BARS ARE SWINGING: Saturday night in downtown Santa Barbara, the bars are raging, the noise is deafening, college-age kids are dancing and pouring down rivers of booze, and the tourists are slouching along, bug-eyed at the bizarreness of it all, leading wide-eyed, thumb-sucking children out a lot later then they’re used to.
Taxies are lined up, waiting to take survivors home to their beds or someone else’s. Bouncers and age-checkers in black T-shirts guard the club entrances.
Many Santa Barbarans dare not get near this end of State Street on a weekend night, fearing for their safety or eardrums or mental equilibrium in this vortex of vertigo, flashing lights, swirling crowds, and the danger of being run down by a runaway stroller.
It was not always this way. Back when I moved to town in the 1960s, the joke was that you could fire a cannon down State Street and not hit anything or anyone except a lone wino.
These days, Joe’s Café, once the place to go, faces competition from a new, throbbing crop of neon dance-drink-and-hook-up night spots whose fickle clientele swarm from one club to another like restless birds at nesting time.
But amid the madness, there’s at least one oasis of sanity. There, as one patron put it, people come for the music, not the alcohol, though that’s available, too. I speak of the James Joyce. There on Saturday nights, beginning at 7:30, the band Ulysses Jasz (that’s the traditional way they spell it) plays songs mostly from the 1920s and 1930s to a bouncy New Orleans beat. They’ve been doing it at the James Joyce for 18 years, with changing personnel.
My daughter/designated driver Wendy and I set off to arrive well before 7 p.m. to assure ourselves of good seats. But as we walked along Cota Street, we heard a joyous burst of sidewalk music and came across the musicians that play for patrons waiting to get into the Palace Grill, 8 East Cota Street.
The food is Cajun-Creole, and the music fits. If you get there around 6 p.m., the Zydeco Zippers are playing hot music that evolved from French Creole speakers. J.T. Whitney is the leader. His dad, Ralph, plays washboard.
At the James Joyce, we grabbed a table next to the entrance, just feet from Curt Sletten on cornet and trumpet, formerly with the Harry James band and tribute bands of Glenn Miller, Les Brown, and Bob Crosby; famed trombonist Larry Jones; clarinetist Bob Efford, who’s played with top English bands and, I’m told, can be heard on many movie scores and on Beatles record tracks; Dean Dods, on string bass and tuba, son of area jazz legend Bill Dods; and John Leonard on the swinging keyboards. Scotsman Alex Marshall, the band leader, plays guitar and tenor banjo. Rene Martinez and Larry Fisher rotate engagements on drums.
As we waited for the band to fire up, we listened to tapes of trumpeter Wild Bill Davison’s recordings and his big, brassy horn. Marshall and I soon fell into fond reminiscences about Davison, a mutual friend who lived here with his Hollywood actress wife, Anne Stewart.
Wendy and I found ourselves among friends, new and old. This is definitely a lively locals bar. We sat next to Beverly Robinson, selling the band’s CDs, and found ourselves singing along with her to some of the old standards.
As the evening wore on, we heard the Ulysses’s catchy songs, such as “You’re Driving Me Crazy,” “The Sunny Side of the Street,” and “Goody Goody.” Mixed in were jazz classics including “Take the ‘A’ Train,” an homage to Duke Ellington and composer Billy Strayhorn, and, of course, Louis Armstrong. In the back, young couples and the not-so-young were swing dancing.
Belting the songs was Hanna, in a black mini-dress, getting up from her regular seat at our end of bar.
College-age girls jitter-danced in place, seeming almost delirious with pleasure. It was so much fun to enjoy their delight that Wendy brought a long-stemmed rose to one as a thank-you.
Are these old-timey songs and happy music relevant to today? Alex Marshall’s opinion: “In these troubled times, the world needs this music again.” Ulysses Jasz will play a concert at La Cumbre Plaza on Thursday, September 29, 5-7 p.m.