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Depths of the Blue Whale: Talking with Joon Lee About His Little Tokyo Jazz Bar

By Alanna Lin
Published: Thursday, August 05, 2010, at 11:47AM
IMG_3576 Ed Fuentes

Musician-turned-entrepreneur Joon Lee acts more like a curator or patron of the arts than club owner. Intent on producing an intense level of engagement with music for both performer and listener, everything about his venue reflects a vision that lives deep in the space. A wall-sized chalkboard that serves as a constantly changing marquee for the artists slated to play. Seating is comfortable and modular, so that guests arrange themselves around the music as they see fit. No platform separates performers from audience members. On an angled ceiling overhead, poems by Rumi, Hafiz, and Cherokee leader Leon Shanandoah Tadodaho invite guests to settle in and listen more deeply.

ALANNA LIN: Where are you from?

JOON LEE: I’m from Korea originally. But I moved when I was 18 or 19. . . to Kentucky.

AL: Kentucky. Why!

JL: In big cities there are so many Koreans, so I decided I would go a small city where there were not very many Koreans so I could learn how to speak English. But then there were not enough Koreans in Kentucky (laughs). People would run away when they would see me. So I lived there for seven months and then I moved out to NYC.

AL: That’s a dramatic change.

JL: Yeah, at the time, my major was architecture. I went to Pratt Institute of Art in Brooklyn. I was studying architecture, working as a busboy at a restaurant on Bleeker Street a little above Soho. I started listening to the music they were playing at the restaurant and it sounded pretty fun. It sounded TOO FUN. At the time I didn’t know that it was jazz or anything, but I thought to myself, maybe I’m going to do this instead of architecture, so I quit school.

AL: You heard this music and decided just to change what you were doing?

JL: (pauses, considering) Yes?

AL: Wow.

JL: I found out later that the album was Bobby McFerrin and Chick Corea.

AL: Oh, yeah, that is too fun.

JL: Yeah (nodding).

So I quit everything, came out to LA and started looking for a vocal teacher. I found her. Cathy Segal-Garcia--an amazing woman. Then I went to MI [Musician’s Institute] briefly, but quit school when I realized I was learning more from my friends gigging than what I was learning in class.

So instead of paying for school (laughs). . . I decided to make a recording. Last year my album was 80-90% finished when suddenly my good friend called me up and said, “Joon, you want to do something in Downtown? “ I was like, “What you talking about?” It was the recession, you know? He took me to the spot where there was a Japanese club. The place had really low ceilings. Looked totally different. At the time, I didn’t know Downtown was really happening. But he said, “You want to take it or what?” I said, “I’ll take it.”

The next day I called my arranger and said, “We’re going to stop arranging for now--please don’t bother me, I have another gig for a while.”

We worked on the space for three months, knocking out the low ceiling. It was 9 ft. to and now it’s 12 ft. Construction started in September and we worked up until opening day. December 10, 2009. I was working until 6:30pm and we were opening at 8pm. But since then. . .it’s been Blue Whale.

AL: How was opening night?

JL: Great! Ralph Morrison (past concertmaster of the LA Chamber Orchestra), came down with a string quartet. Bevan Manson, a beautiful piano player - wrote a song about the Blue Whale, and all these classical and jazz guys played it together! He was the partner on my album who introduced me to Rumi and Hafiz.

AL: The poetry on the ceiling?

JL: Yes. When we were working on the space, I called up Bevan and said, “Come up with some Rumi or Hafiz for me.” He asked me, “What do you want to do with it? Do you want me to print it up and frame it as a gift?” I said, “No, no. Let’s just come up with three good things and I’ll take care of it.” He said, “Where are you going to put it?” I said, “You don’t have to know.”

AL: Did you already know where you were going to put it then?

JL: Yeah, I wanted to have Rumi or Hafiz on the ceiling because I wanted all the musicians to be able to play under Rumi’s energy (smiles). And when Bevan came, and he looked up and saw it on the ceiling, he said, “F-ck. . .It’s nice.” . . .So that’s how Rumi came into the Blue Whale.

AL: What specifically about Hafiz and Rumi did you connect with? Both are mystics. I love their poems, but I remember walking in here the first time, looking up and thinking, “Rumi! Hafiz! What are Rumi and Hafiz doing here?”

JL: They're blue whales. . .I don’t know how to put it. There are many bad things are happening in the world right now, every second. So, this room is “supporting the arts.” But supporting the arts is one of the ways to save the world. There are so many scars that we’ve made, we (quoting Hafiz) “have to hold hands.”

Out of a great need 
We are all holding hands 
and climbing. 
Not loving is letting go. 

AL: The photographs on the wall?

JL: They’re are all of children from Iraq.

AL: Really?

JL: When I built this place, I knew this friend of mine was in Iraq as a journalist / photographer and he took these photos of children in that country. I said, “Hey, I know you’ve been taking pictures in Iraq. . .” He’s a sensitive guy so he said, “You can’t do that. This is a jazz club. You should have a nice photo of a city night scene. . .” I said “We have enough of that. We don’t need that.” The pictures of Iraq are actually what’s happening right now. . .People are so hypnotized by all the reality shows like American Idol and stuff like that, they don’t see it. . .So I was like, “No, I’m going to do this. Bring all your pictures. Not much blood, ok? But bring some good ones.”

Maybe the next exhibition should be mug shots of contestants from American Idol. But I’m not going to do that. (laughs). It’s all connected to the poems. It’s not just about the music I want to have here. There’s a lot of music clubs in LA. . .It may sound weird. But I just want to have a little peace from this little room. I want to have more of that.”

AL: Peace through looking at reality truthfully.

JL: Yeah. It’s not about the politics. I’m not a political guy, but even during construction I was thinking, maybe the first exhibit will be pictures from Iraq because that’s what’s happening right now.

AL: Versus American Idol. . .

JL: Or Dancing with the Stars. I’m not very knowledgeable about politics. But no matter what, kids are dying, young men are dying without knowing one good reason. Actually that’s what’s happening along with American Idol . ..but people are more focused on beautiful things. . .I mean. . .beautiful? -- I don’t know. But they’re more focused on that than what is happening. . .Just like jazz.

AL: Why's that?

JL: The scene is not as good as before. It’s the whole economy, YouTube-- people don’t want to listen to live music, jazz music anymore. They’re more into all the computerized things. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of people doing great things. But there’s a reason I book who I book here. I carefully find musicians who are willing to be on the edge rather than just straight ahead, jing jinga jing. Because there are so many so many places out there and everything and people are always complaining about N.Y. and L.A. But the thing is, there are tons of great musicians in LA who don’t get a chance to play out, who don’t get a chance to play what they want to play. Because I listen to their music beforehand and have an understanding of what they are doing before I book them, it’s not such a risk for me. Once they come in here as a player, they have priority here. I always tell them, “Start whenever you want to start. . . and end whenever you want to end.” That’s the reason we don’t have a stage. . .As an improviser it’s very important to share energy, eye contact and energy --so I wanted to break that invisible wall in this case a musician can set up their band anywhere. We designed it so that there’s an electrical outlet every three feet(smiling) -- they can find one anywhere.

AL: That’s cool!

JL: So people want to set up in the middle now... First few months it was pretty funny to look at them, they were so used to the conventional way, always going to the back-wall to set up, so I said, “Come on out, play in the middle!” If we have a string quartet in the middle, the audience hears the bow-sound, even breathing, everything. Or like the piano player tonight . . .I want people to be able to really listen to the music just like they would in their living room.

AL: How can you afford to keep up this ethos? I don’t know if this is a rude question, but are you going broke?

JL: Pretty soon (laughs). It’s tough for everyone right now. I don’t want to complain. I want to keep it as along as I can. I want to do whatever I can to keep it going. Thankfully, I have great support from the musicians -- they come here and play . . .I’m very grateful about that. Great music, great things from people. It makes me humble. Even when it’s a struggle, watching people who come here and play hard, makes me really strong. I don’t know how long my batteries are going to last, but all the great people and great music help my batteries stay green.”

The Blue Whale / 123 Astronaut E S Unisia St., Suite 301 (Weller Court) / Open Mic, Mondays 9pm-2am; Thu-Sat 8pm-2am, Sun 6pm-12am / $10 cover with parking validation / Great food

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