I love Union Station.
“The Last of the Great Train Stations,” I make sure to show it to all my out of town guests, along with the Hollywood sign, Santa Monica and Venice beaches, Pacific Coast Highway, Topanga Canyon, Chinatown, South Central, and Skid Row. (More on those choices in another post.)
But Union Station, our West Coast gem of international “grand central” stations (you can tell I’m from New York), opened in 1939 and was designed by architects John and Donald B. Parkinson and built by Robert E. McKee Inc. The style is a gorgeous mishmash of Spanish mission, art deco, and “streamline modern,” and the station is beautiful in detail, inside and out. It has tall arching waiting rooms with cathedral-like, sunlit windows, meticulously landscaped outdoor courtyards with native California flowers and succulents, warm chestnut Spanish tiling, and lazy, leathered-upholstered deco-styled chairs. It is also Amtrak’s 5th busiest station in America, and, by far, the busiest in the Western United States.
But my fondness for Union Station is not only for its ornate and original design, but also, more recently, for its magical transformation into one of LA’s most exotic and intimate music venues. This is entirely due to the art-producing arm of LA’s very own world-class and hard-pressed transportation agency, Metro, which, since 1989, has commissioned artists to incorporate artworks into a wide array of transportation projects throughout Los Angeles County. From photography installations to onboard poetry, from art tours to live performances such as the current music concerts at Union Station, Metro Art LA has been presenting free arts programs throughout the county that have added a notable vibrancy to transit communities all over LA County.
My own family has seen the Christmas tree lighting ceremony at Union Station the last two years in a row, complete with free choros, finger painting for the kids, and a jolly, child-friendly Santa Claus. So it was hardly a surprise to me to find myself wandering through the huge West Ticket Hall on March 16, while showing two New Zealand and Indonesian house guests the great train station—only to discover the splendid, almost religious-like concert by organ virtuoso Christopher Bull in honor of the one and only Johann Sebastian Bach during the annual 10-hour Bach marathon, presented by Metro Art in tandem with See/Hear LA, another generous organization dedicated to presenting free classical music to the diverse LA public.
Naturally, I signed up for the mailing list, which led me directly to April 6th’s “Jazz Tracks at Union Station,” featuring Sara Gazarek, Black Nile, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, and Ryan Cross’s Jazz Eclectic, of whom I, unfortunately, could only see the first two. But what a wonderful experience. The great Ticket Hall was full of sophisticated-looking hipsters and jazz aficionados, who soaked up the exemplary and inspired jazz with obvious joy and appreciation. The musicians, too, seemed to enjoy and appreciate the venue, often playing directly to the grandeur of the hall and the friendly receptivity of the crowd.
Our long-standing local jazz radio station KJazz was an eager co-host of the 1 day festival, which featured additional interactive activities with scribes from the Poetry Society LA crafting personalized, jazz-themed poems, photography from legendary jazz photographer Ave Pildas, a display of jazz memorabilia from local jazz historian, Sean O’Connell , tarot card readings, and a groovy food and beverage lounge.
I found jazz chanteuse, Sara Gazarek, the festival’s opening act, particularly delightful.
Having seen her before in a 2 drink minimum, standard club environment, I much preferred her here, on a relaxed Saturday afternoon, in which she and keyboardist, Miro Sprague, breezed through a five or six song set which included Sara’s spot-on cover of Ella Fitzgerald’s “Sunny Side of the Street,” featuring her considerable jazz scat chops (Gazarek’s), along with a lively and humorous Portuguese scat “duck” song, and a tune by Sara’s Mom’s favorite song writer… Sara… called “Easy Love”… which seemed to express the songbird’s preference for love affairs without the debilitating ties of duty and drama. Ms. Gazarek finished up her set with her perfect cover of Leonard Cohen’s ubiquitous “Hallelujah,” but I had no qualms with her choice — because when an inspired singer pays homage to a great songwriter with her unique interpretation of his revered song, particularly within the towering sanctuary of Union Station’s great Ticket Hall, then we can only mark the musical moment in time and memory.
I hadn’t ever seen or heard the contemporary LA jazz group Black Nile before, so it was an exciting and musically immersive experience to discover “the Bruthas Shaw” at Jazz Tracks, whose founders are sax titan Aaron Shaw and brother Lawrence on bass. Hailing from LA’s own Ladera Heights, with stops at LA’s County High School for the Arts and USC’s Thornton School of Music, the brothers call their brand the “Music of Now,” and influenced by contemporary heroes like Kamasi Washington and Nipsey Hussle, they believe that they “are the manifestation of what our ancestors dreamed and fought for…. representing of a generation awakened to our own history, what it means to be black, and to be categorized and pigeon holed (that way).”
Sure-footed, powerful, and round, with the committed and spiritual sound that reminded me of John Coltrane and his LA avatar Azar Lawrence, Aaron Shaw blew me away. He was so totally immersed in the music and the space that he hardly ever came up for air, including on the breaks between songs. He played to the full dimensions of the church-size room with complex music that was constantly challenging and in its variety and form. I expect that we will hear a lot from these brothers and their band long into the future.
As I said, I’m sorry that I had to run out on such a great event to pick up my son on time from a Burbank play date, but I was definitely able to take in some of the poetry and especially the jazz photos of Ave Pildas, who has captured many of the jazz legends over a long period of time, from Dave Brubeck to Rashaan Roland Kirk to John Coltrane.
I highly recommend going to some of the links I’ve included above and to particularly take note of :
Friday & Saturday, May 3 & 4th, 2019 – a two-day, star-studded community celebration throughout the Station — allowing Angelenos to discover, or rediscover, the beauty and history of the beloved downtown landmark.
More about Trules on his Website
Listen to his podcast, “e-travels with e. trules” HERE