Sam First is a passion project of music, architecture and classic cocktails
By Richard Foss
It’s halfway through the first set, and the contrabass player alternates between plucking at his strings and bowing, slapping and strumming them. A trombonist sometimes plays softly and melodically, sometimes unleashes sharp dissonances, and often doesn’t play at all. The pianist’s fingers glide up and down the keyboard, either gently tickling the ivories or pounding crashing chords. The Mark Dresser Trio’s performance is riveting, and the audience is watching with such respect that not a whisper interrupts the quiet passages.
The room isn’t large — it might fit 70 people if packed — but the stylish midcentury chairs and coffee tables take up some space that a money-hungry owner would leverage for more seats. There are also a few seats by the bar — a conspicuously well-stocked bar, I might add. The bartenders know their classic cocktails and understand the special nature of the room, so when a customer orders a shaken drink they take it behind a door so the sound won’t interfere with the music.
This is almost the platonic ideal of the jazz club, a place where people who love music have the perfect environment to enjoy it. What is surprising is that this Shangri-La of jazz is not in an arts district of L.A. or New York, but in a Century Boulevard office building only steps from the airport. Welcome to Sam First, a passion project by a music-loving property developer named Paul Solomon.
Solomon named the club after his beloved grandfather, and he explained that some otherwise cryptic elements of their branding refer to the old man.
“My grandfather was named Sam First, and he was a tailor, which explains the needle and thread on our sign,” he explains. “Our logo shows his glasses. As far as I know he wasn’t a particular fan of jazz, but I was a fan of his.”
Solomon isn’t a musician himself, but he has been a jazz fan since he was a teenager. He didn’t dream of a career as an impresario as a youth, but when he found himself in a position to become one, he didn’t hesitate.
“My main vocation has been real estate redevelopment, and I renovated this building. I thought it would be nice to have a bar here, and rather than renting it to someone else I decided to open one myself,” says Solomon. “Once I decided to have a bar it made sense for me to incorporate jazz. As a long-time Angeleno, I know that there haven’t been many great venues in the area in the last 30 years. I grew up in West L.A., and there just weren’t many places to go.”
Once on the path to owning a jazz club, Solomon decided it should be a beautiful one. He had the skills to do it himself, but decided that it would be better to call in some experts. A Madrid-based design team from a firm called Selzascano came up with the inspired idea of draping industrial air hoses around the walls and ceilings. This created sinuous curves that make the room slightly like the interior of a spaceship from a 1950s movie. They make a great fit with the seductively curved couches and vintage lighting, plus the freestanding furniture pieces. Photographs that range from obliquely shot portraiture to moody cityscapes make the space feel like a cross between a hipster living room and a gallery.
For Solomon, this room is the place where all of his interests are expressed visually or sonically.
“One of my passions is jazz, another is architecture, another is photography. Those are my pictures all over the walls. As for the furniture, all the pieces that aren’t built-in are real vintage midcentury pieces, made by people like Herman Miller and Artemide. They’re the real deal. I also like good drinks, so we put them all together, and that’s Sam First.”
And the drinks are fine — a few modern cocktails, but most superbly made classics. Sam First is one of the few places to adhere to antique ideas like making drinks with gomme syrup. Gomme is a 19th-century sweetener that uses the sap of the acacia plant, and it adds richness and body compared to sugar or simple syrup. The bartenders here have mastered some arcane drinks, and on a recent evening offered tastes of a Philadelphia Fish House punch, which was invented at least as early as 1848. The mix of cognac, rum and peach brandy with lemon is silky smooth but packs a punch, which makes it sensible that it’s served in small glasses.
And you’ll want to keep your head clear to better appreciate the music at Sam First — particularly the live entertainment on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. The acoustics are impeccable, and the artists have included internationally known performers like Daniel Szabo, Alan Hampton and Larry Goldings. To see musicians of this caliber in a small room is remarkable; to do it by the airport for a $15 or $20 cover is nothing short of amazing.
Solomon won’t guarantee that the cover will stay that low, but he does have a story that puts the charge in perspective.
“In 1989, when I was a 19-year-old college student in London, I paid 10 pounds to see Ronnie Scott. That was almost $20 in 1989, and this is 30 years later,” he says. “This is about as good a deal as you get for live music.”
Live jazz happens at 8 and 9:30 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at Sam First, 6171 W. Century Blvd., Westchester. Cover is $15 to $20. Call (424) 800-2006 or visit samfirstbar.com for upcoming gig info.