“So far so good after 20 years of doing this, who knew, as I now look forward to bringing back some of the original musicians I booked in 1997 for the upcoming 2017 series,” exuded Bonnie Wright, the proud music producer of one of San Diego’s best kept secrets: Fresh Sound, a monthly musical concert series that is celebrating its 20th anniversary with heralded success, featuring non mainstream musical artists from around the globe in intimate settings right here in our own backyard.
THE EARLY YEARS
A second generation San Diegan, Wright grew up in the Point Loma neighborhood of the city where her mom, affectionately known as Freddy, and dad, affectionately known as Bud, owned a house there. Her dad was in the interior design business, her mom a homemaker although active in community volunteer work in her spare time. “They were good parents and loved me,” she reminisced. An only child, she attended Point Loma High for one year before finishing at two different out of town boarding schools, the first in Pasadena and the second at Monticello Preparatory School in Alton, Illinois. “It actually turned out well as Monticello was an all girls school, so there were no boys around to make us feel inferior. In those days girls were secondary, we weren’t supposed to be smart, so it was easier to succeed without competing with boys… I loved it!”
Growing up during the middle of the previous century, Wright can recall the world around her in more simpler times. “Before Mission Valley had hotels and restaurants and before freeways, you’d see many people on horses. I took horseback riding lessons in Mission Valley back in the day. My great aunt owned a thousand acres of land in Point Loma, back in time when there was no road from there to downtown San Diego.” As far as the cultural environment in America’s Finest City in those innocent times, Wright has a unique perspective on what it was like. “When I was growing up during that time, Navy housing was much more prominent in Ocean Beach and Point Loma. In addition, there was a large Portuguese fishing community, so I grew up with a lot of Portuguese and Mexican kids,” hence, one big takeaway for her as she coyly smiled, “I learned to swear in Portuguese before I learned to swear in English.”
HOME SWEET HOME
A sprite and cheerfully content septuagenarian, Wright has a son and two daughters, nine grandchildren and one great grandchild, all of whom are proudly displayed in photos throughout her lovely Mission Hills home, which has been her main residence since 1990. It has become a bed and breakfast place of sorts for all the out of town musicians, as she graciously opens up her home for all those booked to play for the Fresh Sound series. “My guilty pleasure is having the musicians reside here and getting to know them, it’s a lot of fun,” she smiled. “I often take them out to the Cabrillo National Monument and other sightseeing destinations as well, it’s quite an easy city to sell for booking out of town musicians.” She’s been lucky in that all her visiting guests have respected her surroundings, no stories of anyone trashing the premises with the only blemish being a few unexpected long distance calls on her phone bill once. Some of the artists are welcome to bring their significant others, but absolutely no pets or babies according to Wright. “I state that nobody can stay at my house that can’t flush their own toilet,” she laughed, definitely the signature quote of this interview.
Although Wright never played a musical instrument, she was an avid music fan during the heyday of rhythm & blues in the early 1950s. “We used to love to dance to it and I still have many of the records,” she smiled. Having grown up in a household with the mellifluous strains of George Shearing’s innovative jazz piano recordings, the seeds of jazz were sown as Wright began migrating to the new sounds of West Coast jazz, a more laid back and less frenetic style than bebop, featuring such luminaries as Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, Shelly Manne, Stan Getz, and Dave Brubeck to name a few. “When Brubeck came out with Take Five, I went crazy. I still love it.,” Wright exclaimed. Further proof of her overall enthusiasm for a multitude of musical styles occurred when our interview temporarily halted when she dialed up one of her favorite tunes on her laptop and proceeded to sing along to Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s version of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”
THE SALES WORLD
After her ten year marriage ended in 1968 and with no work experience at all, her father put her to work in his office. Over the next few years and a couple of routine jobs later, a light bulb went off upon witnessing men with limited college educations entering one particular field as she fondly recalled. “Sales,” she stated, delivered in a similar one word exclamation, reminiscent of the infamous “plastics” line in the movie The Graduate. Realizing there was money to be made in that line of work, Wright seized the day. “I knew a guy that worked for Levi Strauss who got me into a minority’s hiring class,” she reflected, “as there were few women in sales at the time in the mid-1970s. Once hired, I was promoted every two years,” she continued. “I got to travel to San Francisco, Cleveland, and Washington D.C. I loved D.C.” After paying her dues, the opportunity to move up to a management position arose. “At the time there were no women in management positions. However, the company felt I was too nice to fit into that role,” she said. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back as she continued to relay her plight. “I’ve done everything a man has done without a gripe,” she explained to the male dominated brass. “At that point it was time to get out of sales and move on,” she continued. So, in 1983, she moved up to a corporate position that entailed a physical move to San Francisco, a move that would set in motion her eventual musical production endeavors.
While residing in the city by the bay, Wright’s ears opened up as she soaked in a wide variety of new musical influences, including classical music composer, John Adams, who was teaching at the time at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and San Francisco based Paul Dresher, a noted World Music composer. “John Adam’s piece, ‘Shaker Loops,’ opened up my ears to new musical possibilities,” Wright beamed, “but also artists like Grace Jones, the Talking Heads, and Laurie Anderson also made a lasting impression on me.”
Eventually leaving her job at Levi Strauss in 1986, Wright moved back to San Diego. Her continued interest in non-mainstream music was sparked by a talk at UCSD (University of California San Diego) by Susan McClary, a well-known musicologist, whose book, Feminine Endings, delves into the complex layers of gender, sexuality and culture over current and past centuries of women in music. After hearing her speak, Wright became inspired and contacted the music department at UCSD. “I got in luckily as an older student,” Wright explained, “and eventually graduated summa cum laude in 1993.” Her main mentor at UCSD was Professor George Lewis, a well-known experimental musician and trombonist. A propitious break occurred when Lewis asked her to manage his off-campus concerts outside the local area. This became the conduit for meeting many of the established avant-garde musical artists such as Anthony Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell as well as many others associated with the AACM (The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians). “Meeting many of these musicians was great because it laid the groundwork for eventually booking them at Fresh Sound. Since they loved George, it gave me instant credibility with them.”
Wright went on to grad school in the literature department as there was no graduate musicology department then at UCSD. Happily, she was able to write most of her school papers on musical topics and had completed most of her thesis papers when fate intervened. “My dad had died,” she explained, “and his office building had become available, so that’s when I started the Spruce Street Forum in 1997.” This became Wright’s first foray into sharing her musical passion with the local community in what was to become the seeds of Fresh Sound. “I had lectures, art on the walls, and music there,” she said, “so the concept of Fresh Sound really started there in 1997 when we held our first concert.”
THE BIRTH OF FRESH SOUND
And so it began on February 15th, 1997 with percussionists Steven Schick and Vanessa Tomlinson as the debut performers, the former a distinguished music professor and author of the book, The Percussionist’s Art: Same Bed, Different Dream. “I featured a lot more improvised jazz at first, but now I really mix it up. It doesn’t matter what the genre is, as long as it’s not mainstream,” she noted emphatically. In 2002 she sold the Spruce Street building and whereby hit the pause button on the Fresh Sound series, seeking a change of scenery with a move to New York City in 2004 that would last two and a half years until 2007.
During that period she began a new venture, a record label project, under the moniker of Henceforth Records. “It was another way for me to stay involved in music”, she said, “while having the luxury of putting out records regardless of where I lived. I had the same kind of purpose as I did with finding non-mainstream artists for my shows, in this case mainly seeking out younger musicians that didn’t have music out yet, often to help them achieve an outlet for their creativity and to provide them with a stepping stone to wider exposure,” she concluded. Like many in today’s recording quagmire, Wright realized the negative profits and lucrative cost realities that go into making recordings. So after producing 11 CDs, she quit that end of the business and hit the play button once again in continuing the Fresh Sound series.
Wright books approximately eight concerts a year with well-deserved months off for “me” time in between. “Planning is the fun part,” she smiled. “Most performers I book, I like to hear live first. When I visit New York City it’s a prime time to seek out musical acts. One of my favorite places to hang at is the Cornelia Street Cafe in the West Village. On one of my recent visits, they were honoring the composer Terry Riley, who had performed in my series in year’s past. It was there when I heard Vasko Dukovski, a virtuoso clarinetist, who I wound up booking as one of my 2015 performers.” On a few occasions Wright has booked artists from overseas, some that she’s only heard recordings of and some by word of mouth. “I had the group, Konk Pack, a trio from Europe and Sqwonk, a bass clarinet duo from San Francisco that I hired by word of mouth from another musician that I trust.”
What makes Wright’s concerts unique is not only the non-mainstream factor, but the non-local factor as well in which her audiences can discover new artists they wouldn’t have come across on their own. One exception is bassist Mark Dresser who has been invited to perform with a few of the visiting groups. “All my acts range anywhere from solo to a quartet, more often solo or duo due to finances.” Some of her series have been theme oriented as she explained. “I had a reed series, a bagpipe theme with Matthew Welsh. and even an accordion one with Guy Klucevsek.”
Keeping the series going is no small task financially as Wright cites donations and the door as key factors along with a few grants along the way. “I didn’t want to spend the time fundraising,” she stated, “I don’t take a salary, my door guy is a volunteer, although I do pay a sound person. Otherwise, I do everything myself, which is fine; that’s the way it started and that’s why I like to keep it small. It’s a nonprofit business in every sense of the word.” All three venues she’s rented for her shows post the Spruce Street locale, have all been conducive for her purposes. “Sushi Performance and Visual Arts was the first place; I was on the board there so it was a convenient setting at the time. Space for Art in the East Village, San Diego, followed. Cheryl Nickel and her husband Bob were great people to work with there. Currently we’ve been at Bread & Salt since 2015, it’s a multi-purpose community center in Logan Heights. Jim Brown, the owner and architect there, has been great to work with as well.” Overall it’s a lot of work in organizing and preparing for these shows as Wright noted. “Many of these spaces are raw and so you have to set up speakers, change the lights and set up chairs, it can be a challenge at times.”
REFLECTION AND LOOKING AHEAD
As far as favorites in her Fresh Sound series over two decades, “too many to mention,” she quickly laughed as she scrolled through her complete concert series list on her website. “Steven Feld, for sure, he’s an ethnomusicologist as well as a musician… he can talk or play or do whatever he wants, I don’t care. I love his presentations.” Some guests, like Feld, will include historical dissertations as well, which is always a nice bonus for pedestrian audiences who are curious about experimental music. “That factor tends to put my audiences at ease as they often don’t know what to expect.” Other favorites of Wright’s have been Terry Riley, Peter Brotzmann, Vijay Iyer, Theo Bleckmann, pianist Vicky Chow, and the group Red Fish Blue fish.
As far as the future goes, Wright intends to take it one year at a time as she’s starting to book ahead for 2018. She has been very lucky on this passionate 20-year magic carpet ride as her own words echo her good fortune: “I can’t say I’ve ever had any disappointments throughout the entire history of the Fresh Sound series!”
Upcoming Fresh Sound shows @ Bread & Salt, 1955 Julian Ave., San Diego
Chris Speed Quartet, Wednesday, March 15
Kjell Nordeson and Oyvind Brandtsegg, Thursday, April 13
Lukas Ligeti’s Notebook, Thursday, May 18
All shows are at 7:30pm; $20/$10 students
Visit freshsoundmusic.com for all concert details