a hub of activity in the jazz community, the Blue Whale has fallen silent.

Benjamin J. Shepherd: “I am absolutely heartbroken. The Blue Whale was my second home and my favorite place to perform in L.A. The majority of my best and memorable musical moments in my career happened at this club. My wife and I even hired out the club and held our wedding reception there, those who were there definitely remember that night!

“I am extremely grateful to Joon Lee for giving me so many chances at this place to express myself musically and for supporting me and the rest of the L.A. music scene. It will not be the same without you and the Blue Whale. Big love to all the staff who worked there over the years who really helped make the Whale such a safe, warm and welcoming place to be in. I’m now lost for words and will be looking over some old photos/videos and recordings of performances there.”

Daniel Szabo: “Unbelievable that the Blue Whale is closing! The first venue where I had a chance to play my original music after moving to L.A. in 2012! Grateful for that! A true home for artists, audience, for presenting new music or just for random jazz hangs! Thank you, Joon Lee, for promoting live jazz and contemporary arts! Hope you’ll come back and continue after the crisis!”

Motoko Honda: “Another heartbreaking news of this year 2020. Blue Whale, a vital and important jazz and creative music venue in L.A., has been closed. I had many years of wonderful experience performing there, also going to listen many artists from local to international.

“I know at first hand how hard it is to make and to keep the jazz and music venue going, especially when you care about the experience, quality of music and providing the vital and important place for various musicians in different stages, not just super-well-known-for-sure-to-sell-out-tickets-artists. So it is an astonishing accomplishment what the Blue Whale, owner Joon and staff have done for so many years.

“I am just sad this had to happen now, and just am going miss the place, vibe, and everything I experienced there, so much fun, love and support for music itself and music community. Big big thanks and love to Blue Whale, Joon and staff for all these years of their hard work, dedication, love and commitment for the music, and our music community.”

Nick Mancini: “Today I’ve fielded texts and phone calls of longing, sadness, and nostalgia regarding the loss of our only, beloved Blue Whale. I thought, ‘This is as if someone had died.’ Then it dawned on me, it’s worse than that, the reality is, a small piece of thousands of people has died. And that’s because, to so many people, the Blue Whale was more than a place; it was an idea, a feeling, a mode, a state of being, an emotion, and a haven.

“I met Afton Mancini there, without whom I would not be the person I am today. I made lasting friendships there, and bathed in the glow of multiple and varied artistic collaborations. Some of my most fond memories are of sitting at the bar amongst friends and colleagues and laughing my head off, prepping for a show in that iconic green room, and sitting at the piano, playing duos with Joon Lee (empresario, musician, keeper of the flame of pure art, and one of the most sincere and beautiful people I’ve ever met).

“The Blue Whale was at the very center of my life for 11 years. I always felt welcome, I always enjoyed myself, and I feel like I came into my own as a musician there. I know all of this will pass, but today, I feel further away and adrift than ever before.”

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