By: Ashley Berry
Nestled in between the Jewelry District and the tent cities of Skid Row is an area of Downtown Los Angeles known as the Historic Core. While this district has gone through waves of widespread crime since the early 1900s when it was the center of Los Angeles’ industry and entertainment cultures, the section of downtown between Hill Street and Main Street from 3rd to 9th has been experiencing a renaissance. Buildings that have stood for over a century are being reincarnated as some of Los Angeles’ premier restaurants and nightlife venues and are offering the city a taste of the decadence and cheeky leisure culture that was characteristic in the U.S. during the Roaring Twenties.
Many of these venues play into this theme by maintaining a speak-easy atmosphere of hidden entrances and passworded doors, and while no secret code is required to enter The Association Bar, if you didn’t know what you were looking for you would most certainly miss it. Just a few steps North of Cole’s, the eatery that is famous for creating the French dip sandwich, is a building with no immediately obvious entrances, but if you take a second look, you will notice a bouncer-guarded stairway that leads you to an entrance below street level. As you walk down the stairway, you get the feeling that you could be entering the meeting spot for crime lords, and once you enter the dimly lit bar, the impression continues. The ambiance of The Association Bar falls somewhere between swanky hotel lounge and a venue run by the Yakuza, as crystal chandeliers and candlelight vaguely illuminate dark leather and even darker wood. While it is difficult to discern details about the appearances of the 20-something hipsters and 30-something professionals that make up the crowd, many appear to be playing the part, decked out in fashions that give nods to the 20s and 30s while ordering Old Fashioneds and French 75s.
On this particular Sunday night, the old timey atmosphere was made even more complete by the first performance of the Bastards of Belleville’s monthly residency at The Association Bar. Marcus Watkins (guitar), Phil Gough (guitar), Eric Holden (bass), and Josh Aguiar (trumpet) formed their jazz-centric collaboration a couple of years ago and they have everything that a proper jazz quartet should: dapper style, smooth stage presences, and serious musical skills.
The quartet warmed up the crowd with a couple of swingy instrumental pieces before being joined by chanteuse, Francesca Vannucci, who has been singing with the Bastards of Belleville for the past several months and will be featured during the course of the residency at The Association Bar. While the quartet creates a sound that is dynamic and lacking nothing, Francesca’s silky voice has a soulful quality that is rarely heard in the current musical world and she takes the group’s sound to another level. Her sultry crooning mingles with the trumpet and a gentle river of strings carries the listener off into a dream. Francesca adds a dose of feminine elegance to the gentlemen’s ensemble, but as she sways and bops along to the music and chats jovially with the guys in between songs, it’s clear that she has no interest in being a diva on a pedestal. The group is cohesive in their shared passion for a sound from another time, and the music they create is enchanting.
Over the course of the evening they played classic songs like “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” and “Dream a Little Dream” interspersed with covers of current music. Their rendition of Duffy’s “Mercy” was arguably better than the original and they did the late Amy Winehouse justice with their cover of “Back to Black”, while members of the crowd either danced in a classic swing style or stood still, mesmerized by the rich vibrato of Francesca’s voice.
It seemed that much of the crowd had come to The Association Bar to be transported to another era where Jazz permeated the air and the “new morality” of freedom, promiscuity, and wealth were followed blissfully and without the guilt that has come with modern global awareness. While the spell must inevitably be broken when the night comes to an end and everyone must return to the reality of their lives, it’s nice to know that there is a place you can go to get away, if only for a few hours, and the Bastards of Belleville will be there to help you make your escape.