An afternoon with jazz in downtown Fullerton

Members of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) and first time patrons flooded the tables and bar of Florentine’s Grill Saturday afternoon in Downtown Fullerton, eagerly anticipating the two-hour long set that would take them on a nostalgic journey to simpler times.

OLLI’s mission is to give retired seniors the opportunity to continue their learning in order to stay informed and in touch with the world.

“It’s neat to see all of these people coming together that have the same interest in this kind of music,” Kay Romer, a first time attendee of the Jazz Series, said. “It’s music that never dies”.

Within minutes, the restaurant was packed with visitors sipping on their iced teas, vodka sodas and pints of draft beer, and feasting on their cheeseburgers and homemade ceviche served up by Florentine’s kitchen.

Joe Lawton, retired M.D. and event coordinator for OLLI, hosted and participated in the first show of the annual Jazz Series at Florentine’s with the intention of educating others about jazz history and appreciation, as well as giving others the opportunity to listen to live music.  

The band is composed of seven members: Lawton on saxophone, Mike LeVan on keyboard, Benjamin May on bass, Bob Forte on drums, Jim Pearle on guitar, and Sandra Kastle and Ron Levin on vocals.

Their repertoire for the afternoon covered jazz classics from artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughn.  

While the professional jazz musicians get paid by the restaurant, Lawton and the other volunteers don’t get paid for their services. Lawton said his passion and the opportunity to express himself through music is far more important to him than a paycheck, especially after 50 years without playing jazz.

“I sort of have a selfish motive that I get a lot of pleasure out of (jazz) and I wanted to improve,” Lawton said. “We play for the pleasure of it and never expect to get paid–as long as people let me play, then I’m going to do it.”

Lawton also wants to contribute to OLLI and is fond of the fact that the people of OLLI like what he does.

Mary Louise Hlavac, a volunteer at CSUF and a member of OLLI, has been attending the Jazz Series’ shows for about a year. She expressed that being around an environment like the one inside of Florentine’s has felt like home to her.

“Jazz is what I was raised on and I never lost my love for the genre,” Hlavac said. “What’s there not to like about jazz?”

Hlavac and her husband are in the process of creating a scholarship specifically for jazz musicians and singers in the CSUF jazz performance program. They expect to have it ready to present by next semester.

Greg Romer, husband of Kay Romer and manager at an automotive company, first heard about the event in a local newspaper and decided to make the trip to Florentine’s to relive some of his childhood memories with his wife by his side.

They reminisced about how Fitzgerald was Greg Romer’s father’s favorite musician, and how the music filled his household growing up.

“That’s what drew me to it when I saw it in the paper – it said Ella Fitzgerald,” Greg Romer said. “My dad would play records on his stereo… all of Ella.”

The Jazz Series is open to the public and will continue on Saturday, Oct. 6 starting at 12:30 p.m. The band will be playing the music of Cole Porter.

If you liked this story, sign up for our weekly newsletter with our top stories of the week.