Ocean Beach's Portugalia restaurant opted for familiar turf on Easter Sunday, featuring vocalist Karin Carson in a few sets of jazz and blues and pop, as it often does. A minor twist was to follow when one of Carson's ex-boyfriends showed up with a date-a girl with some musical acumen of her own. The girl sat in with the group, an utter stranger to most, never expecting the modest windfall that would blow across her palm as the gig wound down.
"It was really uncomfortable and kind of weird,"Carson explained, "but at the end of the night, I paid her, and I didn't take any money for myself. I paid 'em all. It was only 25 bucks each, and I felt stupid about paying them, because $25 is just nothing.
"But the San Diego [jazz] scene is weird that way,"Carson explained. "You get close, so close that it becomes personal. It is family."
She's right. Over the last year and a half, I've seen a little of that bond congeal among the several jazz musicians I've met. I've come to know a couple of them-like Carson, who's been regaling local audiences with her take on jazz for a little more than eight years-fairly well. I've shaken hands with others I'll probably never see again. Both ends of that spectrum collide mid-beat in wholesale passion for this art form. Like its practitioners, jazz is a fiercely independent animal, shunning technical convention for the spirit of the moment and the caprice that colors it.
But in its most important respects, San Diego's jazz environment barely breaks a sweat, even as April-the sixth annual national Jazz Appreciation Month-draws to a close.
"Definitely, the San Diego scene needs a jump-start,"Carson said. "Right now, there are so many [potential patrons] that aren't really aware. They don't have any idea of what's available to them."Many club owners, she added, see her ilk as window dressing or a creature comfort, oblivious to the rich musical life story underneath. The local family is thus firmly ensconced on the outskirts of town, often left to celebrate its art only among itself.
Carson, 28, talks San Diego jazz like Stacy Taylor talks lefty politics. Her command of the topic is seamless and intense, thick with references to the city's old Stingaree district and the Creole Palace of the 1920s, the anchor that inspired some traveling players to call San Diego the Harlem of the West. By then, jazz had morphed into a national movement, having exploded out of turn-of-the-century New Orleans with a uniquely American mix of improvisation, 19th-century minstrelsy and top-heavy rhythms and brass. Nothing like it happened before or since, and Mark DeBoskey, manager of San Diego City College's jazz-based KSDS-FM radio, thinks the local consumer base is primed to assume its place in that roily history.
"I got here 30 years ago,"DeBoskey explained, "and the baby-boomers were in their 20s. Now, they're in their 40s and 50s. They're finding themselves disenfranchised by the [music] they grew up with, because it's become so homogenous. I believe we have an educational job ahead of us now, which is to say, "Try it-jazz isn't what you think it is.' It's not just smooth jazz; it's much broader than that-the Dixieland, the big band, the music that people discover and say it's great. I think San Diego has the potential to be a good jazz town."
KSDS program director Claudia Russell sees the same trend, but for her, the gravitation to jazz is more incidental, like much of this city's entertainment scene.
"Because of our geography and our climate,"Russell said, "we have so many options. San Diego isn't an anything town. We're not a theater town; we're not a dance town; we're not a jazz town. We're not even really a football town or a baseball town, despite the Padres. We are a do-what-you-feel kind of community.
"But I think what I've seen is a core jazz audience, that periphery of people... who just want good music and want a pleasant experience. From what I've seen over the last six years, I think that is starting to come back "
If that's true, then San Diego is left to address the core issue that colors its jazz-the wholesale lack of venues. Clubs have been closing in disconcerting numbers over the last several years, leaving maybe three that local players mention in the same breath: Dizzy's, Croce's Restaurant & Jazz Bar and The Onyx Room-where Carson recorded a live CD on April 3.
Holly Hofmann, San Diego-based jazz flutist and music director whose longtime acclaim finds her mostly on the road internationally, notes the shortage. She's also quick to add that San Diego isn't alone.
"There are only two legitimate jazz programs in town,"Hofmann said, "the Athenaeum Music and Arts Library in La Jolla and San Diego Museum of Art's Jazz in the Park. That's it. [Both venues] seat about 400, and they are full each and every time they do a concert."The demographic, Hofmann added, can often reach age 75 among both patrons and musicians, "and there are enough college-student programs here that the students are often sent out to hear live performance, because if you're hearing the music, that's an important part of the experience.
"But this society,"Hofmann explained, "does not consider art as one of their top six or seven options for disposable income. When you compound that problem with the climate here, where there are outdoor entertainment options for the dollar year-round, you're just adding to the same problem that every other city has. Musicians tell me the same thing when I tour. Clubs come and clubs go. And jazz is an educated music. It tends to be played and enjoyed by people that like the better musics."
Meanwhile, Carson-who's been singing since age 3, who's attended almost every International Association for Jazz Education parley since 1999 and who's pining to get a local jazz-musicians guild off the ground-is in no position to give up. Trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos; drummer Bob Daniels; keyboardist Ed Kornhauser; Hofmann herself: Carson speaks respectfully of them and their considerable talent. They and many others are the local extensions of her musical travels, which led her to jazz only relatively recently.
"I didn't get to that point until I was in my 20s,"Carson said, "and I had to go to L.A. to get it. It was a huge ordeal for me to have to do this, but I knew something there was life-changing that I had to go find."
What's so irksome is that she couldn't find it here.