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Jazz Gives La Jolla Soul in Out-of-the-Way Niche : SAN DIEGO COUNTY

July 17, 1989|JOHN M. GLIONNA | Times Staff Writer

LA JOLLA — If your timing's right, you can stroll along a back street here and hear a free concert by a world-renowned jazzman.

Like the customer who walked into a Draper Avenue tennis shop and asked about the lazy strains of a saxophone spilling out from the living room of a nearby bungalow.

"I told him it was just Charles McPherson, winding up his daily practice session," recalled Mark Standlee, owner of the Racket Stringing Workshop. "He apparently knew something about jazz, because he just smiled and said it sure sounded like McPherson."

In international jazz circles, Charles McPherson is something of a celebrity, an alto saxophonist who has played professionally for three decades, touring with the likes of bassist Charles Mingus and releasing more than 25 albums of his own.

But on Draper Avenue, McPherson is just Charles, the guy who practices every day in the little house with the white picket fence--one of two bungalows his family has owned on the block for the past 50 years.

McPherson isn't the only one making music on Draper Avenue these days. He's among a cadre of jazz musicians who populate a tiny, two-block neighborhood between Pearl and Prospect streets that's becoming known to locals and music fans alike as Jazz Alley.

Treble Clef Wind Chimes

On the same block as McPherson's studio, where wind chimes shaped like treble clefs dangle above the front door, there's a duplex with an aged piano wedged into the tiny living room.

That's where tenor saxophonist Joe Marillo lives with his girlfriend, Susan Rathfon, a classical pianist, and Ray Crawford, a local bass player and music teacher.

In the past few years, more than half a dozen other jazz artists have moved on and off the block. Last year, tenor saxophonist Jimmy McCasey lived in a trailer behind Marillo's duplex, practicing eight hours a day before rushing off to perform gigs after dark.

"Yeah, there does seem to be a preponderance of jazz music on this block," the 49-year-old McPherson said recently as he took a break from his playing, propping his gold-plated alto in an overstuffed chair like a revered guest.

"It's unusual, having all these creative people on one street. But it definitely lends the block some aesthetic character. I just don't think enough people appreciate it."

For these jazzmen and many of their neighbors, Draper Avenue is an oasis of music in a town where the sound of money is often the loudest thing heard.

But the spirit of Draper's jazz is being threatened by the developer's backhoe. All around this core of artists, the avenue is growing up, changing.

Sixty-year-old houses are being replaced by condominium complexes. A snazzy new branch of the San Diego Public Library opened recently, bringing with it more traffic and people problems to a street that isn't used to being a thoroughfare.

Suddenly, Draper Avenue, like the rest of La Jolla, is hot property. Since the library opened three months ago, property owners on Draper began receiving unsolicited offers from realtors.

"I've had offers of almost a million dollars for these two lots alone," said McPherson, who lives in North Park but uses the Draper Avenue house as an office and studio. "I mean, the Pacific Ocean is right down the street. If my family didn't move here in the '40s, I wouldn't even be able to afford to stay in this neighborhood."

Carrie Tonini, manager of the Jelley Co. real estate firm in La Jolla, said property values on Draper are skyrocketing along with the rest in the area.

"Last year, La Jolla enjoyed a 45% appreciation in single-family houses," she said. "When you have that kind of appreciation, every piece of property looks real good, no matter where it is."

Still Cool

Despite the development all around them, the musicians who live and practice there say Draper Avenue is still the coolest place around.

"This is Jazz Alley, there's no doubt about it," said Marillo, 50, an accomplished tenor player who has performed in nightclubs throughout San Diego for more than a decade. "There's some musical energy here. And there's not too many residential streets anywhere you can say that about."

The jazz label is only the most recent tag for this colorful stretch of street.

In the 1920s and '30s, the neighborhood was known as "Browntown," the center of a poor, largely black neighborhood, many of whose residents were employed in the mansions of rich, white La Jollans in the old Muirlands area.

A generation later, veteran residents say, the enclave had expanded to surrounding streets, where Mexican and Filipino families rented modest one-bedroom houses.

Back then, Draper Avenue had soul. There was a tiny restaurant called the Bar-B-Q Cafe (with the requisite lively jukebox, three selections for a dime). There were auto accessory shops mixed in with run-down beach houses, and maybe a junkyard here and there.

Shrank to 2 Blocks

As years passed, Draper continued to shed its skin. A veterinary hospital moved in. The barbecue restaurant became Standlee's tennis shop.

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