It was another autumn night in a beach town named after a soap opera. A sizable smattering of Santa Barbara jazz fans flocked to the Sea Cove on a Tuesday night. Officially, the band was guitarist Chris Judge's quintet, but it featured such prominent area residents as Oxnard keyboardist Theo Saunders and Goleta's gift to the jazz trumpet, Jeff Elliott.
Here on Ledbetter Beach, Elliott spun out the kind of effortless eloquence that has made him a longstanding legend, locally and beyond.
Elliott, an unassuming and often underrated player, embodies the concept of musicianship. The 38-year-old trumpeter has been making waves around town for two decades. He has wowed club crowds with such bands as Passage and the Eraserheads, toured and recorded with Jimmy Messina and Flora Purim & Airto, and now plays with Les McCann.
Here on the beach this weekend, on the stage of the third annual free-to-the-public Santa Barbara Jazz Festival, Elliott will show his stuff in three separate sets Saturday. For the past three years, Elliott has been the trumpeter in McCann's band--this year's festival headliners who will play a set on Saturday night at 7 p.m.
Earlier in the day, at 11:30 a.m. he will play with the Monday Madness big band.
On a sadder note, at 4 p.m. Elliott will also head up a tribute to the late drummer Tony Moreno, Elliott's best friend and frequent musical partner who died in June.
Elliott is one of the good old local-boys-done-good. Born in Covina in 1953, the youngest of four boys, Elliott moved to Goleta with his family in 1965.
Music was in the Elliott blood. His father, Clark Elliott, was a builder who had been a trumpet player in Aberdeen, Wash. He sat in with Duke Ellington and other jazz luminaries who would pass through town. Jeff's mother, Betty, is a pianist with a hankering for ragtime.
Clark Elliott tried to interest each son in the trumpet, but none of them warmed to the instrument until it was Jeff's turn. "I can pinpoint the very day I started playing trumpet," Elliott said. "It was a very famous day in history, the day that President Kennedy was assassinated."
Elliott had a normal childhood--meaning that he avoided practicing during the summertime and pursued other non-musical interests. Things changed when, at age 15, he went to a musical summer camp in Northern California. There teacher-composer Bob Soder grabbed his attention. Elliott wound up returning for four consecutive summers.
"Before that, I hated jazz," he said. "My dad had Stan Getz records, but I was really into the Beatles. But at 15--boom--I fell in love with it.
"I went into a music store in Isla Vista and bought all the Dizzy Gillespie records in the bin. My biggest influences were really all the greats--Dizzy, Miles (Davis), Freddie Hubbard, Chet Baker and Lee Morgan too. He was the funkiest."
What was Elliott's first professional gig? "It's hard to define professional," he said laughing, "because I always thought that meant good. I did a lot of gigs for money in bands, but I didn't dare call myself a professional back then."
His early bands include the Blues Revival--featuring current Fabulous Thunderbirds leader Kim Wilson, who once went by the nickname "Goleta Slim." At 18, Elliott landed a five-night-a-week union job in a Mexican band called Rudy's Sextet. That was followed by the jazzy Cool Breeze and the funky horn band Chariot, the success of which heralded a new appreciation of funk and jazz in town.
Then came the fusion band Passage, which the newly relocated Santa Barbaran Jimmy Messina--fresh out of Loggins and Messina--liked enough to hire outright. The band rehearsed for three years, recorded Messina's solo album "Oasis," in 1979 and toured for seven months. Then it was over.
Before long, the local-cum-national cycle repeated itself. In 1980, Elliott helped form the fusion band the Eraserheads, featuring Moreno and Ventura guitar whiz Larry Nass. Latin-jazz royalty Flora Purim & Airto fell for the band, hiring the group as their own backup players. Elliott played with that ensemble, off and on, for seven years, touring the globe.
One of the local mainstays in Elliott's musical circle was Moreno, with whom Elliott worked in numerous groups over the years, including with Flora Purim & Airto and, occasionally, in McCann's band.
After Moreno's funeral in June, a large crowd gathered for a wake-jam session at Joseppi's nightclub in Santa Barbara. From his perch at the microphone, Elliott incited the audience into a cathartic yowl that could be heard blocks away, and then had them observe a prayerful silence.
"I've got to say that he was a big influence on my personality," Elliott said. "He actually had a big impact on what I am today."
Elliott met McCann through an old friend. When visiting Santa Barbara in the mid-1980s, McCann would sit in with bands that included Elliott, and in turn he invited Elliott to join him onstage at a Lobero Theatre concert in Santa Barbara several years ago.
"That jam 10 years ago is on his latest album," Elliott said. "It's a collection of different recordings over the years with Carmen McRae, Cannonball Adderley and all these jazz greats--and then me with this band, jamming." He shook his head. "I didn't play that good."
After Elliott heard that there might be an opening in McCann's band, he made haste with a well-placed phone call to McCann.
"He said, 'Come down and play.' After the gig, at the Biltmore in Los Angeles, he said, 'Want to go to Japan?' "
Elliott has been a McCann band member since May, 1988.
"He is so nice and friendly. Always funny and warm, never depressed. He's just a big, lovable teddy bear," he said.
"There are five guys and I'm the only white guy in the band. They poke fun at me, call me Al . . . as in Al Bino," he laughed.
Much as the McCann situation is satisfying for Elliott, at this juncture in his career he is looking toward a period of change and growth. In June, he plans to make the move in the general vicinity of Los Angeles in pursuit of studio jobs and other more personal projects.
"I'd just like to make a good, solid living playing jazz," he said. "I don't want to be a sideman the rest of my life. You don't get enough credit or money. You're really never known by anybody, unless if you have a couple of albums of your own."
If 20 good years in the trenches mean anything, a couple of albums of his own shouldn't be much of a problem at all.
Look under Elliott, with two l's and two t's.
* WHERE AND WHEN
The Santa Barbara Jazz Festival, Friday through Sunday at Ledbetter Beach, 801 Shoreline Drive in Santa Barbara. Info: 962-0800.
UP CLOSE / JEFF ELLIOTT
On the lure of staying put in Santa Barbara, when Los Angeles is calling: "I've been trying to move to L.A. for 15 years. I'm still stuck here. I think I create my own roadblocks." In June, he plans to move with his wife, Ann, and 10-year-old son, Paul, to Agoura. The Goleta-based Elliott laughs at the irony: "It's like the Goleta of L.A."
What he does in his spare time: "I love writing. When I'm at home, every single night I go out in my office in the garage and write and study music. What I do is bits and pieces of something and then put it away. I don't really finish anything."
On the rigors of breaking into the jazz market as a solo artist: "I don't really know which area I want to dive into. I played a demo tape of my music for Les (McCann's) producer and he said, 'This stuff is really good and really technical, but it's just not going to sell. What you need to do is come up with a simple melody, a simple hook.' Even my wife says, 'You've got to write music that's more commercial.' But I get so bored with the commercial jazz out there."