Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The hidden gem: A walk through San Diego jazz history with tenor saxophone legend Daniel Jackson

San Diego City Beat

The hidden gem
A walk through San Diego jazz history with tenor saxophone legend Daniel Jackson

By D.A. Kolodenko 11/27/2007

Daniel Jackson is reading a small bronze plaque affixed to the side of the Starbucks at Fourth Avenue and Market Street. It says that the building once housed The Crossroads, “San Diego’s first live jazz nightclub.” Not only is it a shame that the ubiquitous coffee mega-chain replaced the venerable club—which, after about 15 years, closed its doors in 1984 due to noise complaints (prior to the Gaslamp revitalization that made the question of noise superfluous)—but the plaque, Jackson assures me, is inaccurate.

“Downtown had jazz before that. The Creole Palace in the Douglas Hotel at Third and Market had live shows going back to the ’20s. They called it the ‘Harlem of the West.’ Those were shows with dancers and comedians. But the first real jazz club in San Diego was the Black and Tan up on Imperial.” Jackson points a long index finger toward the Southeast.

He knows what he’s talking about. A San Diego native and acclaimed tenor saxophonist, the 70-year-old is a legend among West Coast jazz musicians. Alto superstar Charles MacPherson considers Daniel “an excellent, very knowledgeable musician… who has his own way of doing things, his own style.” And tenor giant James Moody “can’t say enough about Daniel” and calls him “a wonderful saxophonist” who “if he was in L.A. or New York would be a much, much bigger name.”

But Jackson, with his reputation as private and maybe even eccentric—who has been known to pack up his horn and walk right off a gig if the audience is unruly—is not well-known outside of his hometown.
We’ve left downtown now, driven east, parked and started to stroll up Imperial Avenue, Logan Heights’ busy commercial heart. It’s a warm but breezy day and Jackson—exceptionally cool in a white rayon dress shirt, black vest, black slacks, dress shoes, shades and a black beret—takes long but measured strides, greeting everybody we pass, including kids.

Now a predominantly Latino neighborhood, from the 1930s to the 1970s, Logan Heights was home to much of San Diego’s African-American community, and Imperial Avenue was the musical Mecca of San Diego’s black nightlife.
That avenue of jazz history, however, has largely been ignored, as San Diego’s black musical legacy has often been subordinated to that of the well-documented Central Avenue jazz scene of Los Angeles, memorably depicted in the Walter Mosley novel Devil with a Blue Dress and the popular Denzel Washington film based on it.

Case in point: In published mentions of the late Harold Land, tenor star of the brilliant Max Roach/Clifford Brown Quintet, Land is usually referred to as a Los Angeles player, while the years he spent mastering his instrument in the juke joints, hotels and dance halls of San Diego remain overlooked.

In West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California 1945-1960, Ted Gioia does quote Land’s point that “there was a strong jazz scene in San Diego,” which attracted top players from L.A. like Sonny Criss, Hampton Hawes and Teddy Edwards. Gioia also acknowledges that Land honed his skills in the band of San Diego’s famed trumpeter Fro Brigham, who had turned down offers from the likes of Duke Ellington and Billy Eckstine to remain the “King” of San Diego’s club scene. Gioia points out that by the 1940s “some twenty clubs flourished on the black side of town—none of which has survived to the present day.”

But one gets the sense that without Land’s success in Los Angeles, San Diego might not have made it into the book at all: Gioia’s primary concern is documenting the professional lives of the stars of jazz and not its overlooked regional scenes and players; the discussion of San Diego takes up less than two of the book’s 400 pages.
As San Diego jazz languished in the shadow of its flashier sister to the north, local musicians who wanted to make it big knew they’d have to leave. In the mid-’50s, Land moved to L.A. Jackson’s stubbornness in staying put, like Brigham’s, is responsible to a large extent for his obscurity.

And now, some 40 years later, walking past the decrepit shells of those “twenty clubs that flourished on the black side of town,” Jackson pauses and gazes through the weathered facades into that past where, after a hard working week, sharply dressed African-American men and women came to escape, dance, laugh, drink, flirt and listen to the musicians wail.
“Now, you see that right there?” Jackson points across the street at the one-story building that currently houses the Western Service Worker’s Association, the social-justice organization founded by San Diego’s beloved Episcopalian priest and activist, the late Art Elcombe. “That was the first jazz club—the Black and Tan,” Jackson says. “It was a nightclub chain like The Cotton Club. It was the one club down here where white people would come.” The only evidence of the building’s former life are the faded glass brick windows and heavy art deco doors. No plaque.
Further down the block, he points out a large, refurbished two-story building that houses a Muslim Mosque. “There was a black doctor, Doctor Jackson—no relation—and he decided the black neighborhood needed a real ballroom. And this is it: The Ebony Ballroom. I saw Big Jay MacNeeley play here one night, and he came out onto the sidewalk playing his horn and the police arrested him.”

Jackson recalls the incident with an impassioned, searching expression on his face—a look you’ll see each time he confronts the memory of an event ripe with implications of social injustice.

You’ll see the look a lot if you hang out with Jackson.

“With the military buildup of World War II,” he recalls, “a lot of people came out here from the South. And they brought their prejudice with them.” He cites an example—but one not culled from the African-American experience: “I remember the Japanese families in Logan Heights being shipped off to internment camps, man.” He pauses and lets that probing look of his stand as commentary.

We keep walking. Jackson lingers in front of storefronts along the way, pointing out the former sites of The Two-Five Club (now Gabriel’s Mercadito), The Silver Slipper (now Imperial Electronics) and the still-standing Elks Lodge just off Imperial on Hensley Street, where Jackson would attend teenage dances and hear the likes of Bobby “Blue” Bland and local blues shouter Big Daddy Rucker.

At the clubs that served alcohol, young Jackson would stand outside and listen to his older brother, Fred, play piano inside with Fro Brigham’s band.

“Fred and Harold [Land] played in Fro’s band—Fro ran all the gigs in San Diego—and I was just a kid, but when I heard Harold play tenor, I said, ‘Man, I want to play that!’”
Prior, Jackson had been “more interested in marbles than music,” as he puts it, but with Land as his inspiration—literally rehearsing in the Jacksons’ living room—he began taking saxophone lessons from local teacher Max Dalby.

The lessons were paid for by his mother, the late Mrs. Johnnie B. Jackson, a native of Waco, Texas, who, widowed since 1946, raised Daniel, Fred and their sister. Mrs. Jackson could hardly afford the lessons, supporting her family as a single mother on the pay she earned performing domestic work. After graduating from San Diego High School in 1955, Jackson joined the Air Force, securing a spot in the marching band, which he says helped him develop a disciplined approach as a performer.

The Air Force took Jackson to Illinois, where he played in regular jam sessions with guitarist Wes Montgomery and organist Jimmie Smith, honing his chops, learning on the fly.

When he returned to California a more seasoned improviser, Jackson heard Charlie Parker play at a boxing ring downtown. Legend has it that hearing Bird play in person made some players put down their horns forever. But not Jackson. “You knew you could never reach that. It was on a different level. But it made you want to try,” he says.
Within a few years of leaving San Diego, Harold Land had risen to star status in Los Angeles. “I went and heard him at The Flame in Hillcrest, after he had joined Clifford Brown and Max Roach. It was amazing.”

“One of Max Roach’s students,” Jackson recalls, “was one of the greatest drummers in jazz at the time, this cat named Lenny McBrowne.” In 1959, McBrowne asked Jackson to take Land’s place as a member of McBrowne’s Four Souls, which Land had left to join the Roach/Brown Quintet. Jackson took the gig and performed on McBrowne’s two highly regarded and collectable LPs recorded in 1960 and 1961 for the Pacific Jazz label, which feature Jackson’s compositions and arrangements. These classics of the hard bop idiom have been re-released by EMI.

By mid-decade, Jackson had landed a gig with Ray Charles and toured Europe with the legendary genius. He likes to tell stories about those days. Charles was a tough taskmaster with a wicked sense of humor. “One time the weather was so bad that the pilot was reluctant to take off and some guys in the band were afraid, but we had this gig in another city. So Ray says, ‘We’re gonna take off in this motherfucker if I have to fly it myself.’”

He loved being in the band and listening to Charles play piano and alto sax, but by that time, Jackson had already developed the heroin addiction—a habit he shared with Charles—that he believes held him back.
Although he composed music for the likes of Cannonball Adderly, and went on to perform with jazz greats from Freddie Hubbard to Willie Bobo, Jackson says he “didn’t have any sense of self-worth.”

At one point, his addiction became so bad that Jackson pawned his horn; he played only piccolo flute for many years and became accomplished on the instrument. In the ’70s, Jackson spent some time living in Veracruz, Mexico, where he says that for the first time, he felt what it was like to be accepted and not judged by the color of his skin. “It was something to get a sense of that, of what it was like to live without prejudice.”

In the ’80s, back in San Diego, Jackson entered a methadone clinic. He kicked heroin and started picking up teaching and performing gigs, one of which was as the first performer at Croce’s jazz bar, on Fifth Avenue and F Street. Ingrid Croce helped him pay for the Selmer he plays now, and the legendary tenor player James Moody gave him the mouthpiece he performs with to this day. “I saw him once a few years back, and he asked me how that mouthpiece is working out, and I said, ‘Man, I still haven’t found out all the things it can do.’”

Before the end of the ’90s, Jackson found himself paid to play piano nearly as much as saxophone and took a gig as the house pianist at the upscale Prince of Wales Room at the Hotel Del Coronado, which he wryly refers to as “Ice Cube Island” for the chilly atmosphere he endured for six years. With a recent remodel, the bar was demolished and Jackson’s stint ended.

It was, he says, “the only regular paying gig I ever had in San Diego.” Is he bitter that they let him go? “No, man, that’s just the free market system at work. I’m happy to have time to focus on the horn. There’s some things I want to do, to figure out. I’d like to record an album with strings,” as his heroes Parker and Land did before him. “And I’m organizing a foundation to get artists, musicians and other creative people in need the training or equipment they need to help shine some light in the world.”

Not long after our afternoon on Imperial, I travel with Jackson by car up the coast—avoiding the freeway almost the entire way, since he prefers surface streets, “where you can see something”—to attend a jam session in South Central Los Angeles, where Jackson is admired as a visiting sage. Young musicians seek him out after the session for advice and encouragement, which Jackson gives generously, as he has off and on for decades in university seminars on jazz improvisation and occasionally as a private saxophone teacher.

Appearances at such jam sessions have been high points of the 2000s, during which Jackson has recorded several independently produced CDs, written dozens of compositions, performed at a concert in his honor at Sushi Gallery, a sold-out 69th birthday tribute at Dizzy’s and an all-star show he organized at San Diego City College.
But infrequent concerts don’t pay the bills.

The town to which Jackson has remained loyal hasn’t entirely reciprocated. Resurgent interest in the recordings of jazz icons like John Coltrane (who once advised Jackson not to imitate others but to “do what you do”), along with a burgeoning young local jazz scene led by trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos, who cites Jackson as a mentor, has yet to lead to regular work for the elder statesman. There are only a few clubs in town that feature jazz as more than background music, and Jackson’s only current steady gig is playing piano for Sunday brunch at Croce’s.
Last week, Jackson called me, discouraged, and said, “I’m thinking about maybe selling my horn.”

If he did, the dominant living voice of the post-war Imperial Avenue scene, of San Diego jazz history, would be silenced. And what a shame that would be when Jackson at 70 plays with remarkable dexterity, passion and tone, perhaps better than ever.

As James Moody says, “San Diego doesn’t know how lucky it is to have Daniel Jackson.”

Daniel Jackson is on the web at

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