Daniel Jackson is reading a small bronze plaque affixed to the side of the Starbucks at Fourth Avenue and Market Street. It says that the building once housed The Crossroads, San Diegos first live jazz nightclub. Not only is it a shame that the ubiquitous coffee mega-chain replaced the venerable clubwhich, after about 15 years, closed its doors in 1984 due to noise complaints (prior to the Gaslamp revitalization that made the question of noise superfluous)but the plaque, Jackson assures me, is inaccurate.
Downtown had jazz before that. The Creole Palace in the Douglas Hotel at Third and Market had live shows going back to the 20s. They called it the Harlem of the West. Those were shows with dancers and comedians. But the first real jazz club in San Diego was the Black and Tan up on Imperial. Jackson points a long index finger toward the Southeast.
He knows what hes talking about. A San Diego native and acclaimed tenor saxophonist, the 70-year-old is a legend among West Coast jazz musicians. Alto superstar Charles MacPherson considers Daniel an excellent, very knowledgeable musician who has his own way of doing things, his own style. And tenor giant James Moody cant say enough about Daniel and calls him a wonderful saxophonist who if he was in L.A. or New York would be a much, much bigger name.
But Jackson, with his reputation as private and maybe even eccentricwho has been known to pack up his horn and walk right off a gig if the audience is unrulyis not well-known outside of his hometown.
Weve left downtown now, driven east, parked and started to stroll up Imperial Avenue, Logan Heights busy commercial heart. Its a warm but breezy day and Jacksonexceptionally cool in a white rayon dress shirt, black vest, black slacks, dress shoes, shades and a black berettakes long but measured strides, greeting everybody we pass, including kids.
Now a predominantly Latino neighborhood, from the 1930s to the 1970s, Logan Heights was home to much of San Diegos African-American community, and Imperial Avenue was the musical Mecca of San Diegos black nightlife.
That avenue of jazz history, however, has largely been ignored, as San Diegos black musical legacy has often been subordinated to that of the well-documented Central Avenue jazz scene of Los Angeles, memorably depicted in the Walter Mosley novel Devil with a Blue Dress and the popular Denzel Washington film based on it.
Case in point: In published mentions of the late Harold Land, tenor star of the brilliant Max Roach/Clifford Brown Quintet, Land is usually referred to as a Los Angeles player, while the years he spent mastering his instrument in the juke joints, hotels and dance halls of San Diego remain overlooked.
In West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California 1945-1960, Ted Gioia does quote Lands point that there was a strong jazz scene in San Diego, which attracted top players from L.A. like Sonny Criss, Hampton Hawes and Teddy Edwards. Gioia also acknowledges that Land honed his skills in the band of San Diegos famed trumpeter Fro Brigham, who had turned down offers from the likes of Duke Ellington and Billy Eckstine to remain the King of San Diegos club scene. Gioia points out that by the 1940s some twenty clubs flourished on the black side of townnone of which has survived to the present day.
But one gets the sense that without Lands success in Los Angeles, San Diego might not have made it into the book at all: Gioias primary concern is documenting the professional lives of the stars of jazz and not its overlooked regional scenes and players; the discussion of San Diego takes up less than two of the books 400 pages.
As San Diego jazz languished in the shadow of its flashier sister to the north, local musicians who wanted to make it big knew theyd have to leave. In the mid-50s, Land moved to L.A. Jacksons stubbornness in staying put, like Brighams, is responsible to a large extent for his obscurity.
And now, some 40 years later, walking past the decrepit shells of those twenty clubs that flourished on the black side of town, Jackson pauses and gazes through the weathered facades into that past where, after a hard working week, sharply dressed African-American men and women came to escape, dance, laugh, drink, flirt and listen to the musicians wail.
Now, you see that right there? Jackson points across the street at the one-story building that currently houses the Western Service Workers Association, the social-justice organization founded by San Diegos beloved Episcopalian priest and activist, the late Art Elcombe. That was the first jazz clubthe Black and Tan, Jackson says. It was a nightclub chain like The Cotton Club. It was the one club down here where white people would come. The only evidence of the buildings former life are the faded glass brick windows and heavy art deco doors. No plaque.
Further down the block, he points out a large, refurbished two-story building that houses a Muslim Mosque. There was a black doctor, Doctor Jacksonno relationand he decided the black neighborhood needed a real ballroom. And this is it: The Ebony Ballroom. I saw Big Jay MacNeeley play here one night, and he came out onto the sidewalk playing his horn and the police arrested him.
Jackson recalls the incident with an impassioned, searching expression on his facea look youll see each time he confronts the memory of an event ripe with implications of social injustice.
Youll see the look a lot if you hang out with Jackson.
With the military buildup of World War II, he recalls, a lot of people came out here from the South. And they brought their prejudice with them. He cites an examplebut one not culled from the African-American experience: I remember the Japanese families in Logan Heights being shipped off to internment camps, man. He pauses and lets that probing look of his stand as commentary.
We keep walking. Jackson lingers in front of storefronts along the way, pointing out the former sites of The Two-Five Club (now Gabriels Mercadito), The Silver Slipper (now Imperial Electronics) and the still-standing Elks Lodge just off Imperial on Hensley Street, where Jackson would attend teenage dances and hear the likes of Bobby Blue Bland and local blues shouter Big Daddy Rucker.
At the clubs that served alcohol, young Jackson would stand outside and listen to his older brother, Fred, play piano inside with Fro Brighams band.
Fred and Harold [Land] played in Fros bandFro ran all the gigs in San Diegoand I was just a kid, but when I heard Harold play tenor, I said, Man, I want to play that!
Prior, Jackson had been more interested in marbles than music, as he puts it, but with Land as his inspirationliterally rehearsing in the Jacksons living roomhe began taking saxophone lessons from local teacher Max Dalby.
The lessons were paid for by his mother, the late Mrs. Johnnie B. Jackson, a native of Waco, Texas, who, widowed since 1946, raised Daniel, Fred and their sister. Mrs. Jackson could hardly afford the lessons, supporting her family as a single mother on the pay she earned performing domestic work. After graduating from San Diego High School in 1955, Jackson joined the Air Force, securing a spot in the marching band, which he says helped him develop a disciplined approach as a performer.
The Air Force took Jackson to Illinois, where he played in regular jam sessions with guitarist Wes Montgomery and organist Jimmie Smith, honing his chops, learning on the fly.
When he returned to California a more seasoned improviser, Jackson heard Charlie Parker play at a boxing ring downtown. Legend has it that hearing Bird play in person made some players put down their horns forever. But not Jackson. You knew you could never reach that. It was on a different level. But it made you want to try, he says.
Within a few years of leaving San Diego, Harold Land had risen to star status in Los Angeles. I went and heard him at The Flame in Hillcrest, after he had joined Clifford Brown and Max Roach. It was amazing.
One of Max Roachs students, Jackson recalls, was one of the greatest drummers in jazz at the time, this cat named Lenny McBrowne. In 1959, McBrowne asked Jackson to take Lands place as a member of McBrownes Four Souls, which Land had left to join the Roach/Brown Quintet. Jackson took the gig and performed on McBrownes two highly regarded and collectable LPs recorded in 1960 and 1961 for the Pacific Jazz label, which feature Jacksons compositions and arrangements. These classics of the hard bop idiom have been re-released by EMI.
By mid-decade, Jackson had landed a gig with Ray Charles and toured Europe with the legendary genius. He likes to tell stories about those days. Charles was a tough taskmaster with a wicked sense of humor. One time the weather was so bad that the pilot was reluctant to take off and some guys in the band were afraid, but we had this gig in another city. So Ray says, Were gonna take off in this motherfucker if I have to fly it myself.
He loved being in the band and listening to Charles play piano and alto sax, but by that time, Jackson had already developed the heroin addictiona habit he shared with Charlesthat he believes held him back.
Although he composed music for the likes of Cannonball Adderly, and went on to perform with jazz greats from Freddie Hubbard to Willie Bobo, Jackson says he didnt have any sense of self-worth.
At one point, his addiction became so bad that Jackson pawned his horn; he played only piccolo flute for many years and became accomplished on the instrument. In the 70s, Jackson spent some time living in Veracruz, Mexico, where he says that for the first time, he felt what it was like to be accepted and not judged by the color of his skin. It was something to get a sense of that, of what it was like to live without prejudice.
In the 80s, back in San Diego, Jackson entered a methadone clinic. He kicked heroin and started picking up teaching and performing gigs, one of which was as the first performer at Croces jazz bar, on Fifth Avenue and F Street. Ingrid Croce helped him pay for the Selmer he plays now, and the legendary tenor player James Moody gave him the mouthpiece he performs with to this day. I saw him once a few years back, and he asked me how that mouthpiece is working out, and I said, Man, I still havent found out all the things it can do.
Before the end of the 90s, Jackson found himself paid to play piano nearly as much as saxophone and took a gig as the house pianist at the upscale Prince of Wales Room at the Hotel Del Coronado, which he wryly refers to as Ice Cube Island for the chilly atmosphere he endured for six years. With a recent remodel, the bar was demolished and Jacksons stint ended.
It was, he says, the only regular paying gig I ever had in San Diego. Is he bitter that they let him go? No, man, thats just the free market system at work. Im happy to have time to focus on the horn. Theres some things I want to do, to figure out. Id like to record an album with strings, as his heroes Parker and Land did before him. And Im organizing a foundation to get artists, musicians and other creative people in need the training or equipment they need to help shine some light in the world.
Not long after our afternoon on Imperial, I travel with Jackson by car up the coastavoiding the freeway almost the entire way, since he prefers surface streets, where you can see somethingto attend a jam session in South Central Los Angeles, where Jackson is admired as a visiting sage. Young musicians seek him out after the session for advice and encouragement, which Jackson gives generously, as he has off and on for decades in university seminars on jazz improvisation and occasionally as a private saxophone teacher.
Appearances at such jam sessions have been high points of the 2000s, during which Jackson has recorded several independently produced CDs, written dozens of compositions, performed at a concert in his honor at Sushi Gallery, a sold-out 69th birthday tribute at Dizzys and an all-star show he organized at San Diego City College.
But infrequent concerts dont pay the bills.
The town to which Jackson has remained loyal hasnt entirely reciprocated. Resurgent interest in the recordings of jazz icons like John Coltrane (who once advised Jackson not to imitate others but to do what you do), along with a burgeoning young local jazz scene led by trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos, who cites Jackson as a mentor, has yet to lead to regular work for the elder statesman. There are only a few clubs in town that feature jazz as more than background music, and Jacksons only current steady gig is playing piano for Sunday brunch at Croces.
Last week, Jackson called me, discouraged, and said, Im thinking about maybe selling my horn.
If he did, the dominant living voice of the post-war Imperial Avenue scene, of San Diego jazz history, would be silenced. And what a shame that would be when Jackson at 70 plays with remarkable dexterity, passion and tone, perhaps better than ever.
As James Moody says, San Diego doesnt know how lucky it is to have Daniel Jackson.
Daniel Jackson is on the web at Danieljacksonmusic.com.