Gilbert Castellos says, “It’s good to see young people really embracing this music.” Typically dressed smart, his wheat green suit fitting him as though he were a model in a Lands’ End catalogue, he stands back to see the trio assembling themselves onstage. He smiles. Tonight, a Wednesday, is the weekly Young Lions showcase at Croce’s Park West.
Earlier this year, Castellanos, one of San Diego’s jazz icons, dreamed up the Young Lions showcase as a way to give young jazz musicians a chance to perform at one of San Diego’s premier nightspots. “I started this program because if you’re a young musician, where are you going to play when you can’t get in the door?” he says. Castellanos proceeds to list the number of San Diego nighttime music spots, bars where admittance is restricted to those of drinking age, 21 and over, and are hence off limits to musicians who are not of legal age.
The award-winning trumpet player and bandleader feels that he has an obligation to provide a platform for young musicians. As a youngster growing up in Fresno, he credits the older musicians who took him under their wings and helped him get his experience on stage and performing in public. “These guys that I started with were great players,” he says. “They told me that if I learned a standard, they would let me play with them. I went home and practiced Freddie Hubbard’s “Little Sunflower.” I went back the next week, but they wouldn’t let me play!” Though a fine composition, Castellanos learned that there were certain tunes that jazz musicians thought of as standards and “Little Sunflower” was not among them.
Mistake made. Lesson learned. The teenage Castellanos found some standard tunes, learned them, and returned to perform with the veteran players. He says, “I made it into the band and I want to do that for younger players now.”
Still on Fifth Avenue but several blocks north of the site of the original Croce’s, Croce’s Park West bills itself as a neighborhood restaurant and bar, which is a bit different from the Gaslamp hub that Croce’s had been. Situated across the street from Saint Paul’s Cathedral and occupying the building where Lips used to be before that establishment made its way to El Cajon Boulevard, the interior has been updated to that of mahogany and brass, and, as far as I could tell, the plumbing problems that plagued the home of drag dining have been remedied as well.
The first difference from the old Croce’s that I noted was that the night that we came for the Young Lions showcase we drove up and parked right outside of the restaurant, Doris Day style. Just imagine that happening just once in the Malthusian crunch of the Gaslamp District. The new restaurant bar is also more spacious than its former incarnation.
Unlike the old Croce’s, where you practically became a member of the band as you walked past or through them to enter the bar, the music is now at the back of the establishment. On a small stage is a grand piano. The night we were there a bass and small drum kit were off to the side. Mementos and reminders of the life of Jim Croce still adorn the walls, including the absolutely huge mural of the cigar chomping singer of such hits as “Operator” and “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” that used to peer out from the back wall of the old establishment.
The Young Lions has been going on since February, when Castellanos approached Croce’s to serve as the host of the program. Croce’s is a major music venue and also a restaurant that serves food as well as drinks. As a restaurant, there is no age restriction on patrons. Folks from nine to 99 can enjoy a meal there.
Decades ago it may not have been so difficult for young players to start playing in clubs. After Prohibition was repealed in 1933, about half the states established the legal drinking age at 18. Thirty years ago, in 1984, Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which tied the granting of federal highway funds to the individual states’ setting the drinking age at 21. Within a few short years legal drinking age of 21 was established across the country for all alcoholic beverages: spirits, beer, and wine.
The reasons for this uniform higher age limit are many. With the Interstate Highway system fully in place, people were driving more. Alcohol made these new highways unsafe. The law was passed also in large part due to pressure from Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Traffic deaths as a percentage of population declined after 1984. As of 2005 the highway death rate had dropped to one death per 10,000 per year.
To get the Young Lions program off the ground Castellanos put the word out on Facebook and started receiving responses right away. The age limit to be a young lion is 23 and under. The program’s emphasis is on the leader of the band. The chosen musician has to act like a true leader. It is his or her responsibility to put the group together and put the sets together. Castellanos explains that it is the leader of the band who has to be under 24. As the leader puts the band together, he or she can call on other young musicians or veteran players. The other members of the band do not have the age requirement.
To audition to be in the Young Lions program, young musicians send Castellanos audio files or videos of their performances. Though he doesn’t expect that all the young musicians share the same talents as veteran performers, he nonetheless sets some pretty high standards and not everyone gets a shot at a Wednesday night. He also expects the musicians to dress well when they perform. He says, “For us musicians this is our church. Are you going to go to church and not dress right?”
It is probably no surprise that Castellanos would establish a mentoring program for young musicians. For nearly 20 years the trumpeter, who has toured the world as a member of the Clayton Hamilton Jazz Orchestra and whose recording credits include Michael Bublé, Willie Nelson, and Diana Krall, led jam sessions that have fostered the talents and careers of dozens of musicians. For many years these sessions were held at the Onyx Room; they are now held weekly at Seven Grand in North Park. Among those who sing his praises for mentoring their music are singer/songwriter Nena Anderson and violinist Jamie Shadowlight.
Dressed in a suit, white shirt, and dark tie is tonight’s young lion, Ryan Shaw. Shaw has been playing drums since the second grade and is currently a student at USC. Fresh faced, but with a haircut that looks like the ones issued to the Apollo astronauts, he has an appearance of greater maturity. Recognizing his talent a couple year back, Castellanos introduced Shaw to Jeff Hamilton, one of jazz’s greatest drummers performing today, who accepted Shaw as a private student. The young drummer says that besides Hamilton he has been influenced by Mel Lewis and Max Roach. Shaw chose a couple other young performers to join him for tonight’s performance: Keiffer Shackelford on piano and Owen Clapp on bass.
This trio has played as part of the Young Lions before, performing a night of Oscar Peterson. Tonight’s music is dedicated to trumpeter, composer, and bandleader Thad Jones. As the trio makes their way through “Darn That Dream” and the waltz “A Child Is Born” Shaw carries the look of intense concentration usually reserved for surgeons and chess grand masters. There is a great deal of Oscar Peterson in Shackelford’s playing, but he gives his playing a little more room, more space, than Peterson. The piano sounds great in this new room. I don’t see that Clapp has his bass plugged into an amplifier. Is he playing totally acoustic? Wow. The room is not that large, and there’s not a lot of clinking glasses or other noise. Even still, a pretty brave move for this young player. What’s also great is that this bass player has one of the best sounds I’ve heard in a while, full and timbral.
Younger players, full of adrenaline and moxy, are known for muscling their way through up-tempo tunes. So I’m surprised by how subdued the performance is tonight. Like Shackelford, Shaw is giving a lot of space to his soloing. Clapp keeps a walking bass line going through most of his soloing.
As the band takes a break, Castellanos is off to Seven Grand to lead the jam session later that night. He is pleased and knows that the rest of the Young Lions night will go well. He says, “We don’t have to worry about the future of jazz with guys like these coming up.”
See Gilbert Castellanos and the Young Lions every Wednesday night, starting at 7pm, at Croce’s Park West, 2760 5th Avenue.