In October 1986, Romanian immigrants Catalina and Bob Popescu opened the doors to their supper club— one that prioritized superb eats as much as it did the shared magic of live performance. The decades that have since passed at the club have seen legendary artists and up-and-comers alike. Fostering a respectable music legacy, Catalina Jazz Club has been honored by the city, the California Jazz Foundation, the Los Angeles Jazz Society and others. As it approaches a 37-year anniversary later in the fall, owner Catalina Popescu reflects on its history, the beauty of jazz and future ambitions.
Let’s look way back to 1986. Why did you first feel passionate about bringing live jazz to Los Angeles?
Well, I didn’t feel passionate about it at first. It just happened. The restaurant was meant to be a seafood restaurant. I was passionate about seafood, but the situation was that the seafood restaurant was not taking off. So, between myself and my husband Bob, we talked about what we could do to make this work.
Around the same time, we met composer and saxophone player Buddy Collette, who was a friend of a friend. Mr. Collette came up with the idea of presenting live jazz in the restaurant. The idea sounded great to us, so Bob being a contractor, he built our stage and sound system in one week.
The first performance was by Buddy Collette Quartet. The place filled up quickly and kicked off Catalina Jazz Club. After a while, things began to not work, so Bob being a visionary realized that we needed artists everyone knows or we weren’t going to make it. So, we tried for the only artist that was allowed to play in our home country of Romania…Mr. Dizzie Gillespie. At first, the agents wouldn’t give us the time of day, so Mr. Buddy Collette got Dizzy’s home number and we called him directly. He agreed to play the club, and that boosted the business again. The lines were around the block for his shows. That was truly the beginning of putting Catalina Jazz Club on the map.
Catalina Jazz Club has brought live music to Los Angeles for nearly four decades. Why do you think jazz is so timeless?
For Catalina, jazz is our way of life. It breathes pain. It knows love. It dreams and hopes. It bleeds courage. The lesson learned from all the greats who have serenaded our spirits is how to connect to one another. I know that jazz and live music is timeless when I look at our audiences of people from all walks of life, young and old and all ethnicities enjoying the music and returning again and again.
Furthermore, why is jazz important to see live?
Well, jazz is very important to see live because the musicians are sharing their feelings or expressing their emotions through the music. Jazz is often improvisational, meaning you will never see that same performance twice. The connection between the audience and musicians is palpable, powerful and a one-of-a-kind experience.
How has Catalina Jazz Club evolved since its opening?
Venue – We began on Cahuenga Blvd with a limited capacity of 105 seats. Margins were tight and seating was even tighter, but out of these intimate and humble beginnings we were able to expand our footprint when we moved locations to a brand new venue built from scratch on Sunset Boulevard. At this new venue, our capacity to entertain audiences increased to 235 seats, which includes a large full bar and a wonderful greenroom for artists.
Presentation – At first and for years, we exclusively presented jazz musicians, singers and composers, which included returning acts like Chick Correa, McCoy Tyner, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Pharoah Sanders, Steve Gadd and Kenny Burrell to name a few. About 10 years ago, due to public demand, we began presenting other genres, including Broadway stars, soul, R&B and some of the greats of stand-up comedy. including Joan Rivers, John Witherspoon, Leslie Jordan and others like Tony Danza, Lynda Carter and more. We pride ourselves in presenting the best of the best to our audiences. But jazz is still, and remains, our first love.
Food – Seafood was my first endeavor in food and beverage services, but patrons in Los Angeles prefer a more well-rounded menu, so we began serving a more SoCal menu featuring delicious steaks, pastas, fish and salads, along with wonderful desserts. We pride ourselves on serving hearty plated meals.
You pride yourself on presenting nothing but the best in jazz. What is your booking process like for performers and how do you decide who gets to be on your stage?
We work with the best and most respected agencies and management companies to help route tours and make the musicians' Los Angeles performance one to be remembered. We have a large room to showcase an artist and have a very sophisticated Los Angeles audience base, so our acts must be the best of the best. That said, we are always on the lookout for the hottest up-and-comers to bring to the stage for our audiences.
We also work very closely with local music schools, music colleges and charity groups from all over the country to bring young musicians to our stage. Long before they were stars, we showcased young artists like Harry Connick, Jr., Kamasi Washington, Niki Haris, Esperanza Spalding and others.
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Is there an act you are most proud of who performed at Catalina Jazz Club?
I love all the acts and artists that bring their music to the stage at Catalina Jazz Club. To single one act or artist out would leave out so many other wonderful people. That wouldn’t be true to myself, the club or the artists. I cherish the relationships that I have forged over the years. These men and women are inspired people, and I am grateful to have the opportunity to present them on our stage.
What do you look forward to for 2023 at Catalina Jazz Club?
Audiences and Musicians were thriving before the pandemic. Business was great! I am hopeful that with hard work, dedication and a little luck, we will all be able to get back to pre-pandemic numbers. Honestly, things are looking up!
Also, we have designed a new Catalina Jazz Club sign to be installed on Sunset Boulevard. We are working with building ownership to unveil this new signage this year. I’m excited for that.
Is there anything else important to know about Catalina Jazz Club?
I have been working with CJC general manager Manny Santiago for over 35 years. He has been the wind beneath my wings through thick and thin and challenging and promising times. His leadership and work ethic at our venue are shown in every corner of the place, and I am eternally grateful for his service.
Also, in recent years, longtime promoter and presenter Chris Isaacson of Chris Isaacson Presents has been working very closely with us to bring fresh and cutting-edge artists to our stage. His ear for talent and creativity is unmatched. We are grateful to have him a part of our team.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Photography by: Aaron Jay Young