From the 2019 San Diego Jazz Festival

Combined with my trip to the West Coast Ragtime Festival as reported last month, I attended for the second time the San Diego Jazz Fest over Thanksgiving weekend. This was its 40th year, held as usual at the Town and Country Hotel and Convention Center. There were 22 bands and two vocal groups, plus some special guests, on the docket.

The festival’s format was the same as last year: two local bands playing alternate but not competing sets on Wednesday evening, six bands with partially overlapping sets Thursday evening, and then a full schedule from 9 or 10 AM until 11 PM on Friday and Saturday, and 9 to 5 on Sunday, capped off by a large group set at the end.


As was the case last year, there was construction all around the hotel, which it appears might not even be wrapped up in time for next year’s festival. The construction was mostly elsewhere on the property and did not affect the music. It appeared that work may have been temporarily suspended for the holiday weekend. Several band rooms in the hotel that had been used last year were out of service this time, but other space was found in the building.

Dan Levinson San Diego Jazz Fest
Dan Levinson (All Photos Alex Mathews)

A number of bands, mostly from southern California, were repeats from last year (and may be regulars, but having only been here twice, I don’t know that for sure). There were two bands making their SDJF debut: After Midnight from Denver, and the Holland-Coots Jazz Quintet, a relatively new endeavor by Brian Holland and Danny Coots.San Diego Dancers

The former primarily plays early ’40s music, much of it drawn from Benny Goodman’s small groups. They were good at what they do, although I was not impressed by the vocal trio within the band. The H-CJQ turned in excellent sets, but they could have squeezed in one or two more tunes in each if there had been less comic banter, as innocuous as it was. I believe they had a new reed man this time, Nate Ketner, whom I had never heard. The other members—Brian Holland, piano; Danny Coots, drums; Steve Pikal, bass; and Marc Caparone, trumpet—are all “originals.”


Several bands that have been coming for many years are actually just festival bands, getting together only at festivals due to the far-flung places where their members live. These include the Yerba Buena Stompers, On the Levee, and Grand Dominion. Yerba Buena’s roster is especially spread out, hailing from New York, New Orleans, and California. But so good are they that one would not know that they don’t get together weekly, or perhaps ever, to rehearse.

San Diego jazz Fest 2019 Hal Smith
Hal Smith

The other two are somewhat less geographically diverse, but still not regular working bands. The geographic “outliers” in On the Levee—those not from New Orleans—are leader Hal Smith in Searcy, AR, and Riley Baker from the Bay Area (subbing this weekend for his father Clint, who was also here, working in at least two other bands).

I was very impressed by 18-year-old Riley’s mastery of the trombone. Hal had told me when I interviewed him at the Bix Festival in July that Riley would be sitting in for his dad, and that he was fully confident of Riley’s skills. His faith was not misplaced. Grand Dominion’s members hail from Vancouver Island, BC, to Oregon, with the ubiquitous Clint Baker (California) added. They’ve been to every SDJF since 1986.

The festival’s guest artists, all of whom got special billing in the program book, were Californians Katie Cavera, Marty Eggers, Carl Sonny Leyland, and Virginia Tichenor, plus Dan Levinson and Molly Ryan from New York (both of them native Californians) and John Royen from New Orleans. John spent two days in the hospital, but was able to return on Sunday to lead his New Orleans Rhythm, which featured Dan, Molly, Katie, and Marty. Conal Fowkes of Yerba Buena filled in ably for John on Friday and Saturday.


Missing this year were two bands that I very much enjoyed last year: the now-disbanded High Sierra Jazz Band, and the innately transient Original Cornell Syncopators. The Syncs are still playing under the leadership of trumpeter Lior Kreindler. Several stalwarts, including founder and leader Colin Hancock, graduated last spring. I have not yet had a chance to hear the Syncs in its current configuration. I was told during the summer by banjoist Professor Robbert Van Renesse that the university wants to keep the band going.

On The Levee San Diego
On The Levee Jazz Band

Meanwhile, Colin and his classmate Troy Anderson are both in grad school at Columbia (but on different campuses) and are playing in New York City. In fact, Colin has already gotten together additional Columbia students in a band called the Signature Seven. If you go to his YouTube page, you can find a very recent video of this group.

John Gil Josh Gouzy
John Gil (guitar), Josh Gouzy (bass)

With so many bands competing for my attention, I had to largely forgo the “Pianorama” sets that ran all three days. Most pianists had at least two 45-minute sets. I did drop in for a few minutes on Kris Tokarski, but got to hear much more of him with On the Levee and in his own trio set of New Orleans-style ragtime with Hal Smith on drums and Josh Gouzy on bass. Kris showed his great versatility across several genres this weekend.

The SDJF highlighted three themes: swing, trad jazz, and dance. The dancers took over the largest ballroom on Saturday and were entertained from 2 PM until after midnight by seven different groups ranging from rock to true trad. Several bands played under all three themes. Not all of it was to my taste, but if it got the young (and not so young) dancers into the festival, hopefully to be exposed to other genres, not to mention to financially keeping the festival going, I won’t complain.


As it was, there was more of what I do like than I was able to avail myself of. So I intentionally skipped a few bands based on their description in the program. I did not fail to catch the returning bands I liked, especially the Chicago Cellar Boys. I saw all or part of all but one of their eight sets. They have a new CD out on Rivermont called Busy ’Til Eleven which I commend to your attention.Dancers San Diego Jazz

A nice feature of this festival is the posting of the list of sponsors of each band or performer at their respective sets. The bands were supposed to give them a shoutout sometime during the set, but not all did. Another perk for sponsors is reserved front-row seating for the first 15 minutes of each set. After that, anyone may use those seats. This was especially appreciated for the heavily attended sets.

Touches like these help make San Diego is one of the best festivals I have attended, and the ability to combine it with West Coast Ragtime a week earlier makes me more likely to make the long flight to California, though perhaps not every year.


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