1976 San Diego guide to dance bars

Serious, boogie, boogie fever, Latino, bop shoo wop

Serious bar-hopping in San Diego is an experience akin to reading a Raymond Chandler detective novel. Those who attempt to make their way through the different hot-spots around town are likely to feel, besides drunk or depleted, that they have run the gamut of the area’s “hip” strata. There are almost 100 entertainment clubs listed in the Readers weekly “MusicScene,”and although “entertainment” is a bit too imposing a title for most of the acts I’ve heard, a scan indicates that the “something for everyone” maxim is in order. There are a few jazz clubs for relatively serious music-listeners, raunchy hard-rock dives for bikers who want to boogie, No-Jeans-Allowed fashion bars for pressed and coiffured scene-makers. Latino bars for Chicanos, folk and country saloons for would-be down-homers, and disco palaces for gays and any other brand of dedicated dancer.

SERIOUS MUSIC (relatively speaking)

Crossroads. Although San Diego has no jazz club on the order of New York’s Village Vanguard or San Francisco’s Keystone Corner, theCrossroads, a compact black jazz bar on Third and Market, downtown, is probably our closest equivalent. It’s doubtful that any “name” acts could play at the Crossroads, for the place surely holds no more than 50 people, and that many only if crammed snugly together. But what it lacks in decor and spaciousness, it makes up by consistently presenting fine local jazz bands such as the Joe Marillo Quartet, Equinox, and Power. The last is a young quartet which recently finished an engagement at the club. Hopefully, they’ll be back soon, as they are the most invigorating, self-assured local group I’ve heard in the past year. Power plays a straight, unfettered blend of bop and contemporary jazz. The rhythms are always sharp and funk-edged but never ramble into the water-y ostinatos so fashionable these days. The most accomplished players are the bassist, who has a graceful plucking style on acoustic and a busy picking style on electric, and the tenor-soprano saxist, who has a rousing Southwestern tenor sound similar to Sonny Rollins and Dewey Redman, and a subdued emotional soprano sound. One of the high points of Power’s repertoire and a good indication of their tastes is a perfectly syncopated version of Thelonious Monk’s “Straight No Chaser.” Thankfully, the crowds at ' the Crossroads are fervent but polite-at-all-times. The flow of the music comes first, followed by the flow of the drinks. As the drinks are about 25 cents more than usual, it helps to get immersed in the music. That would, it seems to me, be the right focus anyway.

Le Cote d’Azur. This place on Prospect Street is, cosmetically, very La Jollan. A sunken, downstairs bar/cafe, the club has a mixture of slick continentalism and folksy - warmth. The house band. Island— another very young jazz quartet—is a delightful surprise, especially considering that in their ads they refer to their music as “jazz-rock.” But instead of rummaging through the slow-dance MOR of Chicago or the hyper-kinetic barrage of Corea-Cobham-Laws, their style is closer to “cool” or “West Coast” jazz. Their primary soloists are a tenor-soprano saxist with a deftly sweet tone and soloing manner reminiscent of the best Stan Getz, and a guitarist who plays an Ovation acoustic with electric pickup, enabling him to get equal mixtures of jagged and smooth sounds. The band plays a broad range of material, moving easily from such disparate sources as John Coltrane, Mark-Almond, and Jim Morrison. Like Power, they make each song come alive with crisp, articulate nuances all their own. Considering the quality music and the rather large drinks served, Le Cote d’Azur is definitely worth a try.

Oceanus. This seafood restaurant and bar, located up the street from Le Cote d’Azur, deserves applause for giving tenor saxist Joe Marillo and his quartet a club to play in five nights a week, Wednesday through Sunday. This group is a pared-down version of last year’s group. But the elements which Marillo established as his style over the years are still intact. His bleeding, feverish playing, very much like Gato Barbieri’s older work, contrasts nicely with the sober, smooth accompaniment of his band.

Viable Alternatives: Acapricio at Chuck's Steak House, La Jolla; Mark Augustin at Culpeppers, San Carlos.


Neutral Grounds. This fairly large dance-bar on 47th and University encourages anyone who is hypertense to get on the dance floor for cathartic release. There is one very' long bar and another small one to aid the timid in the process. As the clientele is made up largely of rowdy bikers and other forms of hard white-boy, the chances of a quiet evening on the weekend aren’t likely. Both alternate bands, Jumbalayah, and especially The Blitz Brothers, with their ubiquitous wall-of-noise music, play the right kind of snarling hard rock for those who don’t bother with slick disco rhythms or fancy steps, and just want to dinosaur-stomp. The place now has a 75 cents cover charge on weekends to offset a possible slew of tightwads.

Mom’s Saloon. Located on Garnet in Pacific Beach, this is a seaside alternative to Neutral Grounds, for those who prefer not to travel inland. It, too, caters to those with a predilection for growling boogie. One of the many groups to play Mom’s, Circus, is no less bombastic than the Blitz Brothers. Occasionally, though, the place has also featured Harlequin, one of the more distinctive, energetic “art rock” bands in the area. This fact gives Mom’s the edge over Neutral Grounds. Aside from that, it’s pretty much a toss-up.

BOOGIE FEVER (or its polite substitute)

Public House. Appropriate enough for La Jolla, this fancy, squeaky-clean dance bar on Pearl Street attracts people similar in race but opposite in temperament to those in a place like Neutral Grounds. The customers gathered here are impeccably polished and mannered. They have the refined look of an executive singles-club ten years too soon. The club is presumably a favored neighborhood hang-out, as quite a few people seem to gather in cliques. Like Mom’s, the place changes bands frequently. The band playing the nights I visited. Grand Slam, is a garden-variety rock group who prompted dancing more through their grimacing and gyrating and cheerleading than through their playing.

Spanky’s. This very popular club on Midway and Rosecrans is less homogenous than the Public House, drawing a fairly even mixture of races. But its appeal is roughly the same—it’s a place to go when there’s nowhere else, as well as a breeding ground for scouting dates. Bars such as this one are more or less like high school dances with liquor allowed. Splash, the current house band here is no better or worse than any of the other groups who have played there. They are competent rote performers, churning out flawless renditions of songs by Fleetwood Mac, Boz Scaggs, Average White Band, Isley Brothers, and whomever else has a song that everyone recognizes and is good to dance to.

Bacchanal. The puzzle of this club, located on Clairemont Mesa Drive, is why it isn’t being used as something more substantial. Recently, Bacchanal had concerts by Buddy Rich, Maynard Ferguson, and Slade. It would be nice if this was again made possible, because the spaciousness of the place seems flagrantly wasted as a dance bar. The club now is like an expanded Spanky’s, the difference being that the house group. Waterfall, is a more polished commercial band than any of Spanky’s umpteen frozen-dinner bands.

Prime Time. Formerly the Red Coat Inn, this bar-in-bowling-alley is on 59th and University. The featured band, the Cascades, are an early-60s one-hit warhorse that has gotten a lot of mileage out of its goldie-oldie “Rhythm of the Rain.” Now a trio, they merrily play their albatross, as well as right-now requirements like “Shake Your Booty,” “Play That Funky Music,” and “Show Me The Way.” Oddly, they also do versions of “Caravan” and “The Good, Bad, and the Ugly” with snappy, ringing guitar chords and lines. Customer-wise, the place attracts a varied bunch, from old folks to on-the-makes.

Journey. Since so many San Diego nightclubs are like high school dances anyway, the nostalgic might do just as well to visit Journey on Kearny Villa Road. This 17 to 25 dance hall has all the charm of the old “Good Time” dances at Golden Hall—a blaring jukebox band, dim lighting, thick bouncers, and a two-dollar admission charge so you feel obligated to stay at least a couple hours.

Viable Alternatives: Mammoth West, Sports Arena Boulevard; any disco in town.


Big Al’s. Located on 61st and University, this is the most popular Latin club in San Diego. It’s frequented mostly by young Chicanos, hard and otherwise. Big Al’s is a small, dark place. But since drinks are cheap and the club caters to a specific coterie, the atmosphere is generally comfortable. The band, Latin Fever, specializes in cumbia. This music is a slowed-down blend of Puerto Rican “salsa” and mariachi music. It is de rigeur dancing fare at quincineras, ritual “coming-out” parties for 15-year-old girls, and no less demanded in Latin bars. Adhering to the rules, Latin Fever also delves into oldies such as J.J. Jackson’s “It’s All Right,” and Eddie Floyd’s “Knock On Wood.” At any Latin club, cumbias are offset by oldies, which in turn are offset by a contemporary slow song. Last year it was Frankie Valli’s “My Eyes Adored You.” This year it seems to be George Benson’s “This Masquerade.” Like any place which attracts a specific following, it helps considerably to be enamored with the music and ambience. Otherwise, Big Al’s will merely seem like a Tijuana sampler.

Viable Alternative: Spirit of’76. Old Town.


Jose Murphy’s. This modest entertainment bar on Mission Boulevard in Pacific Beach features music every night. The group which plays Monday through Wednesday—Fanny, Nook, and Cranny— gives the place the sound, as well as the look, of an old beat-era pub. This acoustic trio plays old-style folk-swing, similar to Dan Hicks, but lacking an outstanding soloist like Hicks’ old violinist Sid Paige. But the group sings pretty and patters ingratiatingly, and should well please older audiences who can appreciate renditions of Les Brown’s “Sentimental Journey,” Cab Calloway’s “Viper,” and Charles Aznavour’s “Yesterday When I Was Young.” The group also plays at Mandolin Wind on weekends.


As with cumbia and folk bars, country saloons must be something of an acquired taste. There is no lack of these places around. The most interesting, in terms of audience enthusiasm, are The Alamo in Clairemont, Mama's Mink in El Cajon, Webb’s in Ocean Beach, and The Stingaree in Encinitas. These places attract a more diversified age group than the other bars, and because country music is a real “people’s" art form, these bars are made enjoyable by their genial atmospheres. Personally, I find myself at too much of a distance from the intense folksiness and pathos of most country music. Like cumbias, country music strikes me as monomaniacal, even at its most instrumentally complex. Still, the music has a healthy following here, and unlike the cumbia clubs, the country bars are well-distributed throughout the county.


The Catamaran. Like Bacchanal and the currently defunct Another Bird, the loss of the Catamaran as a “name” nightclub is depressing. The act now disappearing. The Magic If. are a “multi-media” group mixing music and comedy. They have fine voices and are a determined, talented bunch. But their brand of humor strikes me as puerile, on the level of Martin Mull and the recent work of Flo and Eddie. Still, they are far from the routine entertainment available most everywhere else.

Ball Express. The most off-the-beaten-track nightclub is undoubtedly Ball Express. Formerly J.J.'s and before that. The Palace, this gay bar cum disco palace is located on Pacific Highway. Like a few of the more renowned discos in New York, Ball Express is a by-general-consent exclusively gay club. Its atmosphere is heated, smoky, and the patrons seem very self-conscious about its status as a segregated in-spot. No doubt the clientele discourages visits from straights wishing to see “how the other half parties," but it’s worth going to for loosening screws in one’s perspective.

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