As you drive west on Southern California’s Interstate 8 you get to take in some pretty incredible scenery along the way… a kaleidoscope of shimmering earth tones through the mountains, the trees, the desert, and its wildlife. But there is perhaps nothing more fascinating (or as wild) than the human specimens hanging out on the end of the line where you can’t travel any farther west because you’ve reached the Pacific Ocean and the community of Ocean Beach. With its endless tide of free spirits, surfers, and tourists drifting up and down Newport Avenue, cascading across a street scene of head shops, bars, and mom and pop shops, Ocean Beach is the absolute epitome of what it means to be laid-back in this town, where the bohemian ethos of the 1960s is still very much alive as the absolute personification of “funky.” There is a lot of fabulous music that pours out of Ocean Beach and one of the great distillations of that culture and lifestyle can be found in the sound and the songs of singer-songwriter Jefferson Jay.
Actually Jefferson Jay is much more than an accomplished musician and songwriter; he’s also a scholar, historian, and teacher who escaped from his native New Jersey at the end of the 1990s, went west to seek a new range of possibilities, and ended up being transformed by the adventures that he found for himself along the way.
Over the past dozen years as a San Diego resident Jefferson Jay has performed a tremendous amount of service to promote local musicians in the San Diego music scene and to foster community throughout the county as the host of countless open mic nights and his marathon special events (his 24 Hours of Free Music programs are legendary) that continue to help to build a rapport among the diverse body of talent to be found in San Diego.
Last year he released his fifth full-length CD titled Gift to be Alive. On the eve of going into the studio to record his sixth CD the San Diego Troubadour sat down with him to catch up with all of his various projects. It’s quite the trip that he’s on.
You’re originally from New Jersey right? Born and bred?
I was born in New York in Rockland County on April 16, 1974, and I grew up in Bergen County, just a ten-minute drive across the bridge from New York City.
How important was music to you when you were growing up?
I think it was important in a fairly traditional way; my mom and dad would sing to me… just parents singing to their kid to try and keep him calm. I remember driving around with them and they’d be listening to their cassettes in the car or Top 40 music from the city. I ultimately did theater in high school and that got me into the idea of reaching people and working in an ensemble and doing art things that are ambitious and by the time I got to college at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst the lifestyle that I wanted to have was more conducive to music.
Were you playing guitar before you got to college?
No, not at all.
Did you know anything about theory or reading music?
I didn’t really play, but eventually I got into a little band, which I’m technically still in to this day, called the Demarests. And it was around this time that my best friend in high school, Tony Russo, died under some pretty shady circumstances and that pretty much changed my whole life and it made me go from being a normal fired-up guy in New Jersey to having my mind blown completely open. I started to consider everything in the world as a possibility instead of just what I had been exposed to through my senior year at Fair Lawn High.
That must have been difficult assimilating the death of your best friend…
Yeah, but I did eventually process it and I wound up enjoying that time at U Mass and I got into music; those same guys who became my friends said that I should mellow out and steered me in the direction that I’m still going in all these years later.
U Mass had a program where you could design your own major so I worked on developing a major out of harmony and creativity. But ultimately I mostly majored in music and partying with my friends… not doing much and getting grades for doing little work – except for my history classes, which I was way into. After three years of this I decided that this was not the best way to spend my college years; I was wasting my educational opportunity, so I moved in the fall of ’95, while in my senior year, to California.
After relocating to Humboldt University you ended up finishing off your B.A. in history right?
Yes, I always liked history. I had baseball cards when I was a little kid and I just enjoy keeping track of stuff, that archivist aspect of things, and I like the whole notion that we can learn lessons from history and share those lessons with others. I just like stories.
Why did you study history and not go into a music program?
I’ve always studied history and there were a lot of times when I was working on my master’s program and not really enjoying staying up all night to work but I got through it ’cause it needed to be done. My entire thesis process was like that to some degree. So I never wanted to have that sort of relationship with music because it’s too personal and enjoyable for me. I never wanted to put myself in the position where I had to do it whether I wanted to or not. It’s the same reason that I’m not in a cover band. It would probably be an easier and more enjoyable job than lots of other jobs that I’ve had, but I don’t want to soil music for myself in that way.
Well you certainly don’t want to turn your heart’s desire into some whorish process…
There are people who love being in cover bands; they love the attention and the money and that’s the people who should be in cover bands. People are going to enjoy watching them. If somebody saw me play in a cover band they’d see my little sneer come out once in awhile and it might make them uncomfortable [laughter]. I don’t want to ruin their Saturday night.
So what became of your thesis and how did it lead you to collaborate with the Athenaeum?
I did my class work for two years and I decided to write a thesis on the mass media’s handling of the hippies during 1967, specifically. I was working with a man who was at the end of his long teaching career and he didn’t give me any real guidance on my thesis, he just kept telling me to give it to him when it was done. So I wrote and handed in 180 pages when 90 would have sufficed, and my professor said that the entire thing was terrible and then he quit teaching immediately. He had the courtesy to write “no, terrible” on each of the 180 pages first. And then they switched me to another lady who was almost less helpful: she read 12 of the 180 pages, asked me into her office, and said, “You know, have you considered dropping out of school?” I said, “No, I haven’t. I finished all my courses. I’ve got a large amount of loans. I’m not dropping out of school.”
I wrote in my thesis that the media is biased. I even found a number of history books that offered proof on how the media is biased. And both teachers objected to that, which is crazy because that was only six or seven years ago and now it’s common knowledge that Fox News and MSNBC, all of these media outlets, have their own bias. I said that in my thesis and they were like, “No, that’s not right. The media’s not biased; it writes about what happens.” Which is also true to some degree, but eventually the head of the history department, Joanne Ferraro, sent out an email proposing that someone should write a history of the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library in La Jolla as their thesis paper. And I saw an opportunity there and Dr. Ferraro wanted to see me succeed; she’s a member of the Athenaeum and she was very helpful. So I winded up writing the history of the Athenaeum and finally finishing my master’s degree in 2007. And the best thing that I got out of the experience was my relationship with them.
That was your entrée to producing your acoustic evening series there?
Yes. After my thesis was done I went to them with some ideas about how we could collaborate. They have all of these wonderful classical and jazz shows and this would be a great opportunity to put acoustic musicians that are really talented in San Diego onto this great stage. The Athenaeum was receptive to that idea so we started doing that in 2008 and 2009 and then we brought it back again this year and we’ll be doing it again in 2013.
You had three shows with three artists each this past fall. Who was on the bill this year?
We had Jack Tempchin, Hugh Gaskins, and Jeffrey Joe Morin on October 5; Bart Mendoza, Cory Wilkins, and Chris Zach on October 19; and Nancy Truesdail, Will Edwards, and Regina Leonard on November 2. It was really great and lots of people came out.
Weren’t you hosting a radio show for awhile?
In ’04 I finally finished my Great Story CD and while I was on the San Diego State campus, I walked into the campus radio station to promote a show and they put an application in my hand and asked whether I wanted to be a radio host. So I told them sure. And Howard Stern was big influence on me. I wanted to do an interesting, edgy, talk-show kind of program with a little bit of local music thrown in. Which I did and The Jefferson Jay Show went on KCR, which no one could hear on the airwaves. They have a couple channels on Cox Cable and a website.
You have a new record in the works?
We’re about to go record tracks. We are tentatively calling it Penchant for Everything but it might end up being Hallelujah Expressway. I’m really looking forward to it. I made a decision a long time ago that I wanted to have lots of records like my musical heroes: Miles and Zappa and Tom Waits. But there’s no quick, easy way to make really good records.
How would you describe your music?
If I could do that I would probably have a lot more money. I don’t have a good answer; it’s a mixture of a lot of the stuff that came out in the ’60s and ’70s, before and since. It’s rock but I purposefully play a lot of different styles. Funk, soul, reggae, country. I like Phish because they play all kinds of different music.
I’m still trying to find that one sentence that explains what my music is in a way that is irresistible to people. I didn’t major in marketing.
Any last thoughts that you want to add?
I believe that we’re all one. I believe everything happens for a reason. I believe that anything’s possible, even stuff that might seem physically or otherwise impossible. I think a lot of people are ready for a mental revolution, a revolution of the mind. No weapons, just a group of individuals consciously deciding that there’s more meaningful and rewarding things that we can do by working together to make the world a better place for the future. And once a certain number of people make this transformation I think that things can multiply and catch on and change in a way that seems impossible from here but once it starts…
It’s like critical mass or the hundredth monkey theory…
And that’s my main thing: finding ways to contribute towards that and making the world a better place.