As Jazz Live Returns, the Historical Timeline of a San Diego ‘Institution’ Restored
By Matt Silver
Charlie Chavez plays congas with The KSDS Jazz Orchestra at Jazz Live, Oct. 2017. Photo by Larry Redman
Spring may be the season of rebirth, but, this year, summer is the season of renewal because Jazz Live is back.
KSDS’s signature live concert series returned to City College’s Saville Theatre and Jazz88’s airwaves this past Tuesday night with aplomb — and a Gilbert. And a Charles.
Left to Right: Charles McPherson plays Bird with Strings at Jazz Live, Sept. 2019. Photo by Larry Redman; Gilbert Castellanos & The KSDS Jazz Orchestra at Jazz Live, Oct. 2017. Photo by Larry Redman
Castellanos and McPherson. International names and San Diegans both, it’s only fitting that this pair of San Diego jazz patriarchs would herald the return of a tradition known for showcasing both the global and the local over the years.
The Jazz Live series debuted in the 1970s at the Catamaran Hotel. The Tiki aesthetic was in. To see the biggest names of that or any time—Stan Getz, Harold Land, Blue Mitchell, Art Pepper and Duke Pearson to name but a few—headlining those legendary live performances at the Polynesian-themed resort overlooking Mission Bay was de rigueur.
“At that time, jazz was jumping in San Diego,” recalled KSDS alum and founding father Doug Coffland in an interview from this past April with KSDS’s Gary Beck. “Everyone was [at The Catamaran]. From Les McCann to Sarah Vaughn to Art Pepper—I mean, you name it. All the West Coast people were there; I saw Jack Sheldon, Sonny Rollins. To think of who was there—it’s just amazing.”
“It was a who’s who,” Beck added, concurring with vigor. “A beautiful room… We were always at The Catamaran.”
A 1970s edition of Jazz Live. KSDS archives.
But Jazz Live soon became more than just an intimate setting to rub elbows with the in-the-know and the national names; it also became a forum to cultivate homegrown talent from around the region—and not just musicians.
What began at The Catamaran soon moved “in-house,” as Coffland put it, to City College, where the primary objective became educational—to provide practical training to audio production students. The early on-campus productions were held in a classroom affectionately referred to as “The Pit.” Sometimes, you’d see a star; sometimes the program served more as a platform for local and emerging musicians.
But, more than anything else, Jazz Live was class—classy, sure; it’s jazz—but, more fundamentally, a college course that just so happened to be recorded before a live audience. No pressure, kids!
Gunnar Biggs, prolific local bassist, Buddy Rich alum, and longtime Mose Allison sideman, recalled Jazz Live’s unique, almost clinical setting in those early days, telling the San Diego Troubadour in 2021, “They rolled a grand piano in there, and it was just the two of us [Biggs and the late pianist Butch Lacy, a pillar of the local scene in the ‘70s and early ‘80s who toured with Sarah Vaughan before moving to Denmark and teaching at Copenhagen’s Royal Conservatory].
“It was more like a class presentation….”
“That was the great thing about Jazz Live,” added Biggs, “it always included a few youngsters. They were just learning what media and presentation and probably jazz was for the first time, while they’re plugging everything in and getting it wrong…. It was always a fun thing.”
KSDS student DJ spins afternoon jazz. KSDS archives.
Given the freedom to make mistakes and learn the craft by doing it — first by the course’s original professor, Jim Hildebrand, then by Dave Drexler who succeeded him in 2003 — the “youngsters” turned Jazz Live into something truly unique to KSDS and City College.
“The students that I had — and that Professor Hildebrand had before me — staged the whole thing and mixed everything,” said Drexler, an Emmy-winning do-everything media pro who’s directed Jazz Live since 2003. “It was the only show of that kind in the country that was a live-to-broadcast concert that was staged, presented, and produced by students.”
Student journalists broadcasting remotely on KSDS. KSDS archives
Audiences weren’t deterred by the off-beat setting or the underlying instructional conceit. Quite the contrary.
“Once [the students] got this thing going, they started to get some audiences,” Hildebrand told the Troubadour. “And there just was not enough room in that little space in the pit.”
Which is how Jazz Live came to be in its present home, City College’s Saville Theatre, a warm and proper 300-seat hall that’s impressed some of the biggest names in jazz, including heavy hitters like Peter Erskine, Bobby Hutcherson, Joe Chambers, Benny Golson, Jeff Hamiton, and Cedar Walton, who rank among Drexler’s all-time Saville headliners.
“We have a very good sounding theater,” said Drexler, who also hosts KSDS’s weekly artist interview show Inside Art. “Every [musician] who comes into that room—when they step on stage in the soundcheck and start setting up, they notice it immediately; it’s a good room for music.”
Saville Theatre moments before the Charles McPherson Quintet feat. Gilbert Castellanos takes the stage for the return of Jazz Live, Aug. 8, 2023. Photo by Matt Silver.
Under Drexler’s stewardship, Jazz Live has expanded in ways and contracted in others, in some ways transforming from instructional league to major league. While the upgraded physical performance space has curried favor with musicians, so has the evolution of Jazz Live into a paid gig.
“By 2004, we had done every configuration of all the San Diego jazz artists from 1978 onward,” Drexler said. “So we decided to up the game a little bit and get some funding to be able to present national touring artists, and we’ve been doing that since.”
Meanwhile, attracting the national without neglecting the local continues to be a core part of Jazz Live’s M.O.
“We’ve always been a platform for the local scene,” Drexler added. “And up until 2003, 2004 that was primarily our source for musical talent, and most of the guys who’ve been around [San Diego] for a while have played in numerous [Jazz Live] configurations throughout the years.”
On the production side, Jazz Live has been professionally produced since 2016, so while the musicians on any given second Tuesday of the month may very well take the audience to school, the concert hall itself won’t be quite the classroom it once was.
Through change and a global pandemic that sidelined the series for over three years, Jazz Live continues, in large part, Drexler says, because of what the series means to the community.
“We’ve been doing [Jazz Live] for so long it’s just kind of an institution. The clubs—the places in town where jazz is played commercially—come and go. So our connection to [San Diego’s jazz audience] might be the most important [of any in town].”
Young Lions Jazz Conservatory Big Band under the direction of Gilbert Castellanos at Jazz Live, Jan. 2020. Photo by Larry Redman.
Lending serious credence to that claim is the fact that all six of this season’s scheduled monthly installments of Jazz Live sold out long before a single note was played.
Which, in a universe without KSDS, could be a problem for jazz fans from San Diego to Shanghai. Thankfully, KSDS has the antidote to all known variants of jazz-related FOMO, covering you from downbeat to denouement, whether you’re listening live on 88.3 FM or streaming live via Jazz88.org or the KSDS app.