Spreading the Jam, One Last Time

By Steven Libowitz   |   April 5, 2018
The cart before the horns: Jazz musician Jeff Elliott performs Monday, April 9

Jeff Elliott has been running the Santa Barbara jazz jam at SOhO even before it was at SOhO, or at least before it was located where SOhO is now. The trumpeter/keyboardist/singer has led the house band/rhythm section backing up any and all musicians – professional and decidedly otherwise – who desired the chance to sit in on the stage show since he took it over in 1994, just a year after the jam began. For almost a quarter-century, he has carried amateurs who had difficulty carrying a tune and marveled at unheralded masters who joined just one time on their way through town, always with an easy-going personality and unassuming air.

But now he’s moving on, passing the baton to his chosen successor Kimberly Ford after one last session taking place, not coincidentally, this Monday, April 9, which happens to be the day before he turns 65.

“Retirement age, right?” Elliott said last week. “It’s time to let someone else run it. I though I’d go out with a bit of a bash, get my family there, have a little cake. I’ve told a few friends, but I haven’t made a big deal out of it. Hopefully, we’ll have a crowd.”

The audience has waxed and waned, naturally, over the years, since it began in 1993 at the first incarnation of SOhO, in the space next to Victoria Hall that most recently housed The Nugget. Back then it was run by Theo Saunders, a terrific jazz pianist, who wasn’t really suited to hosting, Elliott said. “He was quiet and dark, a very serious man. A great player, but he wasn’t comfortable running the show, so he asked me to take over.”

Since then, Elliott – whose family moved to Goleta when he was 12, not long after he first started playing trumpet – has served as host, often with trumpet in one hand, the other on the keyboards, at virtually every jam, which started off weekly before shifting to a monthly gig as jazz’s popularity declined in the 2000s. Now, as he gets ready to leave it behind, Elliot can still can recall some of those early gigs as well as stand-out sessions, though the names are little fuzzy as the years have gone by.

“It’s been a ton of fun,” he said. “Some of the musicians were really good, and we’d really rock the place. One time a guy name Devin showed up, and it turned out he was Freddie Hubbard’s piano player, so he blew everybody away. There were other people there who were just beginners, which could be a challenge, but I’ve watched quite a few of them become successful. One kid went on to work with Pearl Jam. Another guy got a long gig at a Hilton in China. It makes me feel good to know that I’ve enhanced someone’s career.”

Although he’s been at SOhO forever, the jazz jam was a labor of love, not a big source of income for the trumpeter who studied music at SBCC and UCSB, all the while playing jazz, funk, and rock in local bands. His early group, Blues Revival, featured future Fabulous Thunderbirds leader Kim Wilson, known then as Goleta Slim. A few years later, in 1976, Jim Messina, new to Santa Barbara and fresh out of Loggins & Messina, hired Elliott’s fusion band Passage to back him up; they recorded Oasis and toured before the then-Santa Barbara-based Flora Purim and Airto tapped Elliott for an eight-year stint that included recording five albums with the Brazilian jazz couple. It was in the middle of his ensuing decade-long tenure as a sideman with jazz pianist Les McCann that Elliott – who stayed in Santa Barbara when he wasn’t on the road – took over the jazz jam.

The format has stayed the same over the years, he said, noting that the house band opened the night by playing a set of mostly original songs before welcoming other musicians to the stage to sit in on standards for the second set.

“You’d sign up with the scout, and one at a time they’d come up and do their things,” he explained. “Or maybe in twos or threes. We’d balance out the band and keep the solos short, so the songs wouldn’t go on too long.”

It wasn’t a matter of playing Stump The Band – a favorite of former Tonight Show orchestra leader Doc Severinsen, with whom Elliott also toured. “No, they have to bring in music, the charts. And they had to know it themselves. There’s more structure that way.”

Every night was different, he said.

“Sometimes the jam is like a proving ground, a competitive battle field. It’s exciting to see them try to play better than the other one, and the crowd loves watching them go at it on stage.”

It isn’t just the approaching birthday that led Elliott to let go of the SOhO gig. It’s also having moved to Orcutt eight years ago, after he got married. The commute is a challenge, he said.

“I loved doing it for the community, keeping jazz going in town. But it’s 150 miles round-trip and usually we only make a few bucks, not even enough really to cover the gas. It’s also hard to drive late at night.”

Elliott has also been amping up his work in Orcutt, where’s he secured regular gigs in hotels and wineries – and also started a jam for the Santa Maria Valley area, which takes place every third Saturday of the month at Ca’ Del Grevino Café in Orcutt. “You’re all welcome to drive out into the country and join us up here,” he said.

The changing tenure of the Santa Barbara jam has also taken its toll, Elliot said. “Many of the instrumentalists aren’t coming very often anymore. Mostly we’re getting amateur singers, which are tougher for me, so I’m getting a bit burned out.”

That’s also why he suggested that Kimberly Ford – the veteran Santa Barbara jazz educator and vocalist, who most recently has created a well-received tribute to Joni Mitchell – take over running the jam beginning next month.

But first there’s the final blowout bash on Monday, April 9, when Elliott will be joined by the hot-shot current house band featuring guitarist Chris Judge, bassist Brendan Statom, and either Rene Martinez or San Luis Obispo-based Darrell Voss on drums. Saxist Vince Denham, a longtime sideman with Michael McDonald, is expected back for the finale, as are other special guests. “I’m not really sure who might show up,” Elliott said. “I just put the word out, and we’ll see who comes. Just like always.”

The trumpeter wasn’t all that wistful when asked how he’ll feel at the end of the night.

“I’m sure I’ll miss it,” he said. “But I’ll be back, fill in when they need me to. I’m already coming in August when Kimberly is away. And who knows? I may even come down and just play once in a while, as long as I can leave and get home at a decent hour.”

No Gyp: Idiomatiques are Back

Four other local lads with a different approach to jazz are performing at SOhO the night before Elliott’s swan song, as the Gypsy swing-lovin’ Idiomatiques celebrate the release of their sophomore CD, Out On The Town. The quartet – whose members Brian Mann (accordion), Kim Collins (bass), George Quirin (rhythm guitar), and Craig Sharmat (lead guitar) have collectively worked with Michael Jackson, Boyz II Men, Michael McDonald, Larry Carlton, Kenny Loggins, Jackson Browne, and many others – enjoyed rare success with their debut Let’s Go Have Some Fun!, which spent nearly three months on Billboard’s contemporary jazz chart, making The Idiomatiques the first gypsy jazz band in history to do that. After their Sunday night show at SOhO, maybe they’ll return to the club on Monday for a final chance to sit in with Elliott.


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