Rebirth of the Cool: The Strange Plethora of Jazz Jams in San Diego
“The very first time I sat in, I got kicked off the stage in the middle of a song.” Jazz musician Ben Wanicur is talking years ago about a jam session in Washington DC and he invokes a code used by most musicians to describe a bad performance: “train wreck.” But he didn’t give up the bass. Instead, he went home, did much wood-shedding, and he went back.
Now, Wanicur hosts a late night jazz jam session of his own on Fridays at 3RD Space on Park Blvd. It is the latest jazz jam to sprout in the otherwise infertile soil that is the local jazz arena.
“San Diego,” he says, “has a very small scene compared to San Francisco,” where Wanicur lived until recently. “Up there, you had players coming out of the woodwork.” Here, he says, not so much. The up side of San Diego is this: “everybody knows everybody. It’s like a family.” The flip side, he says, is trying to book shows from within a small talent pool.
Still, for the core of hometown players and jazz fans in general it is a bull market for jams. Consider that Wednesday nights the Gilbert Castellanos Quintet jams at El Camino on India Street. Jay Jay Lim hosts jams at Café Libertalia in Hillcrest on Thursday nights (the same night as Bill Caballero’s Latin jazz jam at Voz Alta on National Avenue.)
There’s Wanicur’s jam on Fridays, teen pianist Chase Morrin’s Young Lions Jazz Jam Saturday afternoons at Queen Bee’s in North Park, and, there is a Sunday night jam at the Spaghetteria on India Street in Little Italy. But wait -- there’s more.
Multi-instrumentalist Dave Millard runs a gig Thursday nights at the Turquoise in Pacific Beach. It’s not an official jam, but that is often what happens. The web site of the South Park Grill says they too still host a couple of jazz jams there, and in the fall of 2011 there was a jam in Escondido at the California Center for the Arts.
“What sets ours apart,” says Wanicur, “is that it is after hours. The 3RD Space jam starts at 11pm and goes to two in the morning, and sometimes later.” The lateness of the hour makes his jam musician-friendly: no one has to give up a paying gig on a Friday night. Still, he notes that “1am in San Diego is like 4am in most big cities. 1am,” he says, “is really late here.”
In essence, a jam is an organized musical space within which one can exercise one’s chops. There are rules of engagement that vary from jam to jam, and then, there is the all important vibe. “You don’t want a beginner’s training session, but you don’t want a clique, either.” It’s all about a supportive atmosphere, he says, with the caveat that jazz integrity is maintained at a jam via a technique borrowed from modern parenting: tough love.
Surely that is what Charlie Parker from Kansas City must have felt as a teenage jazz saxist when drummer Jo Jones chucked a cymbal at him back in the 1930s in an effort to silence his bad jamming. Possibly as a result of that public humiliation, Parker went on to practice like a fiend. Eventually, he would become the first hipster of jazz, a music that brothel pianist Jelly Roll Morton claimed to have invented at the age of 12 in 1902.
In a medium that depends on split-second thinking the jam session is vital mental and tactical nourishment for players. And, the public loves a good head-cutting session. Such sessions became both profitable and an art form during the golden era of jazz – 1935 through the early 1960s – when Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Monk, Miles, and Coltrane were still new. New York was ground zero for jazz and jamming back then; in many ways it still is. You bring your A-game: leaders often don't call out tunes. They just start playing and you catch on, or you don't.
I spent a little time in high school playing (way average) baritone sax behind local jazz talents like Hollis Gentry and Carl Evans but by the time I got to the Lenox Lounge in Harlem late one night in August, I was entirely full of myself. On break, jam leader Patience Higgens and his rhythm guys were out front, passing a pint in a brown paper sack and smoking and talking about baseball.
“So when are we gonna talk music?” I asked. The drummer looked at me, dumbfounded, then, he said this: “We never talk about the music. That is, unless there’s something, uh, wrong with it.”
Wanicur has performed with many of the locals including pianists Mike Wofford and Mikan Zlatkovich, Castellanos, drummer Duncan Moore, and tenor sax man Daniel Jackson. His national credits include Kenny Burrell and Mark Levine. He describes 3RD Space as kind of a bohemian multi-use place with couches and art on the walls.
“Its one of the best venues,” he says, “except for the cement floors, which make it a really live room. But, there’s a baby grand piano there, and that’s a big deal for this town.”
The next jam is Friday January 6, 11pm – 2am, 3RD Space 4610 Park Blvd. $3.00 cover for musicians, $5.00 for non-players