“There will be a couple of signs. The shipping dock is to the far right and behind the building. Just drive your car in the gate that will be open. Downbeat is 3 but come earlier. There will be a decent sized crowd. Bring a layer because it will be cool in there.”
The message was from Peter Baron, a Bay Area artist and jazz enthusiast who has dedicated much of his time over the years to celebrating jazz improvisation. I’d heard about Peter and his “Underground Jazz Theater” through some musicians in my own network. I was excited to finally attend one of his “Backyard Improv” gatherings.
Around 2:45 in the afternoon, my wife and I pull into the parking lot of a bustling local brewery, somewhat confused. We spot a fairly low-key directional sign off to the side. After parking, we enter the building through an unassuming door at the end of what appears to be an office hallway. It seems there’s no power, at least in this section. As we turn the corner of the unlit hallway, we make our way into a large room of seemingly abandoned cubicle stations. Off to the left, another sign. This time more prominently featured, easing any anxieties about possibly being in the wrong place. It directs us through a closed door. On the other side, “The Backyard Improv #19.”
We open the door to the aforementioned shipping dock area to find 30-40 people socializing, some artwork on display, beer and wine on ice, and several rows of folding chairs facing the live music set-up in the corner. As 3 o’clock quickly closes in, the crowd makes their way to their seats and the host takes the microphone.
“The minute the last one stops, I can’t wait for the next one,” Peter says to a room full of applause. “If it’s your first time coming, this is how this works: Unscripted. Unrehearsed. And no known songs. The musicians don’t even know who they’re playing with until they show up. Sometimes they’ve never even met before, like in the case of today.”
Peter introduces the band, starting with Scott Martin, saxophonist from the notorious California funk/rock/soul group War. Joining Scott is Brian Andres on drums, Ryan Price on bass, and Evan Thomas on guitar. For the next 90 minutes or so, the audience is treated to a half dozen improv performances ranging from blues rock, to soulful funk, and mellow cool jazz. Each performance is set up by Peter, who sets the mood by suggesting a scenario or motivation, names the song-to-be on the spot, and tasks one of the musicians to get the ball rolling.
Not once is the music merely something in the background. From start to finish, those in attendance appear completely enthralled in witnessing the impulsive music unfolding before them. Throughout the afternoon, I scan the audience around me expecting to find some break in that captivity. Every time, my eyes are met only with music-lovers bobbing their heads, counting on their knees, tapping their feet, and occasionally yelping out a cheer or erupting into applause for an impressive solo or an intense crescendo climax.
The conclusion of the final performance is met with a standing ovation. A basket is passed around to help cover costs. The crowd mingles with each other and the musicians, peruses the artwork, finishes their beverages, and soon dissipates to continue the remainder of their Saturday afternoon.
I now have the opportunity to meet and talk with Peter, who is beaming with positive energy like a recharged battery. I have a lot of questions, but more than anything, I want to know why he insists on the clandestine approach to something like this. Why not go “above ground” and open this more to the public?
“The main reason is that it is meant to be a controlled environment. I have been asked recently many times to go to different places like clubs and bars but it goes against the experience I want people to have. One of the problems I have always had with bars and restaurants is that the music is secondary. It’s mostly an afterthought, or it’s a party experience. The Backyard Improv is a show; not a party. Some people talk a bit – especially before and after – but most everyone is engaged in the show itself. This is one of the reasons why the musicians dig this. The music is not an afterthought. They are there to focus on them.”
Peter shared with me the trials and tribulations that came with his experience of starting and managing an improv jazz club, Walnut Creek’s Impulse Room, which closed in 2019. A beautifully shot documentary about the short-lived club called “Impulses” was shown at the San Francisco Indy Film Festival and can now be seen on Peter’s YouTube channel.
In short, Peter doesn’t see a future for any kind of permanent home for jazz improv that’s open to the public in this area, citing how most people in our region tend to shy away from supporting new original music in general:
“The East Bay, Walnut Creek and the surrounding area was lacking, and still is, anything in the way of jazz clubs…or even other clubs that focus on original music. The same cover and tribute bands move around to the same clubs,” laments Peter. “This side of the tunnel needs to do more for musicians.”
Peter added a bit of “never say never,” saying that he’d be open to exploring something if the right situation emerged with other invested parties so that he’s not bearing the brunt of an effort that he feels ultimately would struggle to be embraced locally. For now, his focus is on keeping this special underground thing going, which he sees as sort of a culmination of various efforts from over the years, including his own artistry as a painter.
“The incorporation of my art is a big part of it. Not just to add a different element, but it’s as much of a large art show as it is a concert. I often use paintings as the idea behind a song. Many times the painting name becomes the song title. I describe what it means and describe a vibe to the band for them to capture the mood of the painting.”
What Peter has built – both with the community of musicians and the Underground Jazz Theater audience – is something to behold. I understand and appreciate his desire to keep this beautiful showcase underground, intimate, and controllable, but another part of me is screaming “people gotta see this!” So what about all those would-be performers and audience members who would want to be a part of this? What do they have to do to get an invite?
Peter reassured “It’s simple. They just have to reach out to me via Peter Baron’s Jazz Network and I will be happy to invite them, but I will take a quick moment to explain to them what to expect so they enjoy themselves.”
Peter Baron’s Jazz Network is a public Facebook group. Anyone interested is welcome to join and message Peter directly about attending a future improv event.
Contact Dave Hughes at MrDaveHughes@gmail.com.
Dave Hughes is a local music advocate with an extensive network of independent artists. He produces and hosts a local music program on KVHS called The Beat of Diablo, every Sunday at 7:00 PM on 90.5 FM. Dave also catalogs local music releases at ConcordRockCity.com.