Sheila Pell 9:24 a.m., Nov. 12
Bruce Cameron: jazz any way you like it
A local jazz legend jams and talks about then, and now.
The jam at Haritna, in La Mesa: on an achingly hot Thursday evening my friend Mousa, a giant of a man, slings up his tenor sax in the semi-dark and from memory, blows the opening line of "Sunflower" into the assemblage waiting to take turns.
"I think I could play that," he says to no one. He blows the familiar refrain again and from somewhere on the opposite side of the room, a trumpet answers with the same line.
Sax and trumpet, a flugelhorn to be specific, make arrangements with the rhythm section. They launch, and "Sunflower," with a few clams here and there, sparks to a respectable life. When the horn and the sax have finished their respective solos, each retires to his own corner of the room like prizefighters between rounds. The piano and bass each labor through a chorus. The tenor and flugelhorn return to close out the song.
After, the brass player, a bearded figure in jeans, t shirt, and deck shoes introduces himself to the pretty redhead that runs the jam from behind her electric keyboard.
"I'm Bruce Cameron."
"Bruce Connor?" She clearly has no idea who he is.
"Cameron," he says. Bruce Cameron."
Then again, you can't fault the pianist for her faux paux. When Cameron and I meet for lunch in La Mesa one afternoon, he brings along a sheaf of yellowing newspaper clippings.
"This for background," he says. "I'd like to get them back."
I peruse them. Cameron's salad days in San Diego were during the 1970s and the 1980s. Then, Cameron got equal billing with heavy hitters like Shelly Mann, Cal Tjader, and Eddie Harris. His album Bruce Cameron Ensemble was a Billboard Recommended LP in 1980.
Same story with music trade journal Cash Box for Cameron's "With All My Love," reported pop music critic Bob Laurence in 1979 in the San Diego Union. Later that year, Leonard Feather called Cameron's horn "strong, Hubbard-inspired" in the L.A. Times.
I tell him that I grew up with Hollis Gentry, that he became the sax-playing star of Crawford high school long before that campus went to hell (we were the class of '72) and that I followed, as did a lot of Crawford Colts, Gentry's emergence as a pro jazzer.
Cameron, a good 10 years older, was already established then. He brought Gentry the fold. They formed the Bruce Cameron-Hollis Gentry Ensemble.
That band gigged at every club in Mission Valley, and at area hot spots now long gone: the Crossroads, the Blue Parrot, both of the Hubbell-designed Triton Restaurants, Elario's (at the top of the Summer House Inn in La Jolla,) the PB Café, the Del Mar Café, and Lehr's Greenhouse in Mission Valley which is now an all-you-can-eat sushi palace.
"We got Humphreys going," he says in his matter-of-fact style. "For the first year, we were the house band there. Those were the good old days. They hadn't gotten greedy yet." I make reference to the current stingy white chairs, the pain chairs, as I call them, and he smiles.
"They still had picnic tables then, and a restaurant - I can't remember the name of the place - they brought in barbecue."
He recalls a beach venue now long-gone called Le Chalet. "I worked as a county social worker then," says Cameron, a New York native, "but I gigged a lot. I talked the owner, a funny, round guy with a long white beard into letting us have jazz there. He moved the pool table out and built us a stage. It grew to three of four nights a week."
There was Cameron on trumpet and flugelhorn, Crawford alumni Nathan East and Carl Evans on bass and piano respectively, and a local drummer named Gary Nieves. The band's vocalist was Charlotte Steel.
"This was technically the start of Fattburger." Meaning that many of the ideas that Carl Evans would take to the national touring jazz act he co-founded later were developed in that working combo.
Cameron says those were the good years for a jazz musician in San Diego. "I looked at some of my union contracts from back then," he says, "and I'm seeing the kind of good money that nobody gets today. And it went a lot farther then, too." He talks about club residencies.
"Every hotel in Mission Valley had five-night-a-week bands, and bands on the off nights."
He then invokes some of the starpower names from San Diego's jazz scene past, like Kirk Bates. "There were two things tourists did when they came to San Diego: the Zoo, and the CC Jones show."
For a time, Cameron owned it in terms of a jazz career. His self-effacing stage manners belied the power and richness of his horn playing. But more than that, his name had drawing power. He became as big a star here as did anyone else at the club level.
He also worked in the model train industry, settling eventually at Reed's in La Mesa which he became a co-owner of. Model trains were his day job.
Then, in 1994, the worst thing that could happen to any trumpet player took Cameron out of the game.
While on a bicycle ride, he went over the handlebars. He landed on his face. In the accident, almost his entire top row of teeth was knocked out. The resulting surgeries left an accumulation of scar tissue along the inside of his upper lip - a serious handicap for a brass player.
"I never got it all back the way it was."
But chops or not, the love just isn't there for jazz at the club or the lounge levels any longer. He agrees that the local scene has atrophied over the years to the place such that it rarely supports a performer. Now, local jazz musicians tour Japan, or they teach, or they hold down day jobs. Sometimes, all three. What happened?
"That's a good question. From the time of our popularity, the one big change had to be the change in drinking-and-driving laws. That put a damper on the whole bar scene."
Cameron, 68, may have lost the altissimo range but he still holds sway on the floor with his urbane manner and a trumpet tone that flows like water over stones. He jams several nights a week at closed sessions with jazz talent of equal caliber, and on Sundays, he fronts the KSDS - sponsored jazz jam at the Spaghetteria in Little Italy. He is still enthusiastic about jazz, and about new local talent.
"There's a kid. He's what, 14? His parents bring him to the jam, and he can blow the hell out of Charlie Parker tunes," he says. "Charlie Parker," he says, and he's 14!"