SAN DIEGO — Often overlooked by fans and clubs, sometimes given short shrift by fellow musicians, jazz singers have a tough time of it.
In San Diego, a handful of jazz singers battle the odds for precious few dates in local clubs. There are dozens of singers who do occasional dates in San Diego, billing themselves as "jazz," but local jazz musicians and aficionados agree there are fewer than a dozen who really have the talent to qualify as legitimate jazz vocalists.
8One Wednesday night last month, singer Cath Eckert kicked off her regular weekly date at the U.S. Grant Hotel Lounge downtown to a room that was barely half full. To many in the bar, the music was incidental to post-work conversations. A handful of loyal Eckert fans sat closer to the stage, paying close attention, applauding between songs, keeping eye contact and a continuing rapport with the singer.
But, despite her radiating warmth and enthusiasm, Eckert hasn't been able to pack the room, and, after three months of regular work at the Grant, the last Wednesday in February was her last night there.
"Wednesdays have been hard," said Catherine Luminais, who books the talent for the Grant. "First we had (blues singer) Earl Thomas, then we put Cath in the room for three months. Cath is a great vocalist, but for some reason, Wednesdays haven't done any better.
"We're still working with vocalists. It just seems to me that a lot of the people who go out during the week at that hour of the day--mostly downtown professionals coming in after work--want to hear fusion."
During March, Eckert's Wednesday-evening slot is being filled by a vintage jazz band called Ruby's Roadhouse, featuring singer Etoile (Ruby) Bashore. Jazz trumpeter and singer Steve Quorum, who moved to San Diego from New York last year, is working Tuesday nights at the Grant. Along with these two nights of jazz vocals each week this month, Luminais will be experimenting with light jazz on other nights. The turnout for Bashore and Quorum will determine whether or not jazz singers remain a part of the Grant's programming plans, Luminais said.
Eckert moved to San Diego five years ago from Toronto, and she said San Diego's jazz club scene seems to be at an all-time low for vocalists.
"When I first came to town, there were tons of clubs, and I was working all the time just doing jazz. Now there aren't many jazz singers in town pursuing the jazz scene, and there aren't many clubs," she said.
Among the clubs that went under or altered their entertainment policies away from jazz vocals in the past three years were PAX in La Jolla, Our Place in Hillcrest and the Porthole Lounge at the Holiday Inn downtown.
Venues such as the Horton Grand hotel and Croce's downtown and All That Jazz in Rancho Bernardo book regular jazz, but appearances by singers are rare.
"We don't really use any jazz singers at this point," confirmed Ingrid Croce, owner of Croce's and the adjacent Top Hat Bar. "We got licensed to use microphones last year, but we stuck with traditional jazz without vocals."
Croce thinks her diners prefer instrumental jazz to vocals, and anyway, she said, she hasn't been knocked out by the quality of local jazz vocal talent.
"I don't know that I'm sympathetic to singers," she said. "I don't think there are very many wonderful jazz singers in San Diego. It takes a lot of talent to sing jazz. You can tolerate a mediocre folk singer, but you can't tolerate a mediocre jazz singer.
"I'm sure there are jazz singers who could do a wonderful job from 5 to 8:30 as an opening act, but as far as sustaining a whole evening, I don't want the kind of piano bar-hotel bar atmosphere. There's a fine line between the lounge lizards and the jazz singers. If you don't have a person who is knowledgeable, with a good repertoire, they can come off like a lounge lizard."
With some club owners reluctant to book jazz singers, some of San Diego's best have dropped from sight.
"I am sort of discouraged with the whole scene," said jazz singer Denise Jeter, once a regular on the local club scene. "About four years ago, I was working at the Holiday Inn Embarcadero singing jazz five nights a week. I even had an eight-month contract. But they don't do jazz now."
Disheartened by the lack of local jazz vocal opportunities, Jeter now works as a substitute elementary school teacher. But she plans to resume her singing career soon--in Sun Valley, Idaho, where a friend owns a club and has promised her several jazz dates a month.
Despite some casualties among San Diego jazz singers, there are survivors who stay afloat by tenaciously pursuing club work, broadening their musical horizons beyond straight-ahead jazz and supplementing club dates with "casuals"--private parties, weddings, conventions.
Singer Jackie Bonaparte, who sings jazz, rock, Motown and pop, moved to San Diego from Philadelphia four years ago. Bonaparte keeps busy, although she acknowledges that finding work is difficult.