Jazz has never been a stable, long-term business in San Diego, but a recessionary year has caused a shakeout of epic proportions.
As San Diegans pulled in their purse strings and disposed of less discretionary income, proponents of jazz found themselves competing, often with limited success, with video rentals and other more-affordable diversions.
Consider the events of 1991:
* Over the course of the year, Elario's, the only local club to consistently present name jazz acts for the last several years, began substituting other forms of music in its search for audiences. Early in December, club owner Martin Mosier decided he will nearly eliminate name jazz acts next year to concentrate on local bands. As of yet, no club has emerged to present rising young players such as Bill Frisell or Mark Whitfield, as Elario's did this year.
* The U.S. Grant Hotel downtown experimented with straight-ahead jazz early in the year but increasingly favored other forms of music that attracted larger audiences.
* All That Jazz, a jazz club in Rancho Bernardo, closed in May after only a few months in business. Reopened by new owners in July as Jazz by the Way, the club started with a fairly solid jazz policy, which was booked by local jazz agent and aficionado Tony Sidotti. But, after severing ties with Sidotti, the club watered down its jazz schedule with other genres.
* The San Diego Jazz Society attracted fewer than 50 people to its March presentation of top jazz pianist John Hicks at the Lyceum Theatre downtown.
* "The Jazz Link," San Diego's only monthly straight-ahead jazz magazine, ceased publication in November after 3 1/2 years and 41 issues, citing low ad revenues and mounting losses.
Depending on how well they weathered the year, those in the business had different takes on the state of their favorite music in San Diego.
"Certainly there's a recession," said Steve Satkowski, who provided one of the year's bright spots by opening the Jazz Note night club in Pacific Beach last May, dedicated to straight-ahead jazz. "But the demographics I draw are 35-to-55, professionals, college-educated, many with graduate degrees. They are generally more recession-proof.
"But I think if there was not a recession, my business would be better and I would draw the demographic that is saving their money, young or older fans with lower income."
Satkowski has had about half a dozen sellout nights since May, including Pharoah Sanders, Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard and--the sleeper of the bunch--Brazilian guitarist-vocalist Dori Caymmi. But he has also had nights when only 20 or 30 people ventured inside his 95-seat room.
Rob Hagey, who is leaving his role as talent coordinator for Elario's at year's end and may open a new club downtown next year, experienced the fickle nature of local jazz audiences since replacing Satkowski at Elario's in April, 1990.
Critically acclaimed young players such as Terence Blanchard and the Harper Brothers played to a sparsely populated room this year, while artists such as Henry Threadgill and Hermeto Pascoal--no less talented and no better known--inexplicably packed the place.
"People aren't drinking as much as they used to, and they aren't staying out as late," Hagey said. "With as much growth as there is in entertainment options, people are being more selective. Because of the economy, they have to be more selective."
During his peak years as organizer of the La Jolla Jazz Festival during the early 1980s, Hagey was dedicated to presenting the most innovative jazz. But, after his recent experiences at Elario's and with the phenomenal success of his annual Michelob Street Scene, the outdoor downtown music festival that drew 45,000 to the Gaslamp Quarter for two nights of wide-ranging music in September, Hagey knows that jazz ranks far behind other musical forms as a commercial endeavor.
He said that, if he opens a new downtown club, the entertainment will include some jazz, but also blues, rock and other types of music that draw more consistently.
This isn't all bad. The draw of other musical genres can eventually expose new listeners to jazz, as Hagey did this year at the Street Scene, when the Hahn Cosmopolitan Theatre played host to SRO crowds for Bennie Wallace, Jon Faddis and Harry Pickens.
For Humphrey's Concerts by the Bay promoter Kenny Weissberg, "recession" must sound like a foreign word. His summer series grew to 52 nights in 1991 from 46 last year and attracted 101,000 fans, 11,000 more than in 1990.
Weissberg has admitted on many occasions that he prefers serious, straight-ahead jazz to the lighter stuff that packs Humphrey's, but he has had disappointing results with the straight-ahead performers.
This year, his only true jazz act was singer Mel Torme. Pianist Dave Brubeck's show was canceled because of poor ticket sales.
Having taken stock of some of the obstacles faced by straight-ahead jazz in San Diego, it's appropriate to mention some success stories.
One is the Horton Grand Hotel downtown, which last January began a policy of interspersing nationally known jazz acts with its continuing stream of top locals such as Peter Sprague, Bob Magnusson and Pickens.
With Elario's fading from the local jazz picture, the Horton Grand stepped in to present first-rate artists such as pianists Bill Mays and Tommy Flanagan. The Horton Grand may not have a large budget, but San Diego flutist Holly Hofmann, who programs the room, believes it has a solid reputation among musicians.
"It has become known as the insiders' room among musicians," she said. "The musicians call me because I see them out on the international circuit. They say, 'What's happening in San Diego?' and I say I have a room I'd love them to play if they're in the area, but we can't afford air fares. When a musician (like me) is booking the room, even if the money is low, I can tell them the benefits: a quiet audience that listens to every note, a nice room and good food."
Hofmann said hotel management is happy with the jazz policy and plans to continue it in 1992.
Another club that is more than weathering the recession with jazz is Croce's, in the Gaslamp Quarter downtown.
"I think what we've built over the eight years we've been here is a group of people who feel like a family," said club owner Ingrid Croce. "I feel the recession has brought in even more people. Our music, restaurant and bar seem to have become kind of like a tradition. When things are going wrong, we seem to do better."
Croce has booked a consistent schedule of San Diego jazz players such as Daniel Jackson and Chuck McPherson, plus rising saxophonist Hollis Gentry on Monday nights. She plans to continue in 1992, and has been talking to Weissberg about adding nationally known artists once or twice a month.
So there is much cause for hope as the New Year rolls in.
In financial parlance appropriate for this recessionary year, perhaps the local jazz scene has merely undergone a mild "correction" and will soon make a strong uptick, stimulated by the current crew of start-ups, turnarounds and steady Blue Chip venues.