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All That Jazz

Three locals team up in world premiere

Imagine San Diego circa 1939—an underground jazz club south of Broadway, where drinks flow freely, cigarette smoke swirls through a dimly lit room, and the moody riff of a saxophone serves as the soundtrack for romance, bar brawls, and more. This is the inspiration for The Federal Jazz Project, a new world premiere production opening April 6 at the San Diego Repertory Theatre.

Fast-forward to the late ’90s, in a speakeasy-type joint near 15th and Market streets, and that’s where playwright/actor Richard Montoya got an idea. The San Diego native was struck by the nightly jam sessions that showcased amateur musicians improvising alongside the regulars—sort of like an open-mic night for jazz lovers.  

“Some of the side men, the players who showed up at all hours carrying their axes, were military cats, some in uniform, and some catching the last cab back to base before reveille,” he says. “Playing jazz was more precious than sleep!”

Montoya set out to honor those stories and the stories of his Navy father, who believed “the coolest sailors went to old jazz haunts like the Green Door on Ash Street and more nefarious places in Tijuana.”

He eventually met celebrated trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos, whose weekly jam sessions have developed a cult following (check him out on Wednesdays at Seven Grand in North Park). Castellanos composed all of the music for The Federal Jazz Project, and is currently recording an album of the score, which will be available once the play opens.

“This play is really going to showcase the deep rich history of San Diego’s music scene in a way that hasn’t been done before,” Castellanos says.

The plot follows two sisters named San Diego and Tijuana, who get a shot at stardom in 1939. One sister’s misfortunes lead her to the bowels of Mexicali, while the other rises to the top. The play travels through decades and across the Mexican border, with jazz becoming, as Montoya says, “the vehicle across those borders.”

But don’t expect storytelling in the traditional sense. There will be some spoken dialogue blended with poetry and some singing blended with improvisational jazz tunes.

“It’s a mixture of how one tells a story,” says Sam Woodhouse, artistic director of the San Diego REP, who is also directing the show. “The challenge is how to fuse all of these styles.”

The Federal Jazz Project is funded in part by the San Diego Foundation and the National Endowment from the Arts, which shelled out $40,000 and gave the work recognition on a national level. Woodhouse has committed his theater company to representing “the place we call home,” and over the years his team has produced about 50 original works by Latinos. “There are maybe two other theaters in America that can say that.”

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