When one thinks about where to listen to live, amazing jazz music, does Westchester come to mind? It absolutely should! Hidden away on Century Boulevard is one of Westchester’s best-kept secrets, Sam First, a top-notch jazz club and cocktail bar.
“Sam First is very serious about music, specifically jazz and all of its subgenres, and serves serious drinks in a casual environment,”says Sam First’s music manager, Dave Robaire. “Sam First caters to the community in the sense that it is a community of music lovers and whiskey lovers…you’re in a small room with musicians you love, building community in a musical sense.”
Sam First opened in Westchester four and a half years ago, just a stone’s throw from LAX, as a passion project for owner Paul Solomon. Born out of his love for jazz, architecture, photography and cocktails, Solomon named the club after his grandfather, Sam First, a tailor from Poland who made Los Angeles home. First’s legacy is not only evident in the club’s name, but also in its logo, a needle and thread, a nod to his grandfather’s profession.
Robaire explains that although jazz in Los Angeles has a long-revered history, it is still common for people to think of New York first when the musical style comes to mind. While New Orleans is the agreed-upon birthplace of jazz, New York will always be associated with the music’s innovation. In the 1920s, New York was the place to be for musicians, but Los Angeles came onto the scene in the 50s and 60s with a new type of sound, West Coast Jazz, a subgenre of cool jazz.
“Very different things were going on in jazz music on both coasts at that time, but it gave jazz musicians big opportunities for creativity and expression,”said Robaire.
He says that the jazz scene in Los Angeles is always evolving, but in the last decade especially there’s been a lot of changes.
“Traditionally, musicians would attend one of L.A.’s many prestigious music schools and then immediately move to New York to have their career,” said Robaire. “But now great young jazz musicians are staying in L.A. and populating the jazz scene. Sam First provides a quality venue for these amazing musicians.”
Sam First’s intimate size–they sell only about 35 tickets per set–allows the music to be consumed and enjoyed in a setting that is optimal for both the musician and the listener. By design, there’s little separation between the audience and the performers; there is no stage, no green room, so everyone is intertwined in one small space.
While a pianist slams on the keys and the drumming gets more frenzied, visitors might catch a glimpse of Bar Manager Pedro Valiente, behind the counter quietly dropping ice into glasses. To not disturb the performances, he shakes a martini in the back, away from the musicians. The atmosphere is one of reverence for the music. The audience understands that this is a listening room, where artists are performing their craft and it must be treated as such.
Robaire says that Sam First’s unique space, its reputation for being a great place to play and the club’s passionate team, has made the club a destination for all jazz musicians who are touring the west coast. He says he gets daily inquiries from musicians hoping to get a slot at the Westchester location.
An artist who recently played there was Grant Levin, a jazz pianist and composer based in San Francisco who plays with the Grant Levin Trio. With his turtleneck and dark sunglasses, Levin fits the mold of a cool jazz cat.
When Robaire heard Levin’s music he knew he wanted him to play at the venue. He books musicians that play all types of jazz music—from bebop to modern or anything in between–as long as the music and the musician are genuine.
“Grant is very serious and invested in the music that he is playing. I knew immediately that he is genuine and a perfect fit for Sam First,” said Robaire.
As we all know, COVID brought many challenges to the entertainment industry. Musicians didn’t have venues to play, actors didn’t have stages to act on and movie and television productions ground to a halt for a time. During the period when guests weren’t allowed in the club, Robaire and Solomon saw the opportunity to invest in quality equipment to allow them to livestream musical performances from their location. Eventually, as they added more high-end audio recording gear, they were able to realize another dream, starting the club’s own record label, Sam First Records. All of the music for the label will be available for digital download and eventually pressed on vinyl. Right now, however, there is a huge backlog for records due to a shortage of materials, so getting an album pressed can take six months to a year. Luckily, Sam First Records has built a small but mighty fan base that is happy to wait to receive their LPs.
The label’s first project features Justin Kauflin, a jazz pianist and composer who is signed to Quincy Jones Management. Kauflin shared that he enjoyed recording at Sam First because recording in a small setting with an audience is really where jazz thrives.
“Sam First is a congenial venue that celebrates the best in jazz,” said club owner Solomon. “It’s a place that offers a beautiful background for a night out, and a respectful background, too, for creative music of the highest caliber.”
Want to go?
Sam First is located at 6171 W. Century Blvd. in Westchester. It is walking distance from LAX at the western edge of Century Blvd., but since it’s a little hidden, allow time for a bit of sleuthing around.
The club is open Tuesday through Saturday with two sets per night: one at 7:30 and one at 9 p.m. Seating is very limited. Tickets can be purchased in advance for $25 on their website at samfirstbar.com.
They have a beautiful bar with an extensive menu featuring some local breweries and a long list of top-shelf whiskeys and mezcals. Valiente, the bar manager, has a passion for these two spirits as well as innovative and exciting cocktails. They also have a small bar snacks menu. Parking is limited, so refer to their website for instructions.
Learn more at samfirstbar.com.
By Lydia Smith