'LIFE'S A GAS' FOR VETERAN JAZZMAN

It's getting dark and Bob Oaks, the jazz man of Ocean Beach, is puttering around the cramped living room of his aging oceanfront cottage at the foot of Niagara Avenue.

He has spent most of the day cleaning up after the previous night's jam session with a bunch of fellow jazz musicians, and now it's time to relax.

He puts an old Lockjaw Davis album on the turntable and plops down into an overstuffed armchair next to the sofa. As the sweet strains of the former Count Basie sideman's saxophone fill the room, Oaks, 73, half closes his wide blue eyes and smiles.

"Life's a gas," he says sighing, repeating a phrase popular with America's jazz community a half-century ago. Running his fingers through his wavy white hair, he leans back in his chair and shuts his eyes.

Oaks' home is a monument to his lifelong love affair with jazz. It began when he first took up the tenor saxophone at age 11 and has been raging strong ever since.

A ceramic bust of Louis Armstrong, Oaks' boyhood hero, sits on the counter in the kitchen. A foot-long matchbook in the form of a keyboard lies on his coffee table, next to a lacquered toad playing a stand-up bass.

More than 50 books about jazz are scattered around the house. And Oaks' "listening chair" is flanked by an old DeKalb upright piano and a rusty Ludwig drum set--two of the instruments used by the hundreds of jazz musicians who for the past eight years have streamed into his living room every Sunday night for informal jam sessions.

"Traditionally, jazz musicians get together on off-nights or after hours and jam with each other," Oaks said. "At first, we jammed only on holidays, but after a while we began getting together every week.

"And for the last eight years, we haven't missed more than half a dozen Sundays. These sessions are simply too much fun."

Each musical free-for-all begins with Oaks blowing a few notes into the trusty saxophone he's owned since 1941. Within moments, others join in. Sometimes, they're local stalwarts like pianist Joe Emmett, drummer Harry Adams and bassist Ted Blake.

Anyone else who happens to show up, Oaks said, is more than welcome to play. Guest sidemen have included such local stars as Joe Marillo, Don Glaser, Butch Lacy, Art Resnick, Padres' pitcher Eric Show, as well as nationally known players Milcho Leviev, the late Calvin Jackson and Kenny Burrell.

"Kenny was in town for a concert," Oaks said. "He showed up, out of the blue, early in the day and played all afternoon, right up until the time of his show."

The ceiling of Oaks' living room is papered with sheet music to such old-school jazz standards as "Take Me to the Land of Jazz," "And They Called it Dixieland" and Nat King Cole's "You are My First Love."

Back in the '30s, '40s and early '50s, Oaks included many of those songs in his repertoire as a professional jazz musician. He paid his dues playing in nightclubs around his native Boston.

Later, he toured the country and Europe--and spent two summers aboard a cruise ship in the Caribbean--as the leader of his quartet.

After working as a machinist during World War II, Oaks came to San Diego to visit a friend. But within days of his arrival, he was recruited by the Gus Arnheim Orchestra. And for the next six years, Oaks performed regularly in such long-gone nightclubs and dance halls around town as Sherman's Dance and Dine as well as the Trianon, Mission Beach and Pacific ballrooms.

"But in 1951, music got a little tight, so I worked as a landscape gardener, a machinist and a cemetery plot salesman to keep the rent paid and my belly full," Oaks said.

"The entire time, though, I kept on playing whenever I could. Until the mid-1960s, I worked two nights a week with Latin bands, and after that I played mostly casuals and hotel jobs.

"And even though I haven't played professionally in years, these jam sessions give me the chance to regularly work out with some of the finest musicians in town."

These days, Oaks expresses his affinity for jazz through the paintbrush as well as the saxophone. While listening to jazz records, he has rendered more than 50 paintings--colorful acrylic abstracts inspired by everyone from Louis Armstrong to modern avant-gardist Ornette Coleman.

"I ad-lib with colors and design the same way jazz musicians improvise with music," Oaks said. "I put a splash of paint here and a splash of paint there until I find the balance I like.

"In art, as in jazz, balance is the essence of everything."

Oaks also possesses a library of more than 6,000 jazz records. Categorized by period and style, they range from vintage Armstrong and Benny Goodman albums to the latest works by Coleman, Chico Freeman and the World Saxophone Quartet.

"I can honestly say I like the entire spectrum of jazz--from Dixieland to swing to be-bop to modern free-style, or avant-garde," Oaks said. "I play whatever I'm in the mood to listen to, and my mood sometimes changes every hour.'

His diverse taste, Oaks said, frequently comes in handy.

"If I have a party with a bunch of jazz old-timers and feel like going to bed, I don't have to say a thing," he said. "I just put on an Ornette Coleman album, and within three minutes, everyone's out of here."

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