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The MidTones at Grand Star in Chinatown

By Monk Turner
Published: Tuesday, June 16, 2009, at 09:21AM
Shin Kawasaki Monk Turner [Flickr]

Most folks who aren't musicians -- and even some who are -- avoid open jam nights like the plague. They can be the source of endless guitar solos, out-of-tune vocals and people who promptly leave after they perform. That doesn't make for much of a hang out.

But twice a month at the Grand Star in Chinatown, Shin Kawasaki is adding a new meaning to what an open jam can be.

The night that I stopped by, I heard a Bob Marley song transition into "Smoke on the Water" as if Bob himself had written it that way. The best part about the show is that everyone can participate in some form or fashion. In fact, before the night was out, I found myself onstage with the band trying to remember the lyrics to the Beastie Boys' song "Girls."

Shin's warm and welcoming personality has had a huge effect on the success of the events. I recently chatted with him about what makes this open jam so unique.

MONK TURNER: So you call this an 'eclectic open jam'...

SHIN KAWASAKI: Because we play everything and anything. We haven't done hip hop yet because we haven't had too many MCs coming through. The basic formula is to be spontaneous and primarily improvisational. We've been pulling off more song-songs because we've started to get more of a dance crowd and people want to dance more these days. It started out as more like a musician's hang. I mean, it still is and musicians hang out and make noise but people started to have birthday parties here. But primarily I want it to be improvisational, creative, and spontaneous. I want us to pull out anything from Johnny Cash, Rainbow Connection to, you know, Metallica. [laughter]

MT: How do you feel having this in downtown is different from having it in a venue in say, West LA?

SK: There are pros and cons to it. There isn't much foot traffic on the weeknights in Chinatown. I'm not going to lie. Before we came in, it was basically dead. But we started bringing people and I feel really good about that. There is not much going on. There's the Mountain Bar right around the corner. They have things going on sometimes but it doesn't really draw that much of a crowd. So we kind of dominate Chinatown! [laughter]

MT: Who is invited to the jam? Musicians only? Do you have to be at a certain skill level on your instrument?

SK: It could be anybody. I want more weird people to come through. I mean like people who play musical saw. We've had so many weird people already. People who play anything from thermin, to monome, to DJs. I have a couple of actors that want to come through to sing but their singing is going to be more theatrical. I've been dying to have a stand up comic come in here and do their bit with the music behind them. Anybody. Anybody can step in. And if you don't want to make noise, you can just hang out and talk to people. There is even a little card game going on over there or you can dance.

MT: But no gambling, right?

SK: No betting, no. This isn't Nevada. [laughter]

MT: Anything else you want readers to know?

SK: Just come through and check it out. Oh, and all the girls are encouraged to bring their wigs and black boots.

MT: Why?

SK: Because there is a certain group of ladies that call themselves the MidTone Madeleines that come out in the middle of the night giving cookies to people. [laughter] It's some random thing that a couple of the girls started doing.

MT: Do they bake the cookies themselves?

SK: No, it just the Madeleine Cookies from Trader Joes. It's a cool place for girls to try on some crazy outfits and I just love that aspect. You know, right before Halloween if you're not quite sure about your costume, you can bring it out and try it here to see if people like it. But if you want to sing, just come through and let me know what song you want to do. But if you want to just come and hang out to be a part of the festivities, bring your wig. Blue preferably.

The MidTones perform every first and third Wednesday of the month -- that includes tomorrow, June 17 -- at Grand Star Jazz Club located at 943 N. Broadway in Chinatown. There is no cover charge and you are are encouraged to bring an instrument or a wig. More information is available at


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