PICTURED: Hans Ottsen was honored during a tribute jam May 3. Photo by Chris Jensen

by Alex Wilson

There’s a reason it’s called the Gratitude Jazz Jam.

Great jazz musicians grace the stage at The Grape each Tuesday night, welcoming less experienced players who are grateful to find support and musical inspiration.

Ever since Ventura County’s premier jazz club started rolling under the name Squashed Grapes at a smaller Midtown Ventura location in 2010, guitar virtuoso Hans Ottsen has been a mainstay of the weekly jam session. April 26, 2022 would be the last time his elegantly flowing solos would be heard.

The following Tuesday, the crowd at The Grape was twice the usual size. Word had spread that Ottsen, 45, passed away April 30 as a result of mental health issues that, according to his loving family, he had dealt with for many years. While there was a sense of sadness in the air, the soaring high notes and appreciative applause after every solo made it feel as though Ottsen’s presence was still there at times.

“An amazing player, and such a good soul”

Drummer Manon Franklin of Oxnard met Ottsen at a music jam about 10 years ago and performed during the May 3 tribute.

“When I first saw him play, man, I thought he was amazing. An amazing player, and such a good soul,” Franklin said. 

While most of Franklin’s drumming experience is from playing gospel and pop music, Ottsen nurtured Franklin’s growth in the rarified and infinitely complex world of jazz.

“He would lead me and guide me. I’d watch him for cues and he helped me along the way on my jazz journey,” Franklin said. “He was just one of those people you could talk to and he had such knowledge about not just music, but life and everything. It was such an honor to play with him.”

Musicians performing at The Grape in Ventura during the Gratitude Jazz Jam on March 3, 2022. Photo by Alex Wilson

Ottsen’s playing revealed the person he was and the beauty of his heart, Franklin added. “That love, that sense of caring, all that came out while he played, and you could feel that. He was truly expressing himself and it was lovely to witness.”

Even more than honoring Ottsen as a musician, Franklin was compelled to play in the tribute because of the person Ottsen was.

“He made me feel really loved,” Franklin said. “You felt the love from him. Every time you’d go to leave or greet each other, he’d give a good solid hug. And he wasn’t afraid to say ‘I love you,’ and I loved that.”

“It was always gratitude of the community and the comradery”

Josh McNutt is a co-owner with Adam Randall of The Grape, which opened at its current location at 2733 East Main Street last October, a few blocks east of the original Ventura venue, which had become too small for the growing audience. The business made an earlier move to an industrial area on Ventura’s Market Street that ended in 2020 when nightclubs were shut down by the pandemic. 

McNutt said Ottsen had been instrumental in the nightclub’s musical success since the beginning.

“He started the jazz jam as being just a community of musicians that would all come to play together, meet new people, collaborate together. No pressure. You don’t need to be a professional to show up,” McNutt said. “It’s irreplaceable, what he brought to these jazz jams.”

McNutt was happy so many people turned out to honor Ottsen.

“I’m extremely grateful that as many people showed up as they did. And this goes back to Hans naming the jazz jam as the Gratitude Jazz Jam. It was always gratitude of the community and the comradery, and everything that was taking place on the stage,” McNutt said. “There’s a lot of people in here who are really hurting right now. And to see the kind of outpouring of people in this room that are offering support is tremendous.” 

Ottsen was surrounded by music from the time he was born because his mother is an opera singer and music teacher, according to an obituary written by his family. Ottsen studied jazz at USC and the Manhattan School of Music in New York City. While Ottsen was in New York he also volunteered to provide therapy music to cancer patients as they emerged from surgery.

 “Just this vibrant personality”

Hans Ottsen was a mentor to many musicians. Photo by Chris Jensen

Chris Jensen is a Ventura-based professional photographer known for portraits of musicians, who works with famous performers including Kenny Loggins. Jensen is also a drummer himself, with bands including 50 Sticks of Dynamite, and sometimes jammed with Ottsen.

The leader of a band Ottsen performed with asked Jensen to take pictures of all the members individually to help promote upcoming shows. Jensen said the shots of Ottsen were fantastic because the guitar player’s personality shone through.

“Because he’s just a beautiful person. I don’t ever really direct people that much. I just kind of catch whatever’s there,” Jensen said. “With Hans, his soul came out.”

Aaron Winters played drums in a band with Ottsen and became a close friend. Ottsen also gave piano lessons to Winters’ two daughters.

“He actually was a great piano player, too. He knew theory like the back of his hand and he had this really unique way of distilling complex things into these simple terms that could connect and make jazz look, I wouldn’t say easy, but accessible. And so my kids loved him because he was fun,” Winters said. “He was just this vibrant personality. He was always laughing and really animated. He was not stoic like, ‘Here’s your scales.’ He was like ‘What’s your favorite song on the radio.’”

Winters said he and Ottsen had lots of fun times together, but Winters also knew about hard times when Ottsen went through periods of deep depression. Winters said Ottsen acknowledged his mental health issues and received treatment.

Many players joined in the Tuesday night Gratitude Jazz Jam honoring the late Hans Ottsen on May 3, 2022, at The Grape in Ventura. Photo by Alex Wilson

“I don’t think he was in denial about much in his life. I think he really wanted things to be easier at times, but I also think he just recognized that with great genius comes some suffering and some kind of chaos, and that’s just the lot that he was given,” Winters said.

The loss to his family, friends and fellow musicians is incalculable, Winters said. “It’s tragic. He’s too young. He was an incredible musician, and an incredible teacher. Just a really great heart. And there’s just a gap. There’s a hole in the music community, certainly in the jazz community here in Ventura with his passing, without a doubt. Look at all the people here that he’s impacted. To lose a talent like that, it hurts man, it just hurts.”

Ottsen’s family has planned a celebration of life at Ventura’s First United Methodist Church, the church he attended growing up. It’s set for Sunday, May 15, at 3 p.m. and everyone is invited.

An invitation-only jam session will follow at The Grape at 5 p.m. that will feature some of Ottsen’s own compositions and favorite songs. Invitations will be handed out at the church.

Ottsen’s family has also created a scholarship fund to provide instruments and lessons to music students. Donations can be made at www.gofundme.com/f/hans-ottsen-music-scholarship-fund.