Jazz Is Setting the Pace at San Luis Rey Downs

Things are swingin' out in Bonsall these days.

Bonsall, you say? That's right, Bonsall--where last August's trial run of Tuesday night jazz at the San Luis Rey Downs Golf & Tennis Resort has blossomed into a weekly hangout especially popular with jazz lovers old enough to remember when Goodman and Dorsey were king.

On a recent Tuesday, the rustic clubhouse, with its floral wallpaper, beamed ceiling and walls lined with photos of thoroughbreds, was packed near its capacity of 150. Many among the throng dined on prime rib while they listened.

The music was top-drawer.

Band leader Lee O'Connor, a veteran of the bands of Bob Crosby, Benny Goodman and Harry James, put a sextet through its paces, and guitarist Milt Norman, saxophonist Tony Ortega and trumpeter Tom Ehlen embroidered tunes such as "Take the A Train," "Over the Rainbow" and an assortment of music from the '40s and '50s with melodic solos.

For jazz-hungry North County-ites--as well as jazz lovers from outside the county--Tuesdays at San Luis Rey have become a haven.

"A lot of them come from within the area, but they also come from Pauma Valley, Escondido, San Diego, Oceanside, Valley Center," said Jim Miller, a one-time jazz trumpeter and bassist who books the talent--an assortment of musicians he's met during some 50 years as a devoted fan.

It was due to Miller's efforts that the jazz Tuesdays began. He went to the resort's management last summer and persuaded it to try jazz on that night. At the time, there was no entertainment on Tuesdays, and the room was as dead as the proverbial doornail.

"Now it's the second-biggest night in the week," Miller said.

Actually, the resort has another jazz night--Sunday, featuring Big Band sounds with The Cresendos. It is the resort's biggest nighttime draw, but Tuesdays are the favorite of true jazz fans, Miller claims.

"On Sunday nights, people come to dance, and they pack the dance floor," he said. "But on Tuesdays, they come to listen. Some dance, but most come to listen, and they are very appreciative. They even applaud the solos."

A variety of jazz bands work the Tuesday series. Nearly all include players with experience at a national level.

One of those, The California Connection, is led by former Chicagoan Pat T. Danna on guitar, flute and violin. Guest soloists who've joined Danna's quartet on Tuesdays have included Big Band sax and clarinet man Skeets Herfurt and Las Vegas show trumpeter Ehlen.

"We've put quality musicians on the stand who can hold their own anyplace," Miller said. "We've kept that level of quality up to where, now, if I put someone on that stand who's not up to the level, I hear about it."

Although Miller gave up playing instruments himself a long time ago, he still sings and has been known to join the band on stage for a number or two.

He may see his Tuesdays as concerts more than dances, but just try to tell that to the dozens of couples who take to the wood parquet dance floor. Clearly, these people know their ballroom spins, and they aren't shy about it.

According to band leader Danna, North County is the perfect spot for the music of the Big Band and Swing era.

"The response is great, and, for any entertainer, that's what you're looking for," he said. "As a matter of fact, I think there is room for more places to host something like this, especially for the age group that seems to be retiring to Southern California. They are from that era of the Big Bands and great small groups. I do a similar kind of thing Thursday nights at Lawrence Welk Village, and we get the same kind of big crowd."

For now, jazz is a Tuesday fixture at San Luis Rey Downs. In fact, said Miller, the club has already set up a one-year anniversary celebration for Aug. 6 with six of the major groups featured.

What: Nostalgic jazz.

Where: San Luis Rey Downs Golf & Tennis Resort. 31474 Golf Club Drive, Bonsall.

When: Tuesdays from 6 to 9 p.m. and Sundays from 6 to 10 p.m.

Cost: No cover charge. An $8.95 "Sunset Dinner Special" is offered Sundays through Thursdays from 4 to 6:30.

Notes: Take California 76 east from Oceanside for about eight miles to Old River Road. Turn left and continue for about 1 1/2 miles to the resort's sign at Golf Club Drive.

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