“I was young and stupid,” says Joon Lee about his decision to drop out of architecture school and pursue a career as a jazz singer, before adding, “And brave.” Lee is the owner and manager of Blue Whale, a jazz club in Little Tokyo’s Weller Court mall. About fifteen years ago, Lee decided to quit architecture in favor of his passion for jazz. He moved to L.A., found a voice teacher, and started working on his music. Since opening the Blue Whale in 2009, Lee, 40, has seen it grow into a cultural hub. The bar, which features live music Tuesday through Sunday nights (and occasionally on Mondays), has hosted established artists like Carmen Lundy and Ben Wendel as well as rising local stars like Kamasi Washington and the late Austin Peralta.
“People didn’t used to think L.A. when you said jazz,” says Lee. With Blue Whale, Lee aims to put L.A. on the map alongside more familiar jazz capitals like New York, New Orleans, and Kansas City. “The unique thing about Blue Whale is that it’s a music venue in the truest sense of the word. We kick people out if they’re too loud during performances.”
Before you catch a set at the club, check out these five facts about Blue Whale and its owner.
❶ Born and raised in South Korea, Joon Lee moved to New York to study architecture at the Pratt Institute. “I used to work at a restaurant on Bleecker Street [in NYC’s Greenwich Village] and that’s where I first got into jazz,” he says.
❷ At the time, Lee was 24 years old and had no formal training as a singer, but he moved to L.A. and began practicing his craft. “I discovered my passion for singing pretty late in life compared. It was an easy choice then, but I probably wouldn’t do it now,” he says. Lee went on to record and release his debut album, Now, in 2012.
❸ After acquiring Blue Whale in 2008 (the space had previously been a karaoke bar), Lee set about realizing his vision for the place. One thing that sets Blue Whale apart from other venues is its lack of a designated stage area. Bands and solo artists perform at the back end of the room across from the bar.
❹ “For me the great thing about music and going to a concert is feeling the energy coming off of the musicians,” Lee says. You can’t really do that with a stage. It’s important to me that people can get really close to the musicians performing and not just hear the music but feel it, too. You wouldn’t believe it, but we once had a 22-piece orchestra perform here.”
❺ At first the club’s unstructured atmosphere took some getting used to for patrons. “Even the musicians were skeptical,” Lee says. It didn’t take long to break down the barriers between performer and spectator, though. “We do have a green room but most of the time the musicians are out in the bar. It’s just a cool hang and I think that’s the crucial thing about it.”