SAN DIEGO — On a recent Friday night, a quest for quality music in downtown San Diego yielded only two panhandlers, and they were far outnumbered by the multicultural stream of people out club-hopping.
This informal musical tour of downtown turned up more than half a dozen clubs packed with people dancing and schmoozing to jazz and loosely related sister musics.
More than 10 years after marketing hype began promoting downtown San Diego as a destination, the area is finally coming of age culturally. This is especially true in the Gaslamp Quarter, where brick sidewalks, trees and other improvements were added during the early 1980s, but restaurants, shops, nightclubs and other new attractions were slow to materialize.
Several of the liveliest nightspots downtown have opened within the past year. The most notable latest trend is clubs that dish up various types of Latin sound.
Filling in the quilt of downtown night life alongside familiar jazz and light-jazz joints such as the Horton Grand Hotel, the U.S. Grant Hotel, Croce's, the Doubletree (formerly Omni) Hotel and the B Street California Grill & Jazz Bar are relatively new places such as El Gato Loco, Cafe Bravo, El Sotano and Cafe Sevilla.
The Horton Grand's Palace Bar is still \o7 the\f7 place downtown for big-time jazz. With the demise of internationally known jazz at Elario's in La Jolla, the Victorian-era Horton Grand is among the few clubs left in San Diego consistently bringing in name acts.
On this particular Friday, former San Diegans Herman Riley and Charles Owens unleashed their saxes in front of a band with Harry Pickens on piano, Bob Magnusson on bass and Sherman Ferguson on drums.
Beneath a mural depicting Venus or some other nude goddess, these sax heroes dueled relentlessly on great jazz tunes.
The Horton draws dedicated jazz lovers: musicians, fans, radio people and talent agents. There's seldom a problem with excessive crowd noise. But the bar is near the stage, so musicians and listeners must patiently contend with the continual din of the cash register, clinking glasses and low-level chitchat.
Over on Broadway, the U.S. Grant has cut back on jazz. Where once the hotel was booking the music several nights a week, with occasional showcases for national acts, jazz now happens only once or twice a week.
On Fridays this month, Tobacco Road is playing vintage jazz in the staid, wood-paneled Grant Grill Lounge, while Latin jazz guitarist Jaime Valle, who has a new CD out on the San Diego-based PAL label, will sizzle at the Grill on Saturday nights.
Several blocks to the west is the B Street California Grill & Jazz Bar, a popular hangout where youngish downtown suits of both sexes mingle after work. Unlike some other downtown hot spots, the B Street's action peaks early on Fridays with people fresh off work. By midnight, crowds are thinning.
Though billed as a jazz bar, the place seldom features true straight-ahead jazz. Generally, it's light pop-jazz that dominates the glass-block stage, with its 1970s-vintage flashing red lights. New owners took over last May and hired Falk and Morrow, who also book the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach, to program the B Street. The club is still searching for a musical identity.
February's promising lineup at the B Street includes national pop-jazz phenoms Fattburger tonight, local saxman Hollis Gentry's Neon on Feb. 15 and first-rate Del Mar guitarist Peter Sprague and his group Feb. 22.
Also searching for a musical identity is the City Colors bar at the Doubletree Hotel next to Horton Plaza. The current music policy features local pop-jazz bands such as Reel to Real and Split Decision on Friday nights and deejayed Latin music Saturdays.
Though the B Street peaks early on Fridays, other clubs, especially the new Latin hot spots in the Gaslamp Quarter, get most interesting after 11.
Latin music is all the rage downtown, and the most exciting place for youngish outlaws to be on a Friday night is El Gato Loco, which opened two years ago in the circa-1873 Backesto Building on 5th Avenue south of G Street.
Modeled on cantinas in the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Durango, this hip little place has a bar shaded by a clay-tiled awning and walls lined with pictures of notorious Mexican outlaws. Lights are dimmed in a separate dance room, which makes it a little easier to step out.
The people here strike all kinds of MTV poses as they hoist longnecks and shooters, but the bands are true grit, and that's the main attraction.
On this particular Friday, Los Feurenos (The Outsiders) served up generous helpings of authentic Mexican \o7 norteno \f7 music, which sounds like a polka band, complete with accordion, drenched in a salsa of spicy Latin rhythms and baleful, south-of-the-border melodies.
Nearby, Catherine Luminais, who specializes in booking talent for downtown venues, is turning El Sotano into a showcase for top local Latin jazz players such as Sol E Mar, guitarist Jaime Valle and singer Coral Thuet.