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Willow Weep for Me: a Young Lion in San Diego

By the late 1980s Christopher Hollyday's jazz career was on fire. Critics were calling him a Young Lion along with Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Joshua Redman, and the rest of the bebop and hard boppers trying to save the doomed art form that was jazz. His alto sax was a controlled outburst of notes in the upper registers, vital and Bird-like. They were calling him the Next Big Thing while he was still in high school

In 1988, at the age of 16, Hollyday became the youngest person at that time to play the Village Vanguard in New York. The following year, he toured with Maynard Ferguson. He booked his own quartet all around the world, and he recorded albums for RCA/Novus. But after 1993, it all came to an end. Christopher Hollyday simply dropped out of public view. When he re-surfaced, it was in a place clean across the country, and one with no known jazz scene: Escondido, Valley Center to be exact.

But he says the decision to move from the East Coast had been relatively easy. It was in part about the weather. "In 1990, I played Elario's, and I decided right then. It was 30 degrees in Boston, and 74 degrees in San Diego. I said, I'm gonna move here some day." By 1997, the renowned saxist had settled into his new life -- as a high school band instructor.

He'd agreed to meet up at a Starbuck's in Mira Mesa but I first met him the weekend before at at Coronado high school's JazzFest. The SDSU jazz band was slated to perform a noon concert and Hollyday was among the alumni guest performers (he earned a Master's degree there.) I took a seat in the audience. In the time remaining before the start of the show Hollyday walked onstage and shook hands with each of Bill Yeager's student sax line. When it came time for his solo spot, he played the old 1930's Ann Ronell jazz classic, "Willow Weep for Me."

Hollyday is 40. His close-cropped hair is graying, but his face is unlined and remarkably boyish. He speaks in articulate torrents, keeps his voice low, and he punctuates and amplifies almost everything he says with his hands.

"I first taught at Orange Glen High School and then transferred to Valley Center High School, and I taught there for the next 15 years. I didn't live up there. Everybody says I lived up there, but I never did. I lived in Poway." He lives in Mira Mesa now with his fiancé. He keeps a full roster of private music students but is currently on hiatus from teaching at a public school. The Valley Center gig, he says, became exhaustive.

"I was teaching at four different schools every day. I did that for about three years. One day I said I'm done." But while he was teaching he rarely played gigs. "I only played once or twice in a whole year. I'd go home from work and just be exhausted. What I'd do is I'd play about once a year at Dizzy's, or something like that." Would he like to play out more now? "I would. I should, right?"

Christopher Hollyday got his saxophone when many of us are likewise first exposed to music, in elementary school band class in the third or fourth grade. "But I never practiced." His father threatened to take the saxophone back to the music store but never did. Instead, he found a different approach that paid off: he played a Charlie Parker record for the boy.

"After that I went up to my father's record cabinet and pulled out all the ones by Parker, and I listened to them for days. For years, actually," he says. "I still do. He certainly is my auto pilot. If I need something, I have that."

But Hollyday's sense of lyric interpretation came from a different source -- the singer Betty Carter. "And from trumpet players. My brother plays trumpet. Best trumpet player ever. People always ask about him whenever I go to festivals. He lives in North Carolina now and takes care of his family. But he went to New York first. He did all the work for me. He met all the guys. He set things up."

New York was a door that Christopher Hollyday walked through easily. Just as easily, he would walk away from a promising career. "And I was good. It was starting to sink in. I wasn't as good when I was 17 or 18 as I was when I was 23. I played everywhere. And I played with everybody."

Then why the switch from world-class musician to school band teacher? "I was gigging. And people more experienced than me were not. My idols, guys I looked up to were telling me they were not gigging. That was a very fortunate thing for me to learn. I never wanted to get caught where, if the phone doesn't ring, you don't pay your rent."

Then the economy began to decline in 1993. "That was the first of the drying up of everything. And it was that way everywhere. It got kind of sparse. A gig, then two days off. Then another gig, and two days off. So I decided this is it. I'm going back now and get my degree."

He says he called the Berklee College of Music in Boston and asked for a scholarship. And then he says something surprising:

"I'm really pretty much self-taught. And that's why I had to go back to school. I was writing out charts for my band and they didn't know what it was. But I could play it on the piano. I had to learn how to read music."

"You couldn't read?

"No. I went on the road with Maynard Ferguson for about half a year. And when I went to Maynard's first rehearsal and he gave me the book, I went up to my hotel room and called my dad and I said they're probably gonna send me home. I can't read this stuff. There's no way I can read this."

Out in the parking lot, Hollyday puts on a neck strap and inspects my alto. It is an old Martin from the 1960's; much of the finish has been rubbed off in stark contrast to his own gleaming Selmer MK VI. "The first rule is don't drop it." He finds a tiny malfeasance in the keywork unnoticed by me. "See this wiggle?" It is so small as to be imperceptible. "If you put a little piece of tape right here, it will take that shimmy out and it will play better. Maybe two pieces. Try one piece at a time."

He says he's thinking about putting a new group together, maybe a rhythm section with an additional horn, possibly trumpet. But, he acknowledges all that is easier said than done. "There's been a change in the economy. And, there's a lot of phone calls involved." He likes to set up his own tours. He did when he was a touring band. "You have to do it yourself."

In the past, I say, there were more places to play jazz in San Diego. "I disagree." So I run down a list of the names of jazz clubs past that flourished here in the '80s and '90s. "I came after all that, he says. "When I came here I got a copy of the Reader and I said, what am I gonna do? There's no place to play." He found jazz refuge in the City College radio station Jazz 88.3 and their Tuesday night concerts. He also mentions Gilbert Castellano's jam session at the El Camino. "It gets wild when the two of us play together." But other than that, not so much.

"I'd love to play out. I just need the phone to ring."

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By the late 1980s Christopher Hollyday's jazz career was on fire. Critics were calling him a Young Lion along with Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Joshua Redman, and the rest of the bebop and hard boppers trying to save the doomed art form that was jazz. His alto sax was a controlled outburst of notes in the upper registers, vital and Bird-like. They were calling him the Next Big Thing while he was still in high school

In 1988, at the age of 16, Hollyday became the youngest person at that time to play the Village Vanguard in New York. The following year, he toured with Maynard Ferguson. He booked his own quartet all around the world, and he recorded albums for RCA/Novus. But after 1993, it all came to an end. Christopher Hollyday simply dropped out of public view. When he re-surfaced, it was in a place clean across the country, and one with no known jazz scene: Escondido, Valley Center to be exact.

But he says the decision to move from the East Coast had been relatively easy. It was in part about the weather. "In 1990, I played Elario's, and I decided right then. It was 30 degrees in Boston, and 74 degrees in San Diego. I said, I'm gonna move here some day." By 1997, the renowned saxist had settled into his new life -- as a high school band instructor.

He'd agreed to meet up at a Starbuck's in Mira Mesa but I first met him the weekend before at at Coronado high school's JazzFest. The SDSU jazz band was slated to perform a noon concert and Hollyday was among the alumni guest performers (he earned a Master's degree there.) I took a seat in the audience. In the time remaining before the start of the show Hollyday walked onstage and shook hands with each of Bill Yeager's student sax line. When it came time for his solo spot, he played the old 1930's Ann Ronell jazz classic, "Willow Weep for Me."

Hollyday is 40. His close-cropped hair is graying, but his face is unlined and remarkably boyish. He speaks in articulate torrents, keeps his voice low, and he punctuates and amplifies almost everything he says with his hands.

"I first taught at Orange Glen High School and then transferred to Valley Center High School, and I taught there for the next 15 years. I didn't live up there. Everybody says I lived up there, but I never did. I lived in Poway." He lives in Mira Mesa now with his fiancé. He keeps a full roster of private music students but is currently on hiatus from teaching at a public school. The Valley Center gig, he says, became exhaustive.

"I was teaching at four different schools every day. I did that for about three years. One day I said I'm done." But while he was teaching he rarely played gigs. "I only played once or twice in a whole year. I'd go home from work and just be exhausted. What I'd do is I'd play about once a year at Dizzy's, or something like that." Would he like to play out more now? "I would. I should, right?"

Christopher Hollyday got his saxophone when many of us are likewise first exposed to music, in elementary school band class in the third or fourth grade. "But I never practiced." His father threatened to take the saxophone back to the music store but never did. Instead, he found a different approach that paid off: he played a Charlie Parker record for the boy.

"After that I went up to my father's record cabinet and pulled out all the ones by Parker, and I listened to them for days. For years, actually," he says. "I still do. He certainly is my auto pilot. If I need something, I have that."

But Hollyday's sense of lyric interpretation came from a different source -- the singer Betty Carter. "And from trumpet players. My brother plays trumpet. Best trumpet player ever. People always ask about him whenever I go to festivals. He lives in North Carolina now and takes care of his family. But he went to New York first. He did all the work for me. He met all the guys. He set things up."

New York was a door that Christopher Hollyday walked through easily. Just as easily, he would walk away from a promising career. "And I was good. It was starting to sink in. I wasn't as good when I was 17 or 18 as I was when I was 23. I played everywhere. And I played with everybody."

Then why the switch from world-class musician to school band teacher? "I was gigging. And people more experienced than me were not. My idols, guys I looked up to were telling me they were not gigging. That was a very fortunate thing for me to learn. I never wanted to get caught where, if the phone doesn't ring, you don't pay your rent."

Then the economy began to decline in 1993. "That was the first of the drying up of everything. And it was that way everywhere. It got kind of sparse. A gig, then two days off. Then another gig, and two days off. So I decided this is it. I'm going back now and get my degree."

He says he called the Berklee College of Music in Boston and asked for a scholarship. And then he says something surprising:

"I'm really pretty much self-taught. And that's why I had to go back to school. I was writing out charts for my band and they didn't know what it was. But I could play it on the piano. I had to learn how to read music."

"You couldn't read?

"No. I went on the road with Maynard Ferguson for about half a year. And when I went to Maynard's first rehearsal and he gave me the book, I went up to my hotel room and called my dad and I said they're probably gonna send me home. I can't read this stuff. There's no way I can read this."

Out in the parking lot, Hollyday puts on a neck strap and inspects my alto. It is an old Martin from the 1960's; much of the finish has been rubbed off in stark contrast to his own gleaming Selmer MK VI. "The first rule is don't drop it." He finds a tiny malfeasance in the keywork unnoticed by me. "See this wiggle?" It is so small as to be imperceptible. "If you put a little piece of tape right here, it will take that shimmy out and it will play better. Maybe two pieces. Try one piece at a time."

He says he's thinking about putting a new group together, maybe a rhythm section with an additional horn, possibly trumpet. But, he acknowledges all that is easier said than done. "There's been a change in the economy. And, there's a lot of phone calls involved." He likes to set up his own tours. He did when he was a touring band. "You have to do it yourself."

In the past, I say, there were more places to play jazz in San Diego. "I disagree." So I run down a list of the names of jazz clubs past that flourished here in the '80s and '90s. "I came after all that, he says. "When I came here I got a copy of the Reader and I said, what am I gonna do? There's no place to play." He found jazz refuge in the City College radio station Jazz 88.3 and their Tuesday night concerts. He also mentions Gilbert Castellano's jam session at the El Camino. "It gets wild when the two of us play together." But other than that, not so much.

"I'd love to play out. I just need the phone to ring."

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Comments
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A remarkable man, and an excellent piece. Thanks.

May 24, 2012

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