Los Angeles is a city where cultural treasures aren't just places or things, they're people too. Inside a martini-stained, mid-century bar in Los Feliz, indefatigable couple Marty and Elayne Roberts have been performing jazz and endearingly kitschy takes on modern hits for 35 years. They are truly iconic Angelenos, living landmarks that are a constant in our ever-evolving town. On any given night, Marty perches behind his drum kit, clad in a sequined jumpsuit that matches his wife, who helms the keys. When Elayne isn’t singing lead, she sometimes picks up a flute, or hums the melodies of instruments that are missing, la-la-ing a trombone part, or be-boping a trumpet line. Marty occasionally saunters up to the mic, serving up swaggering one-liners and a casual Sinatra tune or two.
For 28 years, they performed two-hour sets, six nights a week. Only recently have they scaled back to five nights. They ceaselessly deliver classic jazz hits to a loyal audience of original polyester-clad lounge-lizards and present scenesters, who often sport similar polyester, salvaged from vintage stores. They are stalwarts of local television broadcasts, reality shows, and movies too. For some, the couple was first revealed to the world in the early 1990s indie film, “Swingers,” which cast a new light on Los Angeles nightlife, away from the 1980s hyperbolic hair, postured punk, and angular power suits, instead embracing the “return to the cool” aesthetic of the end of the millennium, where new wave film, mod angst, and 1960s style resurfaced.
Today, Marty and Elayne show no signs of stopping and on April 1, they perform their 35th anniversary show at the Dresden.
Artbound recently caught up with the jazzsters to talk about how they ended up at the Dresden, Elayne’s psychic powers, and the time Keifer Sutherland recorded one of their albums.
How did you end up at the Dresden?
Marty Roberts: We were working by the Derby before it was the Derby. It was called Michael's restaurant.
Elayne Roberts: It was in the same place as the Derby. It was so beautiful. The boss used to come in every night and check us out and he finally said one night, “When you leave this place you can come work for me. I own the Dresden down the street. Give me a call, when you are leaving here." So we did.
What was this neighborhood like back then?
E: It was quiet. There were opera singers down the street. There was Sarno’s and they also had opera singers and that was about it. Other than that there was offices and older people.
M: So we tried to change the situation because it was completely different from the other job we were on.
E: Well, at the Derby they were older and they all followed us and it was really nice. The first night they all came in and there was no room for them and I asked the boss if he could get more tables because all of our friends are there. He said, “They can sit down, but if there is not enough room let them leave. I don’t want anyone around here who isn’t seated and I want a dress code. Everyone has to dress.” When the kids started coming in, we did a Tom Petty video in 1990 and all the kids started coming in with jeans, with holes in the knees and they said, “that is the style.” He said, “Well, I have to relent if that is the style. If that is what they want to do, let them do it.”
M: He was fine with it because he was making more money.
E: He heard the cash register and said, “OK.” He kept his word -- he had a lot of integrity.
Who were some of the other musicians you worked with at the time?
E: In 1987, we got on jazz radio and all the little rock bands wanted to jam with us so we had Frank Zappa’s bass player and one of the Red Hot Chili Peppers come jam with us. We had a lot of young rock musicians come and play jazz and it was beautiful. From ‘87-’90 it was the best because it was a respectful crowd that listened to jazz radio and they were wonderful. When we did the Tom Petty video the trendies came in and it got mobbed in here. It was difficult to hear what we were doing and we were shocked for a while. We still have to get used to it. If there is a wrap party and they just did a movie they are going to be excited and they are going to be screaming and you have to just learn to sing above it. I have to figure out whether they want us to be louder than they are or quieter than they are. I am pretty good at feeling the crowd because I am psychic. I am psychic.
I told my sister and she asked, “Why are you calling this guy Marty.” I said, “If I don’t call him I will marry Ray and ruin my life so I have to call him.” She said, “ You don’t know him what are you talking about.” I said, “ I don’t know, it is the way I feel.” I was right on the money. I know a lot of things before they happen.
M: You should have called Ray. No, I am kidding.
E: He calls me "a witch."
What is the secret to keeping your relationship going after all these years?
E: It is either ESP or soulmates. We were saying the exact same things at the same time and finishing each other's sentences. When we meet people I would start telling them, “Oh, Marty just told me that." I think we think alike.
M: I have one of those [hidden microphones] attached to her, she doesn’t know it yet. It picks up everything.
When did you realize that the Dresden would be your homebase?
E: We have always felt comfortable here because it is like a party every night. It is a relaxed party atmosphere. We did the Shrine, once. We opened for Sarah Mclachlan and Jewel. There was 6,000 people, it was so dark in there that you couldn’t see the crowd and Marty was so cool, he acted like he was home in bed. I prefer an atmosphere where you can see the faces and you can tell what they are thinking and it is so important. Sometimes I get a request and I know what they are going to say before they say it. I know that sounds crazy but that is the way it is.
M: It is not crazy, you are psychic.
E: The psychology department from Columbia [University] came down and they went up to someone and they said, “you are psychic.” Then they went up to me and said, ”You are really psychic.” I said, “Well, I would like to improve it, can I join your class?” And he said, “No because you know when people are gonna die and you are too sensitive to take it.” It was weird.
How can you tell if the audience is gonna be a good audience or a bad audience.
M: Well, you throw some feelers out. You take your gun out and say, “Or else.”
E: Or you throw things at them. Audiences have personalities and sometimes you can’t buy it, it is so wonderful. There is no where else you can go to have such a good time and other times they couldn’t get you out of the bed with a million dollar bill because you know it is gonna be horrible. It is heaven or hell.
M: You try to talk to the people and see if there is something they want to hear or something you want to hear.
E: He is a people person but I am not an introvert exactly but I am sort of shy. I am good on one-to-one but at parties. I have to have a drink before I can say hello.
What are some of the songs you like to play?
E: I love “Jazz in Tunisia,” it is a jazz tune. When they clap I say, “Thank you, I love when you clap for jazz.”
M: It’s a Dizzy Gillespie tune. One of my favorites is a Charlie Chaplin tune. He wrote a song called “Smile.”
E: He likes “All the Things You Are.” I love “Someone To Watch Over Me.” I love Gershwin.
Which modern songs do you enjoy playing?
E: “La Vida Loca” -- we did it on an MTV Ricky Martin special. They put it on and Marty told me he was gonna tape it and I was in bed watching it with one eye open and I thought, “They are not gonna put it on, I might as well go to sleep. He is not taping it. He is asleep.” All of a sudden it came on, and Tom Petty came on and said, “The music must go on” and it was us playing “Vida Loca” it was just amazing. The titles were flashing, it was amazing.
Do you ever feel like you are going to retire?
M: Retire to what? No, because it is coming from the heart.
E: All of our friends who retired died. They had nothing to do and they just sort of wasted away, it is sad.
M: You have to have a goal and if you reach your goal go onto something else if you want to or if you are able to.
What is your daily routine like?
E: I get up and go for a swim.
M: At five in the morning she wakes up.
E: Usually -- I got up at four today. Normally, I get up at five then have a swim and then go eat breakfast and go in the back and practice for an hour then go get ready.
M: I will go out and play with the dog. Usually she walks us, she is 10 pounds.
E: If I have to get up early in the morning I get up. We have had interviews at eight in the morning and I won’t go to sleep.
M: We love jazz. We are jazz players to a point but it has got to swing.
E: We try to please people. We try to make people happy.
What is the craziest thing you have seen happen in the Dresden?
E: Kiefer Sutherland had a friend that was dying of cancer and he had a remission and they were celebrating. His friend said, “I want to go see Marty and Elayne at the Dresden." So Kiefer got a bunch of chairs and lined them all around us, which was very sweet. After that, he produced one of our records. He was so gracious and wonderful about it. He had a date and came by the studio and wanted to be sure everything was alright. He is so wonderful.
Are there any other famous people you would call friends?
E: I liked Sandra Bullock. The [Dresden’s] manager said, “Sandra Bullock is here and she asked for you.” I said, “Did the president of the United States ask for me too?” Then he said, “No, really she is in the dining room.” So I went into the dining room and I saw her sitting with all her friends but I didn’t want to bother her. So I walked back in this room where we play and she started setting up chairs. I said, “I am Elayne” sort of sheepishly and she said, “I know exactly who you are I am going to bring all of my friends in to listen to you after dinner.” She was so sweet and just a doll. I told her, “I certainly know who you are I record all my favorite movies and go to sleep to them.” She said, “I do that too. I didn’t know anyone else did that.” She was down-home and unpretentious.
Who makes your clothes?
E: I design them. We had an 80-year-old lady that made us matching outfits. She wanted to get back into sewing and we said, “Oh, make us costumes." I told her everyone liked them so she kept on making matching costumes. After she passed we had other dressmakers make them for us but I design them.