Gilbert Castellanos has lived in San Diego less than a decade, but judging by his omnipresence in local club listings and billets, you'd think he'd been here a generation. Along with cultural revivalists such as Ingrid Croce and Chuck Perrin, Castellanos has been a lynchpin in the emergence of a real jazz scene in San Diego.
Sitting at the darkly lit, underground bar at the Onyx Room in downtown, the trumpeter is preparing to take the stage for his weekly residence-every Tuesday night in the club's back theater. He is the archetype of a jazz musician-a gleaming black coif, eyeglasses and South American brown skin, he's subdued and impeccably dressed in a sharp suit. He's the kind of cat you might find haunting a classic Blue Note album cover.
If his formality seems out of time, that's because it is; but his playing and his ability to mobilize the players around him-both in the club and in the city-is having a big effect on the here-and-now of San Diego jazz.
Castellanos was born in Guadalajara, Mexico in 1972 and raised in Fresno. Since his whole family was musical, it made sense that he attend the local performing arts school.
"I got into jazz at a very young age. I think I was 7 or 8," he recalls. "My father was a musician. When I was growing up he had a 15-piece cumbia band, like salsa. That's the environment I grew up in.
"My father loved jazz and he had all the great jazz records. When he would be off playing a gig, I would into sneak into his collection and listen to his jazz records."
His father owned a furniture upholstery shop where young Gilbert would sit and practice all day while his father worked. His father wanted his son to play the Latin material.
"And I would have to play out of his Latin books," Castellanos says, smiling at the memory. "It was cool for me because it got my reading together, but my heart was really into the jazz stuff."
His first brush with public attention came while a student at the renowned Cal Arts, a four-year MFA institution in Valencia. There he joined the Black/Note Quintet, releasing a pair of major-label post-bop jazz albums-1993's Jungle Fever (Columbia) and 1995's Nothing But the Swing (Impulse).
Castellanos moved to San Diego the year Nothing But the Swing was released. Highly motivated, he began an intense performance schedule. Before long, Castellanos held residencies at downtown nightspots nearly every day of the week, even playing a few venues in a single day. He's been a tireless promoter, sponsoring shows, gathering musicians and finding an audience. Over the last eight years, however, he's shed all of those residencies-except for one.
"That's my baby," he proudly says of his Tuesday night open jams at the Onyx Room. "That's been going on as long as they've been open-four years. When we first started playing there I would have to beg my friends to come out just to make it look like there was people in the audience. The first couple of months there were like 10, 15 people there, but now...."
He doesn't need to finish the sentence; he simply smiles and looks at the standing-room-only crowd that is waiting for him to take the stage.
When not performing locally, Castellanos is either recording or touring as a sideman, keeping a schedule just as hectic as his initial club blitz of San Diego. Besides his luminous trumpet playing, it's Castellanos' skills at arranging songs and leading bands into creative wellsprings that has him in demand. In addition to his own band, he performs regularly as part of The Clayton Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, The Clayton Brothers and The Wendy Lee Quintet.
He can be heard on new albums by Natalie Cole and Curtis Stigers, but he seems most excited about the chance to work with his jazz heroes.
"I just recorded with Les McCann for his new record, which is coming out next year," he says. "I'm really excited about that because I grew up listening to [him]. It's the same with the work I've done with Charles McPherson. I'm playing with people I grew up listening to and that's like a dream come true for me."
Castellanos paces as he talks, a blur of motion. The compulsive need for movement might explain his ability to tackle as much as he does. Still, he talks of taking on more. The present's fine and dandy, but Castellanos' first priority is finishing a follow-up album to his eponymous 1999 debut album. Four years has been a long time between releases, and he realizes that.
"My goal is to release two records next year," he says. "I have over 80 originals ready to go. Hopefully, I'll be doing one in January on the East Coast with an all-New York rhythm section. My other record that I want to do is trumpet with strings. All ballads."
Now that Castellanos' reputation has grown nationwide, rumors have begun to circulate that he will soon pack up and move to the larger market of L.A.
"People are always asking me that," says the 31-year-old. "I don't know where that started from. If I'm going to move anywhere, it's going to be New York. But there's great musicians here that I highly respect telling me at this point I really don't need to move because I've established myself.
"People know about me, and if I can maintain that reputation, then I can have the best of two worlds-I can live here in a beautiful city and I can still travel."
He stands, erects himself, utterly presentable, ready to take the stage. And he pauses.
"I like it here," he adds. "There's nothing [in L.A.] like the Onyx Room. We play [there] all the time and there are never crowds like that, where people are just screaming after you solo and getting into it."
And then, as happens every Tuesday, he steps onstage, his trumpet softly screams and they get into it. ©
Gilbert Castellanos performs every Tuesday, 9 p.m. at the Onyx Room. 619-235-ONYX.