PICTURED: Dogfish Jazz Collective performing at Hong Kong Inn in February 2019. Photo submitted by Richard Barth

by Marina Dunbar

As Ventura County slowly begins the process of returning to business as usual, residents are careful to remember that a return to normalcy does not mean a lack of progress. Many have taken the past year as an opportunity to grow amidst hardship. Artists across the board have had their livelihood impacted by the pandemic, but they have also taken time to self-reflect and advance their craft. Jazz musicians have had a particularly unique experience with lockdown as it relates to their ability to play music together. 

Jazz music is innovative in that it is a communal activity; more so than a solitary one. The concept of the young jazz cat who spends hours practicing alone in his room is a stereotype that unfortunately overlooks the collective soul of jazz. In fact, people often think of “soul” as being the essence of an individual, but in the jazz sense of the word, it refers to a shared energy, a common wavelength. When you say that a jazz musician “has soul,” you do not mean “they’re so individual.” Rather, you mean, “I feel a connection with the music they’re making.”

And speaking of connections, Richard Barth devotes his time to connecting jazz musicians with their local audience. Barth runs VenturaCountyJazz.com, a website dedicated to advertising events and platforming performers. 

“One of the reasons I love the scene here is that you’ll get someone who is world renowned who will play these little venues in Ventura County,” says Barth. “They’re not doing it for the money . . . they’ll be helping out a student jazz competition, be a backing band for the kids. Ira Nepus, the trombonist for Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, he’ll go out of his way to schedule a high school band to open for a big band so that they can get real-world experience. So many legends who live right here in the county will come to local jam sessions . . . It’s so inclusive whether you are a big star or a musician who got the call at the last minute.”

This inclusivity is the perfect example of what soul means in the jazz world. As Barth points out, someone who certainly understands this is Ira Nepus, esteemed trombonist, multi-Grammy winner, and local hero to many young musicians. 

“I gravitate towards jazz because it makes you feel good. It could make you feel good in a happy way, a sad way, a range of emotions, but it moves you. The swinging aspect is what jazz really comes down to. It should groove,” Nepus explains. “We have to master the technique of our instruments, but when it comes time to play, we can’t be thinking about [the analysis]. We just have to use our ears . . . You want to be enveloped by the music, like someone hugging you.”

Jazz is unique among music genres because it relies on improvisation, and improvisation relies on other musicians to play off of. Due to the communal aspect of jazz, musicians have been profoundly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only has live music been halted and local venues shut down, but cats are unable to get together and play. Adam Randall, co-owner of Ventura’s definitive jazz venue Squashed Grapes, undoubtedly knows the value of live music. 

“It’s kind of intangible to describe [the importance of live music to a community],” says Randall. “Sometimes we would leave the front door open and let the music into the street . . . I noticed that many people would stop to check us out, some would even pause an errand and get out of their cars to hear the music. Those are the things that tell me how much music means to the community.”

Even before being deprived of live music, Ventura always appreciated jazz. 

“We have a listening audience,” explains Barth. “[Locals] have an energy that the performers feed off of . . . the audience is attentive, they applaud for solos, they don’t treat jazz like background music. We’re blessed here in Ventura that the audience is sophisticated enough to respect the musicianship.”

Find live jazz performances and more at Ventura County Jazz, www.venturacountyjazz.com