Bob Popescu, Rest in Peace

Bob Popescu, the founder and co-owner of Los Angeles’s leading jazz club, Catalina Bar & Grill, died last week of a heart attack. He was 77.

Even among the ten-of-thousands of patrons who have frequented his establishment over the past 20+ years, Bob was not well-known. Although wry and gregarious among his family and friends, he was shy and humble at heart, and he largely avoided the spotlight or sought notoriety. That was left for the transcendent artists who performed at his club, including Dizzy Gillespie, who Bob called at home in the struggling early days of Catalina’s and convinced to headline his then unknown restaurant. Managing such a feat was no simple trick, particularly since Bob Popescu was a Romanian immigrant with an accent as thick as a dark rye bread. Bob’s likeability, his aura of honesty and straightforwardness, made an impression, though, and not long thereafter one of the giants of jazz was performing to sold-out houses filled with fellow legends like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Miles Davis. No longer was the question “Catalina what?” but “Who’s this Bob Popescu fellow?”

The essential answer was: an immigrant embodying the American Dream.

Bob had fled the brutal Communist dictatorship of his homeland for a fresh start in the Land of Opportunity. With his wife, Catalina, the eponymous presence on the marquee, Bob Popescu discovered that the greatest of American art forms, jazz, was a color-blind music that welcomed all comers, no matter their heritage, to participate in the ongoing discussion. It mattered little that at the start Bob knew almost nothing about the nightclub business; he improvised, just like the musicians on his stage. With hard work, conviction, and a breezy “it’s all going to be OK” attitude, Bob Popescu figured out the game. As dozens of venues came and went, all trying to be the premier presenter of jazz in Los Angeles, his joint remained (and flourished). Now it’s known around the world.

Bob used his success to help others, and not just by providing a incubating home for innumerable artists. He personally sponsored more than 350 Romanian immigrants, many of whom desperately needed someone in America to sign and vouch for them, even if he wasn’t directly related. There were times that Bob’s Hollywood home housed as many as 17 people, all getting their feet on the ground and making their own attempt at the American Dream. He was a man who recognized opportunities and grasped them. He was a man who gave opportunities to others.

I was one of those fortunate recipients of Bob Popescu’s generosity of spirit. He gave me the chance to fulfill my jazz dreams — on Tuesday nights, at his storied club. Three years later we’re still enjoying the ride, only this season there won’t a be a bald man with a mischievous smile calling me “Mister” every time I walk into the office. Everywhere you look, though, signs of Bob persist. Every time Chick Corea sits at the piano bench or Kurt Elling approaches the microphone to sing, every night Pharaoh Sanders picks up his horn or Kenny Burrell his guitar, Bob Popescu’s spirit will shine on.

We were lucky to have him, and even luckier that his legacy embodies everything that makes America great.

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