Where the jazzcats jam

Seven Grand vs 3rd Space vs 98 Bottles

“I’m in it for the love of the music, I don’t get rich on doing this,” trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos tells the Reader on a static-heavy cell phone call from the Las Vegas airport. “I’m proud of the jam; to me, that’s like my baby, it’s what I put my heart and soul into, it’s my hub. Every Wednesday night, it’s standing room only.”

Seven Grand

3054 University Avenue, North Park

98 Bottles

2400 Kettner Boulevard, Little Italy

(Has gone out of business since this article was published.)

3rd Space

4610 Park Boulevard, University Heights

(Has gone out of business since this article was published.)

The Castellanos jam at Seven Grand is San Diego’s big dog, session-wise, but there are new scenes popping up everywhere. Two that stand out are drummer Matthew Smith’s Sunday hang at 98 Bottles in Little Italy and bassist Ben Wanicur’s gatherings at 3rd Space in University Heights.

Judging from the size of the crowds, everyone is hip to the Seven Grand. I asked Smith and Wanicur what makes their sessions stand out. “First off, it’s in the daytime,” says Smith, “that’s often the easiest way to get musicians that are eager and ready to play. I think that’s the most appealing part of it. Sometimes it’s really big, sometimes it’s small — we get a couple of vocalists and a lot of guitarists, which is cool. Last week we had, like, seven saxophonists. That was pretty intense.”

Wanicur’s jam falls on the first Tuesday of the month and is held in a non-alcohol setting where a small cover charge rather than drink sales pay for the musicians. “I don’t know of any other jams that are in a venue like this where you can get that atmosphere of an underground, special event. It’s large enough where you can listen...[or] you can hang out and socialize without disturbing the music.”

Both sessions have different approaches to the “house band” and the way they attract players to sit in. “It’s a pretty loose, diverse jam,” says Smith, who usually locks in with Mackenzie Leighton on bass and Ed Kornhauser on keys. “It’s not Wednesday night at the Seven Grand — not that kind of...pressure, I would say [laughs]. It’s more of a hang. It’s great to have a place to play every weekend for people who are in town that may have missed Gilbert’s session. The Sunday vibe is cool, too.”

“Our house band changes every time,” Wanicur related over the phone. “We also try to feature people, so we’ve had Peter Sprague one month, then Jason Shattil, Joshua White, and Ian Tordella, with a whole bunch of people switching in and out. You never know what you’re going to get at a jam session, but since we do it on an off-night, a lot of really good pro players come by — still, it can be a great opportunity for musicians who are learning to get a chance to play with people with more experience.”

To recent San Diego transplant saxophonist Robert Dove, the Seven Grand stands out. “You always know something special is going to happen. As a listener, it’s a place where some of the highest order of jazz is played by some of the best musicians in the city. We’ve had musicians from L.A., New York City, Boston, even as far as France and the U.K. show up.”

“If we could start reaching out to more people who don’t know that much about the jazz scene in San Diego,” says Wanicur of the 3rd Space session, “I think this type of event is the perfect introduction to that kind of person.”

Smith feels good about the future of the 98 Bottles hang. “As far as I’m concerned, we’re going to keep it going. I don’t see myself leaving anytime soon.”

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