On February 24, Social Advocates for Youth (SAY) San Diego and the O’Farrell Community School in Skyline hosted a dedication concert on campus to name their auditorium after a former student, the late jazz saxophonist Hollis Gentry. Mary Skrabucha is O’Farrell’s head counselor. The inspiration for the dedication, she says, came to her in the days following Gentry’s death nearly five years ago.
“My boyfriend is Ronnie Stewart. He’s a musician. He grew up with Hollis, and he played in bands with him. When we were at Hollis’s memorial service, somebody mentioned that he’d gone to O’Farrell. In all the years I knew Hollis, I never knew that. At the time, I mentioned to the [Gentry] family that O’Farrell needed to do something in his memory.”
Gentry attended O’Farrell in Southeast San Diego in the 1960s. Fitting, in a way, that he should be memorialized at the middle school because that is where evidence of his unusual talent first became apparent.
“My mother could probably best tell you,” remembers Veronica West, Gentry’s sister, “but he started out trying to play drums in the fourth grade at Knox Elementary. When he got to middle school, he knew what he wanted to do. He said that he really wanted to play the saxophone.”
After O’Farrell, Gentry transferred to Crawford High School. A protégé of jazz sax legend Cannonball Adderley, Gentry cofounded smooth-jazz group Fattburger in the 1980s. A fixture on the local jazz club circuit with his band Neon, Gentry toured with Larry Carlton and David Benoit, among others. In 2004, a near-fatal car accident cost him the ability to play saxophone. Gentry died of cancer on September 5, 2006 at the age of 51.
In the days prior to the February 24 event, Skrabucha described an evening of dedications followed by three different bands and performances from a list of local jazz stars that included Daniel Jackson, Lila Brown, and Fattburger cofounder Kevin Koch. “We’ll [eventually] have a plaque,” she says, “that will hang inside the auditorium.” And at some point during the next year, Hollis’s name will be applied to the outside of the building.
Skrabucha says the biggest challenge was in getting the school district to agree to name it the Hollis Gentry III Auditorium. “We wanted it done formally. And regardless what school was in this facility, we wanted to know that the auditorium would always be named after Hollis.” It took about six months to win school board approval, she says.
Proceeds from ticket sales benefited O’Farrell’s music program and SAY San Diego.