Cover Story

Holly Hofmann’s Jazz Heroics

by Robert BushJanuary 2023

Holly Hofmann. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Flute virtuoso and concert impresaria Holly Hofmann has created such an iconic stature in the San Diego musical landscape that it’s sometimes easy to forget that she hasn’t always been here, but, in fact, the inveterate swinger didn’t arrive until the late 1980s. She’s originally from Painesville, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, where she earned a degree in music from the Cleveland Institute of Music before moving to Colorado to pursue her master’s degree from the University of Northern Colorado. Her path in music began quite early, but I’ll let her explain that soon enough.

I first heard her in the mid-1990s, by way of a very lucky accident. She was leading a group featuring the guitarist Peter Sprague at the Horton Grand Hotel. I’d studied with Peter earlier in the 1980s and I noticed his “Spragueman” logo on his gear in the bar as I was leaving a wedding reception, and I returned several hours later to catch up. The band also featured heavyweight cats Bob Magnusson on bass and Jim Plank on the drums, so obviously she was not to be taken lightly. I remember her turning to the fellows on the bandstand and confidently snapping off the tempo to “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” and being instantly transported by her zaftig tone and serpentine ideas as she blew chorus after inventive chorus. She was obviously the real deal, because I remember it like it was yesterday, and it was almost 30 years ago. More on that later.

Holly with jazz guitarist Jaime Valle.

Holly was already curating shows at the Horton Grand, and I believe she mentioned that same night that she was bringing the iconic bassist Dave Holland soon to the intimate, acoustically pristine room. I was a huge fan of his and, to my knowledge, this would have been his first time in San Diego as a leader. So, I showed up early, and Holly sat me at a table so close that he could have touched me with his bow. I sat there all night, transfixed, oblivious yet totally cognizant of how lucky I was. She didn’t need to sit me so close, and it wasn’t like the bar made any money off my broke ass that night—but I will never forget that experience nor her kindness.

A few years later, I was driving up the long hill on Pershing Drive from San Diego City College when I dialed in Jazz 88 in my truck. I hate driving but being able to listen to jazz used to make the chore more bearable. I had turned the station on right in the middle of gorgeous rendition of the Mal Waldron masterpiece “Soul Eyes.” I recognized the tune, but I had no idea who the marvelous flute player was. When I got to the top of the hill, I turned on to a side street and pulled over, determined to identify the players. In radio, they call that “a driveway-moment.” The song ended and the DJ identified the musician as Holly Hofmann, from her 2000 recording on the Azica record label Live at Birdland, featuring the legendary bassist Ray Brown, pianist Bill Cunliffe, and drummer Victor Lewis. This was a crew to die for and it was obvious that Holly wasn’t just a San Diego phenomenon.

Fast forward to 2010, when I began writing about music. It wasn’t long before I posited a review about Holly for another publication—but, to my horror, I misspelled her last name! (I’ve got a touch of dyslexia, although that’s no excuse.) She promptly got in touch with me and gently made the correction along with a very generous compliment and words of encouragement. Ever since then, she and her piano legend husband Mike Wofford have been incredibly supportive and very dear friends.

Holly is currently revisiting Ohio for a series of concerts with the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra, honoring women in jazz and artists like violinist Regina Carter and Holly herself who have gone on to recognition outside the city. We were able to conduct this interview on the phone from her hotel in between concerts.

I had just moved to Los Angeles to join the L.A. 4, with Ray Brown, Laurindo Almeida, and Bud Shank. I think Ray introduced us. She had a gig in San Diego, and we just clicked immediately with our approaches to the time feel and the material. We shared the same vocabulary. It’s been like that since the first gig. Every time I play with her, it’s a perfect fit. It’s very comfortable being on the bandstand with her. She plays with a lot of intensity—some flute players don’t do that because of the nature of the instrument. Sometimes with flutists or vocalists, I will lay back so they can be heard. Holly doesn’t want that. Holly wants you to get in there and mix it up with her. So, it’s really fun. She considers herself a bebop flute player; she’s not looking for some delicate accompaniment. So, it’s fun for a drummer to get in there and mix it up with her, and I really enjoy doing that.

—Jeff Hamilton

“What brought me to music was my dad,” says Hofmann. “My dad was a jazz guitarist, a very good guitarist in the style of [Count Basie sideman] Freddie Green. He had a day gig working in a chemical plant, but he was very accomplished. He played for my mother and my sister every night after dinner. And when I was five, I got a flutophone (a small, plastic starter instrument similar to a recorder) and began noodling around with him. When I was seven, I got a real flute and by the time I was eight or nine, I knew a few standards and he was teaching me to play by ear. He was also teaching me to improvise. He would sing a simple improvised phrase to me, and I would play it back to him and he’d show me where to put it in the song. I definitely inherited the gene from him, there’s no doubt about it. Now that I’m a teacher I can recognize the naturals [students] like Nick Caldwell [from the Young Lions Jazz Conservatory] who have that same gene. How else would it have been possible for me to be playing ‘Stompin’ at the Savoy,’ as an eight year old?”

Holly with members of the Camarada: Fred Benedetti, Gunnar Biggs, Holly, MIke Wofford, Beth Ross-Buckley (Camarada director), Sacha Boutros, Duncan Moore (far right).

Sounds like a pretty hip eight-year-old to me, and that bit of personal history goes a long way toward explaining how Holly became Holly. “My parents realized that even though I was playing pretty well by ear, I should probably have lessons.” She ended up in the expert hands of Maurice Sharp, the principal flutist of the Cleveland Orchestra (still one of the top five orchestras in the country) . At the same time, she was sitting in with her dad’s friends at around age 13, learning jam session tunes. With Sharp, she learned to read music, learned all the proper fingerings and embouchure (the way you put your mouth on the instrument.)

Holly ended up attending the Interlochen Arts Academy (a prestigious music boarding school in Michigan) and was inspired by Sharp to study at the Cleveland Institute of Music for her bachelor’s degree. “That was quite a commitment, especially for my parents financially. But that’s where he taught. At that time, he didn’t want me playing jazz, because he thought it would ruin my classical tone, but I still did it on the side.”

By then, she was beginning to imagine a life in music professionally. Next up was graduate school at the University of Northern Colorado, where a teaching assistantship helped her earn her master’s degree. Already she began to be flooded with well-meaning, but ultimately erroneous “advice,” about her career path. “Other musicians and students told me that I could never make a career as a jazz flutist that didn’t double [play another instrument, like tenor saxophone, which was she was beginning to study]. I was the principal flutist in the student orchestra as a senior and the conductor said, ‘Madam Principal, I don’t know what you’re doing with your sound, but stop it!’”

With so few role models at the time, I’ve always wondered what Holly’s influences were, and how she developed her distinctive sound. “My initial influences were all the big bands. My dad had all these records, so I loved Dinah Washington and, of course, the Basie band. I used to play along with Frank Wess [one of the first improvisational flutists in jazz—although saxophone was his primary instrument]. Frank eventually became one of my teachers when I was studying in New York during the summers of high school and college. Another big influence, especially on ballads, was [Duke Ellington saxophonist] Johnny Hodges. I think my sound evolved based on a couple of things. We didn’t have any flute records at that time. I didn’t really know that there was a difference between the way people played flute and, say, the trumpet. So, I was copying saxophone players and trumpet players mostly. Then when I was developing my sound in graduate school, I realized that I wanted to play the flute like just any other horn. So many other flutists sounded almost classical to me. I wouldn’t say I ‘work on it’ anymore, when I play jazz, it just comes out!”

The first time I met Holly, she welcomed me with a big warm smile. Since then, we have supported each other in music and in life. It is a treat to have such a good flutist friend to count on! I have attended many of Holly’s concerts and have so enjoyed playing alongside her in a classical fusion style. Holly patiently coaches my budding jazz side of music and I remind her of her classical chops! We have had some amazing performances on my Camarada series through the years. She is truly a brilliant and gifted jazz flutist and also a charismatic jazz presenter—which is such a treasure for San Diego and beyond.

—Beth Ross Buckley


Holly with husband, Mike Wofford.

As long as I’ve known Holly, it was never very clear to me how she ended up in our town. So that was an obvious question. “I was being encouraged to go to one coast or the other,” she recalled. “Either New York or Los Angeles. I did go to L.A. for a while, but I seemed to have a headache every day from the smog. I had friends in San Diego and when I came to visit, I thought, ‘this is good.’ That would have been about 1986.”

After arriving, she soon acclimated to our local scene. “I started going to the Cheatham’s jam sessions, which were at the Bahia Hotel at the time. I started playing with [saxophonist] Ted Picou. He used to invite me to sit in on all his gigs. He was a very good friend, very supportive. There weren’t a lot of female instrumentalists still, and I kept getting that ‘you’re not going to make it as a chick flute player who doesn’t double’ kind of advice. But some of them, like Ray Brown and Slide Hampton and Clark Terry, were examples of men who said, ‘You can do this.’

“I met [future husband] Mike Wofford in the late 1980s. My first album came out in 1989 and Mike was on it. It’s funny that I had met the CEO of Capri Records when I was in grad school, and he wasn’t interested in recording me. But when I started gigging with Mike and Bob Magnusson and Sherman Ferguson, he got interested and I made that first record [Take Note, Capri]. We worked together for almost 10 years, after my album came out and when he wasn’t completely busy with Ella [Wofford was the pianist for the legendary Ella Fitzgerald at the time], he started touring with me a little bit. We were just bandmates and I learned tons of stuff from that group.”

Holly Hofmann and Mike Wofford at the Athenaeum

I’m always curious as to the mechanics of how two-musician couples function. Is it a challenge, or a breeze? “It was like falling in love with my best friend, so, to quote you, it was a breeze. He was the most supportive person. Like if a call came in for a gig, he’d say ‘go take this.’ It was never a competition. Plus, the fact that his level is so far ahead of mine, especially in terms of harmony and orchestration in so many ways. There wasn’t ever a matter of competition; there couldn’t be. I learned tons of stuff from him. When we were working together, he was the only one who would say ‘let me show you what’s happening in this tune on the bridge,’ which was a nice way of saying you’re missing that chord change. But he would explain what he was thinking, like ‘I’m putting this note in the bass and I’m voicing the chord like this, and this is the scale I would play over it.’ So, especially in the early years and even to this day, I’ve learned so much from him.”

In addition to Wofford, Holly has played with some legends, and I was especially curious about her relationship with the iconic bassist Ray Brown. “Well, the intersection of all those musicians and me happened when I was booking the Horton Grand program for eight years,” she says. “When Mike got busy with Ella again, he was playing at the Horton Grand in 1990; my album had just come out and the same band had already recorded our second album. So, when he started going back out on the road, he said, ‘Do you want to handle the booking on this?’ I said yes, even though I didn’t know what I was doing. But I figured it out pretty quickly. There weren’t a lot of gigs for people who had come to the West Coast, so we could bring people who had come to L.A., have them drive down to San Diego, and stay at the hotel. Ray Brown became a regular part of that connection. He was also an avid golfer, and I was taking golf lessons at the time. We used to play up at La Costa where he was a member, because he was living in Los Angeles at the time. He was also fond of betting on the game; he was a hell of a golfer, and I was not, but my short game is pretty good. So, we had a chipping and putting contest and I won. Since I didn’t have any money, he said if I won, he’d play in my band for the gig of my choice. I had put some feelers out to [Village Vanguard owner Lorraine Gordon] and when I told her my band would be Kenny Barron on piano, Ray Brown on bass, and Victor Lewis on drums, she snapped it up! That’s when Ray and I started working together. Mostly he would do sideman gigs with me, but then he started taking me on the road when he had tours for his trio and needed special guests.”

Ray Brown and friends with Holly Hofmann

Chances are, if you are reading this, you can understand what a monumental opportunity playing with Ray Brown was. This is a man who held his own with Charlie Parker and Art Tatum, who played with Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald. Many people [including Christian McBride and Bertram Turetzky] consider Brown to be the ne plus ultra of the double bass. Being invited into his band isn’t just a feather in one’s cap, it’s more like the whole darned bird!

Aside from her musical prowess, Holly is a superb jazz presenter. I was dying to find out how all of that went down. Especially since she’s at it again, curating a new jazz series every Sunday at Tio Leo’s. More on that in a minute.

“Well, the owner of the Horton Grand at that time was very supportive of having the jazz program there, because it needed an identity, other than being a boutique hotel, and Mike had set this in motion by playing duets with [bassist] Tom Azzarello; people started to realize that there was place for jazz in San Diego, especially people from L.A. Remember, they’re getting a hotel room and food and some decent bread. So, it was a win-win situation when I took over from Mike in 1991 or so. We had so many people come down, like Shorty Rogers and Bud Shank and Ray Brown, of course. Then it got even deeper on the national level with people like [vocalist] Diana Krall, [saxophonist] Joe Henderson, and [bassist] Dave Holland.”

Holly with jazz promoter Arlene Damasco at the Westgate Hotel’s Poolside Jazz series.

Holly then relocated the program to the Bristol Court Hotel before starting a long association with the San Diego Museum of Art, presenting concerts to packed audiences in the museum’s auditorium from 2002 to 2009. Next, she moved to the 750-seat North Park Theater and presented shows there (I seem to recall Cuban expatriate trumpeter Arturo Sandoval blowing the lid off the place) from 2009-2012. Before Covid hit, she ran an uber-successful Sunday afternoon series at the Handlery Hotel that often-featured SRO only crowds.

“The Handlery was on for five years,” remembers Holly. “It was mostly for locals, although we did have a few nationals. March 15, 2020 was the last day there, when they basically shut down San Diego. I thought I was done with the whole idea, but it turns out that Frank Sciuto, the owner of Tio Leo’s was very keen on acquiring the series. So, he called me and said, ‘Look, I have everything. I’ve got the room, I’ve got free parking, I’ve got a full bar and food. I‘ve got double the seats you had [140). I’ve got a stage and my own personal Yamaha grand piano, that no one else will get to play. I’ve got a soundman.’ I hesitated, explaining that Tio Leo’s is more of a dancing and partying kind of room, but he assured me it was going to be a listening room. At first, I was kind of reluctant, but he was so into it. He promised to make it happen, and he did. We opened November 27. It’s the exact same hours, every Sunday from 5- 7 p.m. There’s no cover charge, although there will be when we have people coming in from New York.”

I am grateful to be able to say that Holly has been my closest colleague in music since I began working in jazz in the late 1980s. For more than 30 years I have drawn inspiration from her music and have been fortunate also to rely on her honesty, support, and advice as a fellow presenter of jazz in this community. What can I say except that I continue to feel awe and gratitude for Holly’s consummate musicianship and musicality, her comradeship as a fellow presenter, her constant and unflagging advocacy on behalf of the music, and her virtuosity as an educator who is focused and caring in bringing out the best in her students, both young and old. From my perspective, San Diego’s music scene will forever be in her debt. We are so fortunate to have her here!

Daniel Atkinson

For many years Holly has been involved as the music director for an annual festival up on the Oregon coast, about two hours outside of Portland. It’s called the Oregon Coast Jazz Party. “I did it for 13 years, but I retired last year,” says Hofmann. “I turned it over to [clarinetist] Ken Peplowski. I retired because I felt it needed some new blood. It’s been a really thriving series—we’ve had major artists there, but I just felt it was time to put a new face on it. Ken and I are close friends, and we have the same ideas about booking. “

Holly, playing at a Young Lions’ Jazz Conservatory Fundraiser. Photo by Liz Abbott.

I’d be remiss to write a whole article about Holly without bothering to mention where we can all reliably gather to hear her play on a regular basis. “Well, for the last year, I’ve got a quartet that plays every Saturday night at the Westgate Hotel [1055 Second Avenue]. We started doing it outside back when Covid was still happening, but we moved it inside after it got cold, and the regulations changed. I even moved my personal piano down there in the Plaza Bar, which is a real listening room. Usually, the band is Mike Wofford on piano, Rob Thorsen on bass, and Jim Plank on drums, although that can change.”

One of Holly’s biggest fans is her fellow jazz presenter Daniel Atkinson. They’ve obviously got a mutual admiration thing happening. “You know, if I had a CD release or something I can just call him. He’s been totally supportive. I did two recordings for Capri that were live at the Athenaeum, and he made that happen. Capri was very happy with that space; they also recorded Mike’s live album at the Neurosciences Institute with Peter Washington on bass and Victor Lewis on drums.”

Atkinson nominated Holly in 2019 for the internationally acclaimed Jazz Journalists Association’s “Jazz Hero,” award, which she was awarded and deservedly so. What keeps this jazz hero motivated? “People often ask me why I’m curating a program local or national, here in San Diego for 35 years, and I say it’s because I learned so much after many mistakes at the Horton Grand. Once you know how to do it, it’s good for the music to have these programs in town.”

Indeed. I’m with Daniel Atkinson on this. Holly isn’t just a superb musician, sterling presenter, and vital educator. She’s also a wonderful human being who does so much behind the scenes for our community. Calling her a “hero” seems like an understatement.

She’s an adventurous player, she plays flute with the drive of a great saxophonist. I’ve often told her that she’s got a low B-natural like Ben Webster. She doesn’t play a light, airy, fluffy flute, she digs in. Most flutists in jazz are “doublers,” [which are] basically saxophone players who also play the flute. She’s a real flute player, that’s what she does. She’s got a warm, beautiful sound. She also knows how to dig in and play the blues. As a person, she’s a wonderful organizer and a planner, for all the programs she puts together. She’s really great with her students, and she’s a fantastic representative for jazz and jazz flute. She’s just exceptional.

—Mike Wofford 

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