The Onyx Room’s website says there is a live jazz jam on Tuesday nights. But as of this writing, the site has not been updated to indicate that the jam’s founder and host for the past decade, Gilbert Castellanos, has moved on.
“It was just time,” he says. “I mean, I love Greg Strangman, the owner. I have nothing but positive and wonderful things to say about him. He was there for me, believed in what I was trying to do. For ten years, he supported the jam session.”
Castellanos says that his decision to leave Onyx was based on a growing rift that was between him and club management. “I wasn’t really butting heads, but I just felt like Tuesday nights had become a burden.” He says it got to the point where he no longer felt welcome. “That’s the last thing I wanted to feel,” he says. “It was time for a change.”
Castellanos kicked off a new weekly jazz jam at El Camino (formerly the Airport Lounge) on India Street, January 27, with guests Daniel Jackson, Gary LeFevre, and Tommy Arros.
“The whole purpose of running the jam session for me is a community service, actually, to let people come out and share the stage with musicians in my group and, hopefully, to inspire the musicians of a younger generation to continue playing jazz.”
Spin magazine has called Castellanos the city’s best trumpeter. A veteran of recording sessions with Dizzy Gillespie, Wynton Marsalis, and Charles McPherson, Castellanos, a native of Guadalajara, moved to San Diego in the mid-1990s. He lives here but is listed as a member of the L.A.-based Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra and Anthony Wilson’s Nonet. Castellanos teaches jazz at USC’s Thornton School of Music.
He says he started the original jam sessions at Ole Madrid in 1995, right after he moved to San Diego. For him, those jam sessions were school.
“Back then, I was the one who was getting my stuff together and figuring out how to play jazz and all that stuff.”
His friendship with Madrid’s then-part-owner Mauricio Couturier would come full circle when Castellanos decided to pull the plug on the Onyx gig. Couturier had recently opened El Camino in Little Italy (he has another location in South Park) and was looking to book some live music.
“It was a blessing in disguise that I quit when I did,” says Castellanos. “When I called Mauricio to tell him that I had quit the Onyx Room and I was looking for change, he was, like, ‘Man, that’s so funny. I was thinking about you last night, and I was going to call you to come and play at my place.’”
He says the new jam will be held every Wednesday evening but that this time, the music will be geared toward a theme.
“It’s going to be jazz, but jazz in a Latin context.” He says the rules of the game are standard — that any musician at any level is welcome to join.