Just after midnight on July 31, the heat of a packed house in OC's best jazz club will have left the room for good. The chairs will be stacked atop the tables, the soundboard turned off, iron patio furniture locked up, and the stage lights lowered one final time. It's the last night Steamers Jazz Club and Café will be open, the locking of its door signifying the shuttering of the only true jazz venue in Orange County and its more than 20 years of insane, ridiculous, jiving, stomping memories.
The decision to sell the legendary business was not an easy one for owner Terence Love. Fullerton locals and club regulars have murmured about its closing for more than a year, but Love kept tight-lipped. It was finally confirmed, however, on July 15 in the Orange County Register, with an article quoting Evans Brewing Co. and Public House spokesman Andrew Beyer, saying that company had bought the business from Love. It was a huge hit to not only the countless musicians who played there on a regular basis, but also to anyone imbibing in downtown Fullerton who wanted to avoid the riff-raff.
Love was a saxophone player and jazz lover in his youth, and he remembers trekking to Los Angeles to sneak into jazz clubs before he was 21. "Oh, and these places were so seedy, just dark, smoke-filled rooms where the bands were treated like shit by the owner," he says. At the time, he was more into drinking and partying than being a business owner. "Sadly, I was not there for my mother when she died. And so I decided to get sober and make sure I would be there for my father," he says. A few years after, a cleaner but no less gregarious Love opened the doors to Steamers in 1994.
Back then, Commonwealth Avenue wasn't quite as busy as it is now. "I wanted to create a place that was inviting and all-ages," Love says. His landlord, Brad Leyva, was onboard with Love's vision and offered him a great deal. "Unfortunately, jazz was not a popular music at the time, but I felt honored to give these musicians a chance."
Steamers was a venue for players young and old. Love, who has consistently supported music in schools, allowed high-school and college bands to take over the club during weekend days. "We've had some big names in here, too," Love says. "Joe Pesci, Diana Krall, Poncho Sanchez, Jeff Hamilton, Terry Gibbs, Buddy DeFranco and George Cables, just to name a few." Offstage, he played host to guests including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Sean Penn and Kate Flannery of The Office.
As one of the only venues in OC that had music every day, Love estimates Steamers held 10,000 concerts–about 9,000 of which he recorded. Jazz is a hard sell, especially in an area now known for its crazy bar scene. But Steamers was never really about being a bar or a restaurant. "Above all, it's been a labor of love. Let's just say I haven't gotten rich from doing this," Love says. "In fact, if it weren't for the emotional and financial support from my family, Steamers would have closed a long time ago. I had to pay the bands every day, even if no one showed."
The romantic, lively atmosphere has been the setting for more than two dozen engagements, innumerable date nights and even 12 weddings, Love says. But the club has also seen egotistical musicians cause scenes and storm out, angry customers get into fights, as well as an affair or two. But that's part of the club's charm, with its worn furniture and ruddy floors; the occasional crazy jazz musician makes it more interesting than the classier, newer joints.
Love did not really want to sell the club, but family pressures dictated a change. "My dad is 89 years old and he has Parkinson's," he says. "My family is very busy, and I'm the only one with the flexibility to take care of him."
In the time since the news got out, several musicians have mentioned their disappointment in the sale being kept a secret, saying if they knew, they would have rallied friends with money to take over. "I've heard that many times," Love says. "I always tell them to make me an offer, but it never happens. When it comes down to selling, you have to keep it a secret, otherwise people will think something is wrong."
As Steamers' final days wind down, Love says he feels shock, disbelief, anxiety, excitement and happiness. "It's like mourning the loss of a loved one," he says. "I'm glad I'm not in a relationship right now."
During the last performance of big-band regulars Arlene and the Guys, a singer passed around a sign-up sheet, trying to get emails, so their fans could congregate at a new venue. Despite the stifling summer heat, the Guys–made up of men young and old–wore tuxes that night. The eightysomething Arlene German, who plays the piano like a young woman, stood to take the mic.
"You know, when you're feeling music and playing it and reading it, you forget how bad you really feel," she said. And the normally mellow crowd gave her a standing ovation.