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Gonzo Report: Tio Leo’s transforms into a proper jazz joint

Silence for the sound

Tables on the dance floor, jazz on the stage at Tio Leo’s
Tables on the dance floor, jazz on the stage at Tio Leo’s

I’ll start out with a confession: I hate crowds. I get pretty stressed out at a sold-out concert, which is why I’ll do just about anything to arrive early enough at a general admission show to be able to choose a seat on the end of an aisle. This affords me the comfort of an escape plan — an important consideration when ochlophobia is an issue. But I’d been hearing great things about presenter Holly Hofmann’s latest Sunday Jazz events at Tio Leo’s in the Bay Park neighborhood, and the pull of hearing some world class jazz — even in a potentially raucous setting — ended up overpowering my neurotic tendencies.

Place

Tio Leo's

5302 Napa Street, San Diego

Even though there’s a plenitude of free parking on the venue grounds, by the time we got there, we were lucky to find one of the last remaining spots in the overflow lot of the U.S. Bank next door. The music began at 5 pm, but I’d heard from reliable sources that one needed to arrive substantially earlier in order to secure a table with good sightlines of the bandstand. I didn’t arrive until a quarter-til, and the place was already packed to the rafters, it was standing room only. Happily, someone had saved me a prime spot; I could feel stares burning holes in my back as I made my way forward.

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The collective din of the gathered masses was oppressive. It was hard to imagine the drone of a 747 being much louder. I started losing hope for any kind of redemptive and pure listening experience. Settling this crowd down just didn’t seem like a possibility. However, a substantial investment had been made in the creation of a “listening room” vibe. Bringing in tables, for one. Tio Leo’s floor plan usually facilitates dancing, but venue owner Frank Sciuto (a serious pianist in his own right) put in the work to lure Hofmann from her retirement from the Sunday Happy Hour scene — she ran a super-successful series for years at the Handlery Hotel in Mission Valley until the pandemic.

Still, I had my doubts. At 4:50, I was still pretty sure you could fire off a cannon in the bar without anyone hearing it. Then a true all-star band began to file onto the slightly elevated (and somewhat spaciously appointed) stage. A Yamaha grand piano sat on the north side, about to be powered by former San Diegan Joshua White. Dr. Marshall Hawkins would be manning the bass, and young LA drum phenomenon Tyler Kreutel rounded out the quartet led by trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos, who was making one of his first appearances in public following the third and final dental surgery he had endured over the last year or so.

At the appointed hour, Hofmann grabbed the microphone and began to make some noise to get everyone’s attention. After a few minutes and some dirty looks, the collective roar was reduced by about 90 decibels — enough for her to introduce the band and, boldly, demand total silence. “Don’t make me come to your table,” said Hofmann, and she wasn’t kidding. It turned out that almost everyone was actually there for the music, except for a small contingent of folks from the MeetUp social media app who were still engaged in conversation. Hofmann, undaunted, headed straight for their spot on the floor and said, “We’re not going to start until it’s quiet.” Almost unbelievably, it worked.

Strands of colored lights hung down from the beams of the huge room’s low black ceiling. The band was on fire. Castellanos worked his way up the horn until he landed upon a lethal trill. White and Hawkins each made stellar contributions before turning the stage over to Kreutel for an extended solo. And the audience knew their jazz etiquette: the conclusion of each solo elicited thunderous applause — much louder and more intense than you would encounter at a typical jazz listening room.

I looked around the darkened venue interior and recognized a couple dozen familiar faces. Everyone was leaning forward, tapping their toes or swaying in time with the music. The bar and restaurant side appeared to be wildly successful; it seemed like a win-win situation all the way around. After the second set concluded, appreciative fans line formed a line to stuff money into the glass tip jar at the edge of the stage. Color me impressed.

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Tables on the dance floor, jazz on the stage at Tio Leo’s
Tables on the dance floor, jazz on the stage at Tio Leo’s

I’ll start out with a confession: I hate crowds. I get pretty stressed out at a sold-out concert, which is why I’ll do just about anything to arrive early enough at a general admission show to be able to choose a seat on the end of an aisle. This affords me the comfort of an escape plan — an important consideration when ochlophobia is an issue. But I’d been hearing great things about presenter Holly Hofmann’s latest Sunday Jazz events at Tio Leo’s in the Bay Park neighborhood, and the pull of hearing some world class jazz — even in a potentially raucous setting — ended up overpowering my neurotic tendencies.

Place

Tio Leo's

5302 Napa Street, San Diego

Even though there’s a plenitude of free parking on the venue grounds, by the time we got there, we were lucky to find one of the last remaining spots in the overflow lot of the U.S. Bank next door. The music began at 5 pm, but I’d heard from reliable sources that one needed to arrive substantially earlier in order to secure a table with good sightlines of the bandstand. I didn’t arrive until a quarter-til, and the place was already packed to the rafters, it was standing room only. Happily, someone had saved me a prime spot; I could feel stares burning holes in my back as I made my way forward.

Sponsored
Sponsored

The collective din of the gathered masses was oppressive. It was hard to imagine the drone of a 747 being much louder. I started losing hope for any kind of redemptive and pure listening experience. Settling this crowd down just didn’t seem like a possibility. However, a substantial investment had been made in the creation of a “listening room” vibe. Bringing in tables, for one. Tio Leo’s floor plan usually facilitates dancing, but venue owner Frank Sciuto (a serious pianist in his own right) put in the work to lure Hofmann from her retirement from the Sunday Happy Hour scene — she ran a super-successful series for years at the Handlery Hotel in Mission Valley until the pandemic.

Still, I had my doubts. At 4:50, I was still pretty sure you could fire off a cannon in the bar without anyone hearing it. Then a true all-star band began to file onto the slightly elevated (and somewhat spaciously appointed) stage. A Yamaha grand piano sat on the north side, about to be powered by former San Diegan Joshua White. Dr. Marshall Hawkins would be manning the bass, and young LA drum phenomenon Tyler Kreutel rounded out the quartet led by trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos, who was making one of his first appearances in public following the third and final dental surgery he had endured over the last year or so.

At the appointed hour, Hofmann grabbed the microphone and began to make some noise to get everyone’s attention. After a few minutes and some dirty looks, the collective roar was reduced by about 90 decibels — enough for her to introduce the band and, boldly, demand total silence. “Don’t make me come to your table,” said Hofmann, and she wasn’t kidding. It turned out that almost everyone was actually there for the music, except for a small contingent of folks from the MeetUp social media app who were still engaged in conversation. Hofmann, undaunted, headed straight for their spot on the floor and said, “We’re not going to start until it’s quiet.” Almost unbelievably, it worked.

Strands of colored lights hung down from the beams of the huge room’s low black ceiling. The band was on fire. Castellanos worked his way up the horn until he landed upon a lethal trill. White and Hawkins each made stellar contributions before turning the stage over to Kreutel for an extended solo. And the audience knew their jazz etiquette: the conclusion of each solo elicited thunderous applause — much louder and more intense than you would encounter at a typical jazz listening room.

I looked around the darkened venue interior and recognized a couple dozen familiar faces. Everyone was leaning forward, tapping their toes or swaying in time with the music. The bar and restaurant side appeared to be wildly successful; it seemed like a win-win situation all the way around. After the second set concluded, appreciative fans line formed a line to stuff money into the glass tip jar at the edge of the stage. Color me impressed.

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