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San Diego live jazz bounces back

Madison on Park, Panama 66, Queen Bee's, Westgate Hotel, Athenaeum

One of San Diego’s best kept secrets: 
trumpeter John Reynolds Tuesday Night Jazz Series at Madison on Park.
One of San Diego’s best kept secrets: trumpeter John Reynolds Tuesday Night Jazz Series at Madison on Park.

I have a vivid memory of the last live concert I attended in town. It was a show featuring pianist Anthony Davis, bassist Mark Dresser, and trombonist Michael Dessen held in the acoustically pristine Conrad Prebys concert hall at UC San Diego on Saturday, March 7, 2020. While driving to the show, my nephew and I shared some nervous banter about the future of live jazz events. It was already becoming apparent that the country was heading for a lockdown soon. But no one figured that we'd experience a 13-month drought of live music, along with a total economic meltdown and the loss of more than half a million American lives.

The music was at turns violent and tender and the sound in the geometrically dynamic hall was hard to top. Afterwards, we all tried to adjust to the rapidly changing social etiquette; that meant no handshakes or hugs, but it was before mandatory masks and the outlawing of bars, concert halls, and restaurants. All of that would come two weeks later.

Live concerts are the lifeblood of jazz. Even though there are thousands of recorded documents that deserve to find a place in every discerning home, the only way to truly understand the allure of this music is to hear it live. I stopped counting after I realized I'd attended more than 600 shows in the last 11 years, probably 80 percent of which were showcases for the deep well of San Diego talent.

That well was overspilling in March of last year. Venues and musicians were thriving and it was almost impossible to imagine the vacuum that was to come.

Finally, things have started to turn around. Whether or not the San Diego music scene will ever return to its halcyon days remains to be seen, but the opportunity to catch live jazz around the county is expanding exponentially.

Madison on Park

One of San Diego’s best kept secrets over the last four hundred days or so has been the Tuesday night sessions led by trumpeter John Reynolds at Madison on Park in University Heights (4622 Park Boulevard). Because the performance area is essentially outside and social-distancing protocols are followed, these performances have basically been pandemic proof, with a few notable exceptions. “The only time we didn’t play,” said Reynolds, “was right when Covid started, I think we were down for maybe three weeks. And then this last time, when they shut down the outdoor restaurants. We were down from the second week of December to the third week of January [2021]. We’ve been pretty much playing the whole time. The whole restaurant is classified as outdoors, because it’s like a giant canopy and we’re all spaced apart.”

Tuesday Night Jazz Jam

  • Madison, 4622 Park Boulevard, University Heights

The house band features Reynolds on trumpet, Louis Valenzuela on guitar, Rob Thorsen on bass, and Kevin Higuchi on drums. Reynolds chose Tuesdays to minimize scheduling conflicts with other jazz events such as Valenzuela’s Monday night livestream.

“I was trying to pick a night that wouldn’t detract from what other people were doing. Within a few weeks, the place was just packed. By the time 7 pm rolls around, every table is filled and it stays filled until we leave.”

John Reynolds on his Madison on Park concert residency: "Within a few weeks, the place was just packed. By the time 7 pm rolls around, every table is filled and it stays filled until we leave."

Thorsen was one of San Diego’s busiest musicians prior to the pandemic. “The Madison gig was really like an oasis for us,” the bassist says. “It gave me something to look forward to every week. That was huge. When I got the call to do the gig with John, I got totally pumped.”

How lucky does Reynolds feel to have the luxury of a regular live jazz gig when almost everyone else has been shut down? “This has been a very fortunate thing, all the way around,” he answers. “It’s kind of like the perfect situation. It’s been like an alternate reality in the time of Covid-19 compared to the other six days of the week. You step into Madison and you know it’s safe. There is plenty of room for the musicians to spread out, and the rhythm section keeps their masks on.”

Panama 66

Since 2015, no other local show has earned the fame enjoyed by trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos and his Wednesday night sessions at Panama 66 (1450 El Prado) in Balboa Park. Pre-pandemic, the evening would begin at 6:30 with a performance by a select ensemble from the Young Lions Jazz Conservatory, then head inside to the auditorium of the San Diego Museum of Art for the pro-level jam session featuring pianist Joshua White, bassist John Murray, drummer Tyler Kreutel, and saxophonist  Christopher Hollyday.

Gilbert Castellanos Supper Club Jazz

  • Panama 66, 1450 Plaza de Panama, Balboa Park

That show frequently drew more than a hundred fans and a slew of heavyweight cats eager to prove their mettle by sitting in. It was enormously successful and equally beneficial for the musicians, fans, and Panama 66 co-owners (and husband/wife team) Jeff Motch and Clea Hantman. Then Covid hit and the venue took an enormous hit.

One of Gilbert Castellanos' first gigs back at Panama 66 came just hours after receiving the second shot of the Pfizer vaccine. Did he consider taking the night off? "No... I think that second shot might have actually enhanced my playing."

When restrictions started to relax in the county around September of 2020, the couple began to plan for a limited reopening. A last-minute phone call from a county official squashed that idea, though, and the venue decided to proceed with caution.

After the county relaxed regulations at the end of January, Panama 66 saw their chance, but were leery of getting burned once again. So, they reached out to the same official who shut their earlier effort down. This time the county was amenable.

During the pandemic, Castellanos went through a litany of life-changing challenges, including several major dental surgeries that kept the trumpet out of his mouth for the first time since he was a kid. A pending divorce added to an already stressful year.

As soon as he was able to practice, he went back to the woodshed and slowly built his facility back up to pre-surgery, pre-pandemic level. He was ready to return to gigging, all he needed was a place to gig. In mid-February, that opportunity was manifested with a call from Panama 66.

“It’s been very magical the last few times I’ve been playing,” Castellanos said. “Tonight was only my fifth concert playing in person in front of an audience. Every night is just a different feeling, and it just keeps getting better and better. It was tough that first night, because you know I had to shake the cobwebs off. I was doing a lot of livestreams and all that, but it’s completely different when you have an audience.”

What did it mean for the trumpeter to make his comeback gig at Panama 66, a place with such personal history?

“I love these people. So, the care and support I get from Jeff Motch and his entire team and the San Diego Museum of Art has meant everything,” Castellanos avowed. “Without their partnership, none of this would even be possible. The first time, it was very emotional being out there because I had been through quite a lot. It had been such a long time since I had played anywhere. I didn’t think I was going to be back for a while. To be back and feel somewhat normal, it’s just a beautiful thing.”

Speaking of feelings, one of the trumpeter’s first gigs back at P66 came just hours after receiving the second shot of the Pfizer vaccine. Did he consider taking the night off? "No, to be honest. I did have a pretty sore arm, but I didn’t really have any symptoms until the next day. Honestly, I think that second shot might have actually enhanced my playing."

How did all the downtime affect his art?

“I took advantage of it,” says Castellanos. “Because I was really struggling, and I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to be able to play again. So, I took it real slow and taught myself how to play again. I used that downtime to really put hours into my craft so that when I returned I wouldn’t embarrass myself in public. Thank God I had some great dentists who really came through and made me somewhat bionic so I can play even better than before. This has been a blessing and I’ll never take it for granted setting foot on stage again. Every time I play is sacred. The stage is an altar of joy, and it’s a privilege to play music.”

So what’s different about the Panama 66 experience nowadays compared to the pre-Covid situation?

“I had to make it a paid show for one,” answered Motch. “I have to limit the number of people who are in this space and there would just be too many people who would want to come and see him play live for free. That would be overwhelming. I’d get 50 people in the door and have to turn away 150 people. For a short while we need to make it a ticketed event, limit the capacity, spread people out, give them lots of space in between each other so they know that safety comes first. So, it’s a completely different situation. We’re not inside, we’re outside. I have to reset the entire floor plan of the restaurant to accommodate. I go in every Tuesday night and move every single table and every single chair to get them where they need to be to fit as many people as possible without obstructed views.”

How does social distancing affect the seating arrangements?

“Well, it’s the same rules that everybody should be following for outdoor dining. It’s six feet between people, not between tables, it’s from person to person.... It’s six feet between people and anybody playing a wind instrument can’t be in a direct line. So right there, you lose a bunch of space. Gilbert is playing into an empty row. As restrictions loosen up, we’ll move tables closer. Maybe at some point, instead of 50 people, I can fit 70 or 80 and at that point I could bring the price down. Right now, if I sell all the seats, I can pay Gilbert and the band a decent amount of money.”

How has the audience responded?

“The first shows sold out in a manner of minutes. We’re also doing music on Friday and Saturday. Those shows are free.”

Queen Bee’s Art and Cultural Center

There has been a creative performing space happening in the heart of North Park for more than a decade now, and, unbeknown to me, the Reader is a part of that story. Owner Alma Rodriguez pointed this out in our recent interview. “I just want to say that it’s because of the Reader that Queen Bee’s [3925 Ohio Street] got its name. [Jay Allen] Sanford wrote a story 13 years ago about our move from our event space, Hot Monkey Love, to North Park. He mentions me and said, ‘The queen bee of art and entertainment is moving to North Park’ and it stuck. But the name isn’t just about me, it is representative of all the women in the world who get shit done.”

(From left) Joshua Zingale, Whitney Shay, Angelica Pruitt, Charlie Arbelaez, Tom Benzon, and Jack Becker at Jazz Botanika, Queen Bee's weekly jam session for local jazz artists.

I wanted to know why it was so important for Rodriguez to return live music back to the North Park venue. “The artists haven’t been playing for a year and are going insane,” she answered. “I feel the same way churches feel in that Covid was keeping us from doing what we do. We are a center for art and community. We haven’t been able to do what we are meant to do which is connect with people spiritually through the art we present. It feels like more people are likely to die from depression than the flu sometimes, and the arts are critical for keeping people from getting depressed or helping them out of depression. We give people the opportunity to heal during the hard times of covid through music therapy. Through my work I am in touch with the public and I’ve seen people’s behavior change so much in the last year. People aren’t happy.”

What steps has Queen Bee’s taken to keep everybody safe?

“We’ve been very conscious about masks and taking temperatures,” Rodriguez explained. “We made our back patio comply with Covid regulations and didn’t push the limits of what we are allowed to do. And the artists have the last word, it is always their choice whether they want to play or not. Our efforts to comply with Covid regulations have created new opportunities, as we’ve been utilizing our parking lot to do concerts outdoors with social distancing since last fall. We take RSVPs for admission to all of our events, and we are collaborating with our neighborhood restaurants to help them generate income by offering our customers dinner during our outdoor concerts. So everybody wins. Some of our concerts are also live streamed. We send a link to the livestream to anyone who buys a ticket in advance.”

So how has the jazz community responded?

“It’s been a very positive response. Very supportive,” says Rodriguez. “We were pretty much going to call it quits at the end of the year, and I put together a fundraiser to help us keep our doors open and called up all of the artist leaders in my network, and everybody pulled through and we fundraised what our goal was [$40,000]. We did a series of parking lot concerts. The response has been overwhelming. With Covid or without Covid, our community is resilient and strong. And I think it shows not only at Queen Bee’s but also around town. The artists are livestreaming and getting through this, and the community is supporting. I can’t say that I’m disappointed. We were all scared but at the same time, we’re here to support each other. The press helps out a lot too. As soon as we made the call, everybody came forward to support us: TV, radio, newspapers. We are experiencing a good response from people that have just started coming out and want to come back for concerts.”

Alma Rodriguez: "I feel the same way churches feel in that covid was keeping us from doing what we do. We are a center for art and community. We haven't been able to do what we are meant to do which is connect with people spiritually through the art we present."

One of the most significant moves that Rodriguez made was the hiring of saxophonist Charlie Arbelaez as musical director. “We got to know Charlie when he did a series of livestreams for us. He proposed an opportunity to present a jazz series at Queen Bee’s and I needed a music director. There had never been an established jazz scene in North Park other than 7 Grand, but being a bar, 7 Grand isn’t a captive listening environment.”

Here is a partial look at what’s to come:

Every Tuesday is the Jazz Botanika Jam from 8-11. There’s an Open Mic on Thursdays from 7-10, a comedy show hosted by Tommy Lucero with headliner Alan Henderson on May 28, and an outdoor concert starring Salsa act Conjunto Afroson on June 20.

The Westgate Hotel

Before the pandemic, the opulent downtown Westgate Hotel (1055 Second Avenue), was often the source of some of local jazz’s finest moments. Gilbert Castellanos launched a Friday night series in the acoustically intimate (seats about 40) Plaza Bar. It was a prime listening room, where inane chatter (the bugaboo of real jazz fanatics) of an inebriated general public was actively discouraged. The Westgate also featured an outdoor, rooftop poolside summer series that highlighted a who’s who of San Diego jazz royalty.

Slowly but surely the Westgate appears to be coming back. They will be setting up the music initially, at least, in an outside configuration at the entrance. They will also be reviving the rooftop series.

“They’re calling it the Westgate Veranda,” says bassist Rob Thorsen, who has already performed there. “It’s right on Second Street, where you would walk into the hotel. The band is set up separate from the audience and I loved it. We were just filling in for one night with my quartet, but I just got hired this morning to do eight Sundays for a Sunday Jazz Brunch starting June 27. I’m going to do the outdoor thing and rotate between different pianists and guitarists. I’m going to feature Mikan Zlatkovich and Joshua White, and Louis Valenzuela and Victor Baker.”

Although it’s too early to bring back those epic Castellanos performances inside the Plaza Bar, the trumpeter was able to confirm that he will return on Friday evenings outdoors. “Yes, it’s official,” said Castellanos. “Starting May 14, they have a new restaurant. So that’s where they’re going to have the music now. It’s great timing, because summer is coming, and it’s going to be beautiful outside. So, I don’t really mind until it’s safe to return to the Plaza Bar. The rooftop series is starting again in June, and we already have it completely booked. We’re going to have people like  Holly Hofmann , Joshua White, and Leonard Patton, to name just a few.”

Jazz notes

Year after year, some of the most compelling music comes from the Jazz at the Athenaeum series curated by Daniel Atkinson and new music champion Bonnie Wright’s Fresh Sound series. I reached out to both to get an idea what plans they might be having. “The Athenaeum is currently in discussions to relocate our annual summer concert series from the library to a safe and convenient outdoor venue in the La Jolla/Del Mar region,” says Atkinson. “We are hoping to have the details and artists confirmed and ready for publication soon.”

“Fresh Sound will continue as soon as possible,” says Wright. “I sure hope we can do this before too long. Flying here from around the world is currently up in the air, so to speak.”

Nonetheless, change is in the air. The classical meets jazz chamber ensemble Camarada just held an actual indoor concert on April 16 at the new Baker-Baum concert hall in La Jolla. The event sold out (social-distancing allowed for just 60 patrons out of a 400 seat capacity hall,) and Camarada leader Beth Ross-Buckley considered it an unqualified success.

                            
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JT Moring, Sugaray Rayford, Cults, L.A. Edwards, Bella Kaye
One of San Diego’s best kept secrets: 
trumpeter John Reynolds Tuesday Night Jazz Series at Madison on Park.
One of San Diego’s best kept secrets: trumpeter John Reynolds Tuesday Night Jazz Series at Madison on Park.

I have a vivid memory of the last live concert I attended in town. It was a show featuring pianist Anthony Davis, bassist Mark Dresser, and trombonist Michael Dessen held in the acoustically pristine Conrad Prebys concert hall at UC San Diego on Saturday, March 7, 2020. While driving to the show, my nephew and I shared some nervous banter about the future of live jazz events. It was already becoming apparent that the country was heading for a lockdown soon. But no one figured that we'd experience a 13-month drought of live music, along with a total economic meltdown and the loss of more than half a million American lives.

The music was at turns violent and tender and the sound in the geometrically dynamic hall was hard to top. Afterwards, we all tried to adjust to the rapidly changing social etiquette; that meant no handshakes or hugs, but it was before mandatory masks and the outlawing of bars, concert halls, and restaurants. All of that would come two weeks later.

Live concerts are the lifeblood of jazz. Even though there are thousands of recorded documents that deserve to find a place in every discerning home, the only way to truly understand the allure of this music is to hear it live. I stopped counting after I realized I'd attended more than 600 shows in the last 11 years, probably 80 percent of which were showcases for the deep well of San Diego talent.

That well was overspilling in March of last year. Venues and musicians were thriving and it was almost impossible to imagine the vacuum that was to come.

Finally, things have started to turn around. Whether or not the San Diego music scene will ever return to its halcyon days remains to be seen, but the opportunity to catch live jazz around the county is expanding exponentially.

Madison on Park

One of San Diego’s best kept secrets over the last four hundred days or so has been the Tuesday night sessions led by trumpeter John Reynolds at Madison on Park in University Heights (4622 Park Boulevard). Because the performance area is essentially outside and social-distancing protocols are followed, these performances have basically been pandemic proof, with a few notable exceptions. “The only time we didn’t play,” said Reynolds, “was right when Covid started, I think we were down for maybe three weeks. And then this last time, when they shut down the outdoor restaurants. We were down from the second week of December to the third week of January [2021]. We’ve been pretty much playing the whole time. The whole restaurant is classified as outdoors, because it’s like a giant canopy and we’re all spaced apart.”

Tuesday Night Jazz Jam

  • Madison, 4622 Park Boulevard, University Heights

The house band features Reynolds on trumpet, Louis Valenzuela on guitar, Rob Thorsen on bass, and Kevin Higuchi on drums. Reynolds chose Tuesdays to minimize scheduling conflicts with other jazz events such as Valenzuela’s Monday night livestream.

“I was trying to pick a night that wouldn’t detract from what other people were doing. Within a few weeks, the place was just packed. By the time 7 pm rolls around, every table is filled and it stays filled until we leave.”

John Reynolds on his Madison on Park concert residency: "Within a few weeks, the place was just packed. By the time 7 pm rolls around, every table is filled and it stays filled until we leave."

Thorsen was one of San Diego’s busiest musicians prior to the pandemic. “The Madison gig was really like an oasis for us,” the bassist says. “It gave me something to look forward to every week. That was huge. When I got the call to do the gig with John, I got totally pumped.”

How lucky does Reynolds feel to have the luxury of a regular live jazz gig when almost everyone else has been shut down? “This has been a very fortunate thing, all the way around,” he answers. “It’s kind of like the perfect situation. It’s been like an alternate reality in the time of Covid-19 compared to the other six days of the week. You step into Madison and you know it’s safe. There is plenty of room for the musicians to spread out, and the rhythm section keeps their masks on.”

Panama 66

Since 2015, no other local show has earned the fame enjoyed by trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos and his Wednesday night sessions at Panama 66 (1450 El Prado) in Balboa Park. Pre-pandemic, the evening would begin at 6:30 with a performance by a select ensemble from the Young Lions Jazz Conservatory, then head inside to the auditorium of the San Diego Museum of Art for the pro-level jam session featuring pianist Joshua White, bassist John Murray, drummer Tyler Kreutel, and saxophonist  Christopher Hollyday.

Gilbert Castellanos Supper Club Jazz

  • Panama 66, 1450 Plaza de Panama, Balboa Park

That show frequently drew more than a hundred fans and a slew of heavyweight cats eager to prove their mettle by sitting in. It was enormously successful and equally beneficial for the musicians, fans, and Panama 66 co-owners (and husband/wife team) Jeff Motch and Clea Hantman. Then Covid hit and the venue took an enormous hit.

One of Gilbert Castellanos' first gigs back at Panama 66 came just hours after receiving the second shot of the Pfizer vaccine. Did he consider taking the night off? "No... I think that second shot might have actually enhanced my playing."

When restrictions started to relax in the county around September of 2020, the couple began to plan for a limited reopening. A last-minute phone call from a county official squashed that idea, though, and the venue decided to proceed with caution.

After the county relaxed regulations at the end of January, Panama 66 saw their chance, but were leery of getting burned once again. So, they reached out to the same official who shut their earlier effort down. This time the county was amenable.

During the pandemic, Castellanos went through a litany of life-changing challenges, including several major dental surgeries that kept the trumpet out of his mouth for the first time since he was a kid. A pending divorce added to an already stressful year.

As soon as he was able to practice, he went back to the woodshed and slowly built his facility back up to pre-surgery, pre-pandemic level. He was ready to return to gigging, all he needed was a place to gig. In mid-February, that opportunity was manifested with a call from Panama 66.

“It’s been very magical the last few times I’ve been playing,” Castellanos said. “Tonight was only my fifth concert playing in person in front of an audience. Every night is just a different feeling, and it just keeps getting better and better. It was tough that first night, because you know I had to shake the cobwebs off. I was doing a lot of livestreams and all that, but it’s completely different when you have an audience.”

What did it mean for the trumpeter to make his comeback gig at Panama 66, a place with such personal history?

“I love these people. So, the care and support I get from Jeff Motch and his entire team and the San Diego Museum of Art has meant everything,” Castellanos avowed. “Without their partnership, none of this would even be possible. The first time, it was very emotional being out there because I had been through quite a lot. It had been such a long time since I had played anywhere. I didn’t think I was going to be back for a while. To be back and feel somewhat normal, it’s just a beautiful thing.”

Speaking of feelings, one of the trumpeter’s first gigs back at P66 came just hours after receiving the second shot of the Pfizer vaccine. Did he consider taking the night off? "No, to be honest. I did have a pretty sore arm, but I didn’t really have any symptoms until the next day. Honestly, I think that second shot might have actually enhanced my playing."

How did all the downtime affect his art?

“I took advantage of it,” says Castellanos. “Because I was really struggling, and I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to be able to play again. So, I took it real slow and taught myself how to play again. I used that downtime to really put hours into my craft so that when I returned I wouldn’t embarrass myself in public. Thank God I had some great dentists who really came through and made me somewhat bionic so I can play even better than before. This has been a blessing and I’ll never take it for granted setting foot on stage again. Every time I play is sacred. The stage is an altar of joy, and it’s a privilege to play music.”

So what’s different about the Panama 66 experience nowadays compared to the pre-Covid situation?

“I had to make it a paid show for one,” answered Motch. “I have to limit the number of people who are in this space and there would just be too many people who would want to come and see him play live for free. That would be overwhelming. I’d get 50 people in the door and have to turn away 150 people. For a short while we need to make it a ticketed event, limit the capacity, spread people out, give them lots of space in between each other so they know that safety comes first. So, it’s a completely different situation. We’re not inside, we’re outside. I have to reset the entire floor plan of the restaurant to accommodate. I go in every Tuesday night and move every single table and every single chair to get them where they need to be to fit as many people as possible without obstructed views.”

How does social distancing affect the seating arrangements?

“Well, it’s the same rules that everybody should be following for outdoor dining. It’s six feet between people, not between tables, it’s from person to person.... It’s six feet between people and anybody playing a wind instrument can’t be in a direct line. So right there, you lose a bunch of space. Gilbert is playing into an empty row. As restrictions loosen up, we’ll move tables closer. Maybe at some point, instead of 50 people, I can fit 70 or 80 and at that point I could bring the price down. Right now, if I sell all the seats, I can pay Gilbert and the band a decent amount of money.”

How has the audience responded?

“The first shows sold out in a manner of minutes. We’re also doing music on Friday and Saturday. Those shows are free.”

Queen Bee’s Art and Cultural Center

There has been a creative performing space happening in the heart of North Park for more than a decade now, and, unbeknown to me, the Reader is a part of that story. Owner Alma Rodriguez pointed this out in our recent interview. “I just want to say that it’s because of the Reader that Queen Bee’s [3925 Ohio Street] got its name. [Jay Allen] Sanford wrote a story 13 years ago about our move from our event space, Hot Monkey Love, to North Park. He mentions me and said, ‘The queen bee of art and entertainment is moving to North Park’ and it stuck. But the name isn’t just about me, it is representative of all the women in the world who get shit done.”

(From left) Joshua Zingale, Whitney Shay, Angelica Pruitt, Charlie Arbelaez, Tom Benzon, and Jack Becker at Jazz Botanika, Queen Bee's weekly jam session for local jazz artists.

I wanted to know why it was so important for Rodriguez to return live music back to the North Park venue. “The artists haven’t been playing for a year and are going insane,” she answered. “I feel the same way churches feel in that Covid was keeping us from doing what we do. We are a center for art and community. We haven’t been able to do what we are meant to do which is connect with people spiritually through the art we present. It feels like more people are likely to die from depression than the flu sometimes, and the arts are critical for keeping people from getting depressed or helping them out of depression. We give people the opportunity to heal during the hard times of covid through music therapy. Through my work I am in touch with the public and I’ve seen people’s behavior change so much in the last year. People aren’t happy.”

What steps has Queen Bee’s taken to keep everybody safe?

“We’ve been very conscious about masks and taking temperatures,” Rodriguez explained. “We made our back patio comply with Covid regulations and didn’t push the limits of what we are allowed to do. And the artists have the last word, it is always their choice whether they want to play or not. Our efforts to comply with Covid regulations have created new opportunities, as we’ve been utilizing our parking lot to do concerts outdoors with social distancing since last fall. We take RSVPs for admission to all of our events, and we are collaborating with our neighborhood restaurants to help them generate income by offering our customers dinner during our outdoor concerts. So everybody wins. Some of our concerts are also live streamed. We send a link to the livestream to anyone who buys a ticket in advance.”

So how has the jazz community responded?

“It’s been a very positive response. Very supportive,” says Rodriguez. “We were pretty much going to call it quits at the end of the year, and I put together a fundraiser to help us keep our doors open and called up all of the artist leaders in my network, and everybody pulled through and we fundraised what our goal was [$40,000]. We did a series of parking lot concerts. The response has been overwhelming. With Covid or without Covid, our community is resilient and strong. And I think it shows not only at Queen Bee’s but also around town. The artists are livestreaming and getting through this, and the community is supporting. I can’t say that I’m disappointed. We were all scared but at the same time, we’re here to support each other. The press helps out a lot too. As soon as we made the call, everybody came forward to support us: TV, radio, newspapers. We are experiencing a good response from people that have just started coming out and want to come back for concerts.”

Alma Rodriguez: "I feel the same way churches feel in that covid was keeping us from doing what we do. We are a center for art and community. We haven't been able to do what we are meant to do which is connect with people spiritually through the art we present."

One of the most significant moves that Rodriguez made was the hiring of saxophonist Charlie Arbelaez as musical director. “We got to know Charlie when he did a series of livestreams for us. He proposed an opportunity to present a jazz series at Queen Bee’s and I needed a music director. There had never been an established jazz scene in North Park other than 7 Grand, but being a bar, 7 Grand isn’t a captive listening environment.”

Here is a partial look at what’s to come:

Every Tuesday is the Jazz Botanika Jam from 8-11. There’s an Open Mic on Thursdays from 7-10, a comedy show hosted by Tommy Lucero with headliner Alan Henderson on May 28, and an outdoor concert starring Salsa act Conjunto Afroson on June 20.

The Westgate Hotel

Before the pandemic, the opulent downtown Westgate Hotel (1055 Second Avenue), was often the source of some of local jazz’s finest moments. Gilbert Castellanos launched a Friday night series in the acoustically intimate (seats about 40) Plaza Bar. It was a prime listening room, where inane chatter (the bugaboo of real jazz fanatics) of an inebriated general public was actively discouraged. The Westgate also featured an outdoor, rooftop poolside summer series that highlighted a who’s who of San Diego jazz royalty.

Slowly but surely the Westgate appears to be coming back. They will be setting up the music initially, at least, in an outside configuration at the entrance. They will also be reviving the rooftop series.

“They’re calling it the Westgate Veranda,” says bassist Rob Thorsen, who has already performed there. “It’s right on Second Street, where you would walk into the hotel. The band is set up separate from the audience and I loved it. We were just filling in for one night with my quartet, but I just got hired this morning to do eight Sundays for a Sunday Jazz Brunch starting June 27. I’m going to do the outdoor thing and rotate between different pianists and guitarists. I’m going to feature Mikan Zlatkovich and Joshua White, and Louis Valenzuela and Victor Baker.”

Although it’s too early to bring back those epic Castellanos performances inside the Plaza Bar, the trumpeter was able to confirm that he will return on Friday evenings outdoors. “Yes, it’s official,” said Castellanos. “Starting May 14, they have a new restaurant. So that’s where they’re going to have the music now. It’s great timing, because summer is coming, and it’s going to be beautiful outside. So, I don’t really mind until it’s safe to return to the Plaza Bar. The rooftop series is starting again in June, and we already have it completely booked. We’re going to have people like  Holly Hofmann , Joshua White, and Leonard Patton, to name just a few.”

Jazz notes

Year after year, some of the most compelling music comes from the Jazz at the Athenaeum series curated by Daniel Atkinson and new music champion Bonnie Wright’s Fresh Sound series. I reached out to both to get an idea what plans they might be having. “The Athenaeum is currently in discussions to relocate our annual summer concert series from the library to a safe and convenient outdoor venue in the La Jolla/Del Mar region,” says Atkinson. “We are hoping to have the details and artists confirmed and ready for publication soon.”

“Fresh Sound will continue as soon as possible,” says Wright. “I sure hope we can do this before too long. Flying here from around the world is currently up in the air, so to speak.”

Nonetheless, change is in the air. The classical meets jazz chamber ensemble Camarada just held an actual indoor concert on April 16 at the new Baker-Baum concert hall in La Jolla. The event sold out (social-distancing allowed for just 60 patrons out of a 400 seat capacity hall,) and Camarada leader Beth Ross-Buckley considered it an unqualified success.

                            
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Robert Bush needs a monthly column at a bare minimum.

Anyone know when Latin Jazz Jam will start up at BorderX Brewery again?

May 13, 2021

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