Fullerton jazz scene lives on at Florentine’s Grill

In Arts & Entertainment, Music
OLLI members and Florentine's patrons cheer after Joe Lawton and Mike and the Docs finish performing a classic jazz tune. The band is playing as a part of OLLI's ongoing jazz series which takes place on a designated Saturday every month. The series is free to the public. (Mahdee Gill / Daily Titan)
OLLI members and Florentine’s patrons cheer after Joe Lawton and Mike and the Docs finish performing a classic jazz tune. The band is playing as a part of OLLI’s ongoing jazz series which takes place on a designated Saturday every month. The series is free to the public. (Mahdee Gill / Daily Titan)

The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) held its eighth jazz series on Saturday at Florentine’s Grill and Bar, with a mission to entertain and educate OLLI members and visitors about a music form that originated in America and that represents the social and cultural life of an era.

The series is held on designated Saturdays every month, with each performance dedicated to a different theme. The theme of the concert was mainstream jazz, said saxophonist Joseph “Joe” Lawton, M.D. The trailblazers OLLI focused on were Louis Armstrong and Hoagy Carmichael.

Attendees had the chance to learn about Armstrong and Carmichael, including their backgrounds and their contributions to the artform, while enjoying an afternoon of fine cuisine.

Joe Lawton and Mike LeVan and the Docs headlined the show. As the band tuned up their instruments and rehearsed the selections they would perform, a crowd of about a hundred people sipped beverages, snacked on appetizers, chatted and scanned the menus. The room was alive with servers hustling and bustling back and forth to tend to the crowd of lifelong learners.

The band was comprised of three local physicians and three well-known jazz musicians who play in and around the Orange County area. Lawton is a retired family practitioner; guitarist Jim Pearle, M.D., is a local pulmonologist; and trombonist Dan Childs, M.D., is a pediatrician who was unable to attend the event. Keeping the time and beat was Bob Forte on drums, providing the walking bassline was Jotty Johnson and in command of the ebony and ivory keys was Mike LeVan.

They kicked off their set with, “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” a 1930 jazz standard by Louis Armstrong. After they finished, Lawton took a moment to inform the audience about Armstrong’s tough childhood in Storyville, Louisiana. In 1913, Armstrong was arrested and taken into custody for firing his stepfather’s pistol. The New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs was where Armstrong honed his cornet playing skills. This is considered a pivotal time in his life, Lawton said. The audience attentively listened as Lawton concluded his lesson and transitioned to the next number.

The band then brought up vocalist Sandra Castle to accompany them on “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” a tune credited to Fats Waller. The audience was visibly pleased as Castle performed her rendition of the classic with some playful scatting. The use of this singing technique, as well as her improvised melodies and rhythms allowed Castle to utilize her voice like an instrument.

“I enjoyed it immensely. I love the band and I like the gal who sings. It’s a breath of fresh air for the city of Fullerton,” said audience member Lauren Stone.

The concert was previously held at a historic jazz club in downtown Fullerton, but it has now found a new home at Florentine’s. “These guys used to have their group play over at Steamers in Fullerton,” said restaurant owner Joe Florentine. OLLI visited Florentine’s and pitched the idea to host shows for their jazz series. Florentine loved the idea and agreed to host monthly shows for OLLI’s jazz followers.

Jazz is all about spontaneity and improvisation, and that is exactly what the aficionados involved with OLLI, the jazz band and Florentine’s have done. Before another number, Lawton spoke to the scholarly seniors about Carmichael.  Carmichael was the son of a pianist who provided soundtracks for silent films. Carmichael stopped practicing law and went on to write the hit jazz standard “Stardust,” which Lawton said has been recorded over 2,000 times and sung numerous times. After educating the audience about the song, the band performed it with Sandra Castle on lead vocals.

The concert concluded with a rendition of “Old Rocking Chair,” a song Carmichael wrote in 1929 as a test for Victor Records. The audience left energized by the evening of music they experienced and the enjoyment of learning about a classic artform.

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