The Jazz Baroness of Strawberry Drive

RIP Mimi Melnick

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Last week, the Los Angeles jazz world lost one of its most ardent and influential patrons, journalist Mimi Melnick. What follows is an excerpt of a Los Angeles magazine profile of Melnick from 2007.

On a crisp, sun-dappled Sunday afternoon in the Encino hills, a long line of automobiles crowds the curb in front of a grey California contemporary home. People stream up the steep incline: women with kelplike dreads, African-print dresses and tinkling jewelry; men with snow-white beards in dashikis carrying large conga drums; academic types with soul patches and leather jackets; young mothers ushering distracted children. All make their way towards the open front doors, through which one can hear the low sounds of an acoustic bass being tuned, rimshots, sax and bass clarinet runs, laughing, the slap of backs.

The house is built atop a sconce of desert cacti and gazania. The front doorknobs are swirling nautilus shells of molded metal; the welcome mat is in the shape of a city manhole cover. There are more manhole covers inside, framed black-and-white photographs shot with a wide-angle lens hanging around the white-brick interior. In the family room, about 30 metal folding chairs are set up in tight rows, with more along the wall and in the breakfast nook beyond.

It is already standing room only: many sandaled feet shuffle about on the white carpet. The instruments sit in a corner of the room dominated by a pristine brown 1922 Steinway grand piano, holding court before top-to-bottom sliding glass patio doors that unveil the West Valley as a gorgeous Technicolor fresco. But it’s the opposite wall that draws the eye: autographed jazz visages of Thelonius Monk, Duke Ellington, Bud Powell, Dave Brubeck, Ornette Coleman, Buddy Collette, Ahmad Jamal, Percy Heath, Milt Jackson, Hank Jones, Teddy Edwards and Shelly Manne. Many of the inscriptions are dedicated to the tiny lady with the bell-shaped silver bouffant who sits under the skylight by the front door greeting comers with her blue moneybox: ‘To Mimi, Thank you for your kindness and genuine concern for jazz’; ‘Dear Mimi, Great creative energy in your space!’; ‘To MM (Double Em!): You have brought so much pleasure to the music world’.

Three or four times a year, Mimi Clar Melnick opens her impeccable home for the “Double M Jazz Salon,” an invite-only concert series she has been running by herself and at her own expense. The first salon was on February 4, 1996 and posed a problem not of logistics but because the talent present looked so hard to top: pianist Horace Tapscott with bassist Roberto Miguel Miranda and drummer Fritz Wise. The concert was advertised on a single pink sheet of Xeroxed paper, like an errant flyer for a school talent show. “We played and that place just exploded,” says Miranda. “That whole day was nothing but L-O-V-E. It’s as though we had our close friends listening to us and supporting us to be as adventurous as we possibly could be. And man, it was just the beginning.”

Now, as Miranda affirms, Melnick’s home has become an integral part of the Los Angeles jazz scene. The crème of the art form has since passed though to schmooze and give intimate and rollicking musical afternoons: Arthur Blythe, Bobby Bradford, Oscar Brashear, Kenny Burrell, Billy Childs, Gerald Clayton, Dr. Art Davis, Celia Coleman, Danny Grissett, Tamir Hendelman, John Heard, John Hicks, Billy Higgins, Pete Jolly, Don and Jeff Littleton, Onaje Murray, Charles Owens, Don Preston, Jesse Sharps, Nedra Wheeler, Gerald Wiggins. It has even evolved into a rehearsal space where musicians woodshed for upcoming performances in clubs or festivals, calling ahead before they drive up the hill with their gear.

Then there’s the audience, which has grown exponentially from an original mailing list of 50 to currently around 500, requiring Melnick to reluctantly forgo what she calls “the personal touch” of individual flyers to bulk e-mail. Yet the personal touch of experiencing music in such a sublime and informal setting—no microphone hum or cellphone gab, no clattering plates or hovering wait staff—is not lost on the crowd. “Some of the best live music I have ever heard in LA has been in Mimi’s family room,” notes local jazz historian Steven Isoardi, who attended the very first Double M Salon. “There is no other experience I’ve had that comes close to being in that little room with all these great artists who are loving being there and sharing their music with you. It sort of spoiled me in a way. I can’t go to a big venue like Disney Hall now, it feels so alienating. Mimi’s made it harder.”

During the performances, Melnick rarely sits. She floats around on the edge of the crowd or stays in her small kitchen cutting up gourmet cheeses or peeling cellophane off a Costco cookie platter. She is a soft-spoken woman who exudes elegance even when wearing cowboy boots. When asked about her stress level at having nearly 70 people in and out of her house for two hour-long sets (broken up by an hour break), Melnick whispers, “It’s out of my hands!” as applause erupts in the next room for a 10-minute slap-and-pluck bass solo. “I’m so honored,” she adds with kittenish excitement. “I feel like I’m in their living room!”

While the full profile is not currently available on LAmag.com, you can read it here at StompBeast.

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