A virtual jazz renaissance has recently permeated nearly every corner of Ventura. From upscale Main Street restaurants to tiny neighborhood bars, the Bohemian lifestyle of jazz aficionados is being embraced by a whole new generation of music lovers. Sitting on the couch in the martini lounge at Cafe Fiore, an Italian restaurant in the heart of downtown Ventura, patrons can enjoy live happy hour jazz while sampling from an extensive happy hour menu. Local surfer and painter Davey Miller organizes regular impromptu jazz sessions with veteran musicians from across Southern California. On a recent sweltering Tuesday afternoon, Miller assembled a quartet for a happy hour jam featuring keyboardist Rich Earnes, a prodigious Los Angeles recording artist and television soundtrack composer. The group also featured bassist Bruce Lett, who has become a So Cal fixture since relocating from Indiana.
The following night, Miller brought another group featuring jazz fusion bassist Rick Fierabracci to his Wednesday night residence gig at Grapes and Hops where a large crowd gathered to sample some of the best California wines and listen to some great music.
At the other end of Main Street, just east of Ventura High School, in a nondescript little storefront, yet another sizable group listened to the Andy Waddell quintet, a young local jazz band featuring Andy Waddell on guitar, Katisse Buckingham on sax, Josh Nelson on piano, Hamilton Price on bass and Aaron McLendon smacking the drums.
According to proprietor Adam Randall, the mission of Squashed Grapes is to provide a venue seven days a week for live jazz music, whiles serving up homemade wine. Patrons can even take classes to make their own wine. But it is the music that packs the house late into the night, and the vibe at the comfortable little venue may be the most authentic of any jazz establishment in the county.
Sitting at the bar, Rich Barth, publisher of venturacountyjazz.com, could be seen grooving to the music. “Squashed Grapes has become the premier listening room in Ventura County,” he says. “Jazz musicians tell me that they appreciate the attentive and enthusiastic audience.”
An old poster on the wall captures the spirit of the place perfectly as it announces a 1964 concert by Dave Brubeck at the nearby high school. Jazz may also be making a comeback at the high school level with a renewed interest in learning the intricate discipline at area schools offering jazz programs. The walls of Squashed Grapes are covered with photos of veteran musicians who have performed there. In fact, the number of established jazz musicians, young and old, who call Ventura or nearby cities home is truly astounding. The short list includes saxophonists Karl Hunter of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Doug Webb, who has performed and recorded with Horace Silver; Freddie Hubbard and Stanley Clarke; Ira Nepus, a Grammy-winning trombone player with the Clayton Hamilton Jazz Orchestra; Ruben Estrada; and Jay Jackson, a jazz singer and actor on Parks and Recreation.
“You can listen to big bands every Sunday throughout Ventura County,” says Barth as he rattles off a laundry list of events. “First Sunday of the month at Piper’s Winery in Ventura, second Sunday at Simi Valley Jazz Club, third Sunday at Pacific Corinthian Yacht Club hosted by Channel Cities Jazz Club, fourth Sunday at Sportsman’s Restaurant in Camarillo. Jazz jams occur every Sunday at Beachcomber Tavern in Silverstrand Beach . . ..” Jazz definitely seems to be cool again in Ventura County.