Wet, Wild, and Wonderful: The 2023 San Diego Jazz Party

The 35th San Diego Jazz Party was held at the San Diego Hilton Del Mar the last weekend in February. The rains pelting the Southern California area did not dampen the spirits of the numerous attendees who were eager to listen to and celebrate the many well-known tunes from the Great American Songbook.

I attended a few of the master classes held on Friday afternoon before the beginning of the festivities. Over 20 Mission Bay High School Preservationists arrived for the instructions and many of them had been at the San Diego Jazz Fest at Thanksgiving with music director JP Balmat. Their school trip included a visit to New Orleans this past April and they are planning a trip to Japan soon. Their fund-raising party was held that week and they have reached their goal for the monies needed to send the Preservationists to San Diego’s sister city in Japan… Yokohama! I usually like to visit as many of the classes as possible, but this year I stayed mostly with Dan Barrett’s (tb) class that had Stephanie Zavala-Lemarroy on violin and Gregory Flores on trombone with two additional students. Both Stephanie and Greg were in San Diego last November and are very excited to have Yokohama on their to-do list.

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Dan emphasized the importance of understanding the structure of the tune to be played. A typical 32 bar arrangement can be in the form of AABA as far as each 8 bar measure is played being the verse/chorus or bridge. It is necessary to follow the chord patterns when improvising and keeping time with the rhythm section. Double stops are techniques for playing two notes simultaneously on a stringed instrument, i.e., violin or bass. The obbligato is an accompanying melody played by an instrument that fills behind a vocal or another instrument. Counter melodies soar over or around the instrument being highlighted. A “hot” trombone plays the notes the musician hears only seconds before it is actually played. When the musician can “hear” the notes before they are played, this is the talent that supports the art of improvisation. When creating one’s own ‘line” within a measure, it allows a listener to identify the player due to the familiarity of the tune and the knowledge of the musician’s personal style. It should be a musician’s goal to develop their own identifying “licks” and not completely copy those of others. Listening to established musicians perform a variety of compositions is required and will lead the novice in developing their own signature.

Jason Wanner and Rossano Sportiello and “Their Twenty fingers of Fate”
Jason Wanner and Rossano Sportiello and “Their Twenty fingers of Fate”

It is said that trombonists have “calibrated” elbows as the skill of stopping the slide at just the right time is imperative. I have witnessed other trombonists instinctively flex their right elbow when listening to a solo trumpet or clarinet—it becomes a subconscious gesture!

I caught the last few minutes of Jason Wanner’s (p) class and he advised his students to take the time to learn a song each week. Jason had a solo piano set during the weekend and provided rhythm support on many others. Rossano Sportiello (announced as the Party’s 2024 Jazz Legend) also had a solo set and both of them played four-hand piano Sunday afternoon. The overhead cameras displayed images on large screens on either side of the stage. The angles perfectly captured the piano keyboard along with the drum heads and the surface of the vibes which are difficult for the audience to view on the elevated stage. Rossano also had a set featuring the piano artistry of Nat “King” Cole.

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Bassists Peter Washington, Paul Keller and Richard Simon (who decided his name should be “Mary” with this trio) kept time on most sets and also had a few duets with other musicians in beautiful arrangements. Ever the punster, Richard made many extraneous comments throughout the weekend and found the song “Tangerine” very a-peeling…but that’s Richard!

Rossano also recalled a time when he visited Peter Washington in Europe when Peter was playing with the Tommy Flanagan Trio. Rossano was now thrilled to be on the same stage with Peter after all these years. Such back stories are an integral part of live music when the musicians are just conversing with the audience in an intimate setting. It is one of the pleasures to be gained while actively supporting live jazz!

The sets were anywhere from 25 to 40 minutes (with 5 minute intervals) and often featured unusually paired instruments that created beautiful if unexpected harmonies.

Eddie Metz Jr., Danny Coots and Chuck Redd provided the heartbeats on most of the sets and Chuck also performed on the vibes for several sets including a Bossa Nova segment.

Evan Christopher (cl), Duke Heitger (tp), Jon-Erik Kellso (tp), Dan Barrett (cnt)
Evan Christopher (cl), Duke Heitger (tp), Jon-Erik Kellso (tp), Dan Barrett (cnt)

Trumpeters Duke Heitger and Jon-Erik Kellso brought New Orleans to the room with a tribute to King Oliver and were joined on the set by Dan Barrett (tb/cnt) and Evan Christopher (cl). Jon-Erik paid homage to Eddie Condon for a 35-minute set while Duke closed the Friday night offerings.

Ragtime Fest

Paul Keller (bs), Ken Peplowski (cl), Duke Heitger (tp), Dan Barrett (tb)
Paul Keller (bs), Ken Peplowski (cl), Duke Heitger (tp), Dan Barrett (tb)

Clarinetists Ken Peplowski (the Party’s 2023 Jazz Legend) and Evan Christopher were invited on many sets and Ken was featured in one remembering Benny Goodman. Evan had a beautiful duet with Jason Wanner the first thing on Sunday morning.

Houston Person, Jr (tenor) recalled the many numbers he played with his musical partner, Etta Jones, during their 35 years together. He also did a segment on Blues 101, with the 2022 Jazz Party Scholarship Student, Christian Rodriguez (gtr). Christian was involved in a few other sets all weekend and enjoyed the audience’s appreciation. Houston had to leave San Diego early Sunday morning but we hope he will be at the Party next year.

Harry Allen (tenor) did perform some of his own compositions and also had his hand in many other sets. His “hipster” segment also featured Christian Rodriguez.

Russ Phillips (tb) was subbing for John Allred and it was a pleasure to see him again after many years. He played “Azalea” at my request and related a back story about his father’s involvement with the Armstrong band in the early years after Jack Teagarden and before Trummy Young.

Vinny Raniolo is a master with the guitar and each note or chord is so clear and precise, it appears effortless! Any rhythm section is enhanced multi-fold when Vinny participates and his own set had him “stringing along” with Harry, Russ, Richard and Chuck.

If Billie Holiday and Anita O’Day decided to raise a child together, her name would be Lia Booth. Lia’s voice is reminiscent of both of those talented songbirds with a bit of Lena Horne and Sarah Vaughn thrown in as the beloved “aunts” of this child. We were introduced to her this weekend and I was truly astonished! Lia’s voice is note-perfect and her interpretations of any song are intriguing and spot-on. In review, a definition of scat is: a jazz vocal style using emotive, onomatopoeic, and nonsense syllables instead of words in solo improvisations on a melody. I am often not a fan of scat singing as it usually seems like an attempt to sound like Ella or Louie and results in a bibbity-bobbity-boo delivery. I had this same conversation in New Orleans with Rob Pearce from the U.K. and we were both on the same page with this topic, but Lia’s presentation is individual and distinctive. She has taken the best qualities from those she admires and created her unique amalgam of these various styles. She will “own” the song!

Lia’s voice is truly her instrument and if in a duet with, for example, a trombone or bass, she can mimic the melody or harmonize with perfect timing and emphasis. It isn’t so much “scat” singing as it is vocally demonstrating the individual notes that are audible from the physical instrument itself. She is pitch perfect and also a darn good whistler!

I have no idea how Dan Barrett, as music director for the Party, can come up with the set titles and performers for each segment. With cute, whimsical references, he gives each musician their own time to shine in the spotlight. Whether “Peps and His Pups” or “Groovin’ with Houston” or “Chasin’ Jason” is the theme for the set, Dan puts the pieces together and the nominal leader of the set basically fills in the blanks with their favorite arrangements most of which will be known to the side musicians.

Sandi Joyce, President, San Diego Jazz Party, presenting Ken Peplowski, with the 2023 Jazz Legend Award
Sandi Joyce, President, San Diego Jazz Party, presenting Ken Peplowski, with the 2023 Jazz Legend Award

When it was time for the Legend Award presentation, Sandi Joyce, President of the San Diego Jazz Party, emphasized that this year’s Legend possessed a sense of humor, a passion for integrity and a love of life. With the medical obstacles that Ken Peplowski has overcome these past few years, he was extremely humbled to be honored for his work and commitment to his craft. He acknowledged that performing is the best medicine of all and received a standing ovation after his heart-warming acceptance speech.

The Grand Finale was the San Diego Jazz Party meets the Keystone Kops! With 3 drummers, 3 bassists, 2 trombonists, 2 sax players, 2 trumpeters, 2 clarinetists, 2 pianists, 1 guitar player and a vocalist and as many of the musicians also played two instruments, the stage was inundated with immense talent. Ken introduced Dan Barrett while constantly interrupting him before the music started. Then during an extended version of “The One O’Clock Jump,” the drummers grabbed various sticks and brushes to annoy whoever was actually sitting down. The bassists tried to strum the neck while another was bowing the strings on the bottom. The piano players sat on the bench while tickling some of the ivories on the side and several musicians tried their hand on the vibes. The front line exchanged instruments and the guitar strummed along. One trombone had two musicians, one holding and blowing and the other maneuvering the slide…and all of this chaos sounded terrific! The melodies and harmonies were intact and if you couldn’t see what was actually happening on stage, you wouldn’t know it from the sounds heard.

the Grand Finale Jason Wanner, Rossano Sportiello, Vinny Raniolo, Evan Christopher, Ken Peplowski, Peter Washington, Dan Barrett, Russ Phillips, Harry Allen, Eddie Metz Jr., Duke Heitger, Paul Keller, Chuck Redd
The Grand Finale
Jason Wanner, Rossano Sportiello, Vinny Raniolo, Evan Christopher, Ken Peplowski, Peter Washington, Dan Barrett, Russ Phillips, Harry Allen, Eddie Metz Jr., Duke Heitger, Paul Keller, Chuck Redd

The Hilton Del Mar offered several reasonably priced buffets during the weekend, with beef, chicken, salmon, salads and fruits on display. It was quick and convenient to enjoy during the lunch or dinner breaks and the varieties were delicious. It seems the staff at the Del Mar looks forward to the Sunday night “jam” as much as the remaining attendees. With a piano and a small drum kit set up in the lobby, the last evening always ends with an impromptu session. Richard Simon had his bass which he shared with Paul Keller and Duke sat at the piano before Jason Wanner entered the room. Evan was in the bar area and his clarinet soared over the pony wall dividing the two areas. Vinny and Christian provided some rhythm while Harry Allen channeled Stevie Wonder at the piano. Lia did a small duet with Eddie and Russ did some sliding while others joined in on their own instruments. Several attendees including Len Kellogg (tb), with the Poudre River Irregulars, had their ax in hand to join in on the fun and the other two drummers and musicians sat in on a few pieces.

Although it rained most of the weekend, the skies cleared for everyone’s trip back home by Monday morning. It was a memorable weekend of music, friendships, laughter and pure enjoyment. I know some folks planned some beach time either before or after the weekend, but I drove home with San Diego in the rear view mirror anxiously awaiting the 2024 Jazz Party next February!

After 48-1/2 years, Shelly Gallichio is a retired Real Estate Associate Broker in Tucson, Arizona and despite growing up in Chicago, fell in love with the clarinet and the New Orleans sound at the age of three—she intends to spend the next 48-1/2 years seeking that sound! Reach her at [email protected]

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