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Providing hot licks on the trumpet is Joe Diamond, a retired school superintendent who's right at home singing and playing the standards. Jim Flint photo.

Hot coffee and cool jazz on A Street

The vibe Saturday morning at La Baguette Music Cafe in Ashland was of hot coffee and cool jazz as a pick-up band played the standards for the crowd.

There wasn’t so much finger snapping as you might have found in a 1960s coffeehouse, but plenty of toes were tapping.

La Baguette owner Merrill Smith played stand-up bass with regulars Tony Brussat on guitar and vocals, and Joe Diamond on trumpet and vocals.

Brussat, a member of Band du Pays, an Ashland-based swing band, served up a variety of tunes, even channeling a little Leon Redbone in a rendition of Louis Armstrong’s “Lazybones.”

Diamond, a retired superintendent of schools, has been on the music scene for many years. He still has the chops to be a double threat, as he was on a sensitive performance of the Harold Arlen/Yip Harburg ballad, “Over the Rainbow,” handling the vocal as well as playing the trumpet.

And you could tell Smith wasn’t on stage just because he’s the owner of the café. He was definitely in the groove, providing a solid beat and contributing a few melodic solos during the set.

There’s music regularly on Wednesday and Saturday mornings, usually at 10:30, occasionally on Thursdays and Fridays, and sporadically some evenings with a tapas menu available. The music calendar can be found on the cafe’s website at labaguettemusiccafe.com.

Music has been a part of La Baguette from day one when Smith moved in a piano and hung a guitar on the wall soon after opening nearly 28 years ago.

“People would gather around a big round table, and anybody was welcome to play the guitar or the piano,” Smith said. “It kept growing, and for the last 12 years we’ve been doing music Wednesday through Saturday all year ‘round.”

The doors were wide open Saturday morning as many customers enjoyed their food and beverages outside under the shade of large tarps in comfortable 74-degree weather.

You knew you were at a bakery by the intoxicating smell of freshly baked bread wafting from the kitchen.

Smith got his start baking commercially 30 years ago in his home on Grant Street.

“The mixing room was in the basement and I converted a bedroom into a baking room,” he said.

He opened his first cafe on A Street where J’s Bistro is now. When the Ashland Bakery Café closed down the street at 340 A Street, Smith moved to that location. That was 28 years ago.

Smith believes his advantage is continuity. As the baker, he can train new people if there’s turnover.

“My daughter Jenika has been working with me for the last three years. She does all the jobs.” When she takes over during his absence, she does it with such confidence that it makes him very proud, he said.

La Baguette is famous for its stuffed bagels, which have fans all over the country. Smith has mailed bagels to Minnesota, Arizona, and other far-flung locales. He added them to the menu 15 years ago.

He begins with a small rectangular piece of rolled out dough, layers in a filling, rolls it up, then massages it to make a longer “pipe” which he folds back on itself to make the bagel.

“Then we boil them and bake them,” Smith said. “One favorite filling is jalapeno and cheddar, another black olives and cream cheese.”

His flagship one-pound loaf of sourdough uses starter he’s had for 35 years. “It has a one-day shelf life. It’s meant to be eaten the day it’s baked.” They also slice bread and wrap it in plastic for customers who want it around longer.

La Baguette sells a variety of breads and pastries. Also on the menu are fresh organic juices, veggie burritos, challa French toast, a house-made goat yogurt with granola and berries, huevos rancheros, a slightly sweet but spicy My Chai tea, and the usual offerings of coffee and espresso.

The cafe is open from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Saturday. “We’re closed that day, but we still bake on Sundays,” Smith said.

It has been said that the smell of fresh baked bread makes people kinder to strangers. At La Baguette, that’s the frosting on the cake.

Jim Flint is a retired newspaper editor and publisher living in Ashland. You can reach him at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.

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