When guitarist Frank Potenza, at the urging of older peers, decided to leave his native New England and seek out his musical fortunes in a major metropolitan jazz center, he had a choice: New York or Los Angeles.
In the end, it was no contest.
"I had met my future wife, and she lived in L.A.," he said in a recent phone conversation from his home in Lakewood. "So the choice was between living in Southern California in the sunshine with a woman I loved, or to move to New York and live in the Bowery by myself."
That was 1980. Since then the Providence, R.I.-born musician, who appears tonight at Kikuya with singer Jack Wood, pianist Llew Matthews and others, has made his mark on the local circuit, even if it's not as apparent as he might like.
"I don't know that I've broken into (the Southern California) scene yet," he joked when asked how he became established on the West Coast.
But Potenza has been a regular on the jazz circuit since his move to California. In addition to recording four albums for the TBA label under his own name, Potenza has made dozens of local appearances in Los Angeles and Orange County.
Last month, he gave a solo performance at the Jazz Bakery in Culver City. On Monday, he'll appear as part of drummer Sherman Ferguson's trio at Catalina Bar & Grill in Hollywood, L.A.'s major talent showcase club.
It was Ferguson, known for his stints with guitarist Pat Martino and Supersax, among others, who first provided Potenza entry into the sometimes cliquish jazz fraternity.
"I met Sherman the first year I was in town when I sat in with him down at the Studio Cafe," Potenza said. "I was trying to get a gig at Carmello's (the now-defunct San Fernando Valley jazz club) and was looking for a name (player) to be in the group to attract some attention.
"So I hit on (pianist) Frank Strazzeri to play for me, and he said, 'Yeah, (you know me), but I don't know you. Can you play?' So he suggested that I sit in with him down at the Studio Cafe in Balboa. I didn't even know who the drummer was, but when Frank introduced Ferguson at the break, I turned around and said, 'You're the Pat Martino guy?' I knew (Ferguson) from those classic Martino recordings. And I told him, 'When you see Pat again, tell him thanks.' All the players around Boston in the '70s idolized him."
Potenza's Boston connections began in 1968, when he enrolled in the Berklee College of Music. While there, he worked sessions with clarinetist Dick Johnson, as well as pianist Hal Crook and saxophonist Greg Abate. But the biggest influence came from guitarist Joe Pass, whom he met in 1974.
"I took one lesson from him and then started following him all over the place," Potenza said. "I'd get together with him in New York, and we'd play. After we'd both moved out here, we'd get together, usually at (guitarist) John Pisano's place, and just play. Being one of my musical heroes, it was a great honor just to hang out with him."
Potenza began considering that move West after being encouraged by his older colleagues in New England.
"There really was a lot going on (in Providence), but you had to actively search out the jazz situation," Potenza said. "Just like everywhere else, it wasn't as visible as the pop or rock scene. I got a lot of encouragement from Art Pelozzi, one of the well-known local players."
Despite the Rhode Islander's lack of connections in California, things developed quickly for him once he arrived. Drummer Ferguson suggested that Potenza hang out at the now-defunct Jazz Safari club in Long Beach.
It was there that he met trumpet player George Shaw, coordinator of commercial-music instruction at Long Beach City College. That meeting led to a job at the college, where Potenza now teaches guitar and bass classes and directs the school's performance ensemble.
That led to more work.
"George brought in big names to work with the big band, and when they needed a guitarist, I filled in," Potenza said. "He had David Sanborn come in, Dizzy Gillespie in 1984--that was a thrill to play next to him--Joe Pass, Ernie Watts, Bill Watrous a couple of times. Meeting these people spun off some good gigs for me."
One of those gigs was with saxophonist Ronnie Laws, with whom Potenza toured for a year. Saxophonist Wilton Felder came to the school with fellow Jazz Crusader Joe Sample. That resulted in Potenza's appearance on pianist Felder's album "Love Is a Rush." In turn, Sample played on Potenza's third album, "When We're Alone."
Potenza is hoping to record again soon, this time solo. In addition, he and singer Sonny Wilkinson are shopping their second collaborative album, recorded live at the Jazz Bakery in November of 1993.
Potenza also has a desire to make an album with pianist Gerald Wiggins and with Bill Heid's organ trio.
Though it sounds like a lot--teaching, recording, performing--Potenza, who's always good at getting a laugh, is modest about his activities.
"I'm just trying to stay solvent," he joked.
* Frank Potenza appears tonight with singer Jack Wood and pianist Llew Matthews at Kikuya, 8052 Adams Ave., Huntington Beach, 8:30 p.m. No cover. (714) 536-6665.