In Memoriam: Joseph ‘Joseppi’ Scozzaro: 1943-2017

Courtesy Photo

Joseph Alan Scozzaro, a Santa Barbara music scene legend who lit up lower State Street for 15 years as the proprietor of Joseppi’s Bar and Restaurant, died on September 26, at age 73, succumbing to progressive Lewy body dementia. Joseppi, as he was known, became a legend the way all the best legends do: through touching and improving the lives of those around him, one person at a time.

In Joe’s case, the community he created was achieved in the most humble and human of ways, through his sense of humor, ever-ready laugh, twinkling eyes, and generous heart, and the sharing of good music, good food, and good drink. We’re talking world-class jazz, 50-cent oysters, and two-dollar plates of pasta, bread and salad included. No brass, no ferns, no white tablecloths. It was this humility, embodied and amplified by the bare brick walls of his establishment, that helped make both him and the bar Santa Barbara institutions through most of the ’80s and ’90s.

Joe was born October 23, 1943, in Trenton, New Jersey, to Anne and James Scozzaro, graduating from Rider College with a BA in business administration and later serving in the Army Reserves. He came west in the early ’80s, and after spending time in the Bay Area, landed in Santa Barbara. He and partner Jim Kurtze used a combined savings of $1,200 to fully fund Joseppi’s, which opened in May 1983 at 434 State Street.

At that time, Highway 101 still had stoplights as it passed through Santa Barbara, and some of Joseppi’s neighbors were a car dealership, a pet store, and a Pep Boys. Joe’s rent was $400 a month. Even though the space was a tiny 900 square feet, Joe filled it with a central bar, in emulation of a favorite bar in Trenton — an unorthodox choice for such a small space.

Within two years, he had married California native Sharyl Johnson and convinced her to live with him in the windowless attic above the bar. They eked out a life there until the eighth month of Sharyl’s pregnancy with their daughter, A. Tianna, at which point it was time for the family to move to a real home. A few years later, their son, Nicolas, came along too.

When Joe first opened the restaurant, business was slow. Joe began practicing the accordion, which he had learned as a kid, as had most Italians growing up in New Jersey at that time. This live music led him to book other entertainment, and soon Joseppi’s became a “Jazz and Oyster Bar.” He began to showcase famous jazz acts like Richie Cole, Flora Purim, David Friesen, and Les McCann, but soon musicians of all stripes began to embrace Joseppi’s, and a community was created, in the best of ways.

Joseppi’s entertainment calendar exploded to include live bands seven nights a week, sometimes three acts in one night — experimental jazz, Afro-Cuban, Brazilian, blues, punk, singer/songwriter, original pop and rock, and everything in between. And it was Joseppi’s unorthodox choice of a central bar that paid off in spades: Customers felt like they were sitting around someone’s living room, watching their friends have a jam session. On Friday nights, Joseppi even served lasagna cooked and brought in piping hot by Sharyl and the kids. 

For area musicians of all stripes, Joseppi’s became that cherished hole-in-the wall where they were given permission to work out their stuff, showcase new songs, pursue their dreams, and gather out back to talk music, smoke cigarettes, and stay up too late. Soon Joseppi himself became part of the action with the formation of Joseppi’s Wedding Band, a 10-piece combo that held down Tuesday nights off and on through the ’80s, and which featured Joe on the accordion. The bar’s influence continued to build, and in 1987, the Independent named Joseppi a Local Hero for his part in nurturing a vibrant, original music scene.

By the late ’90s, though, Joe began to tire of the late nights. In 1995, he sold the business and transitioned into a life as a full-time, dedicated family man. Joseppi taught his children to play music, was involved at their schools, coached his son’s Pony League baseball teams, and later served as the announcer for his son’s baseball games at Santa Barbara High School. Joseppi also began umpiring baseball and softball leagues across Santa Barbara County. He later accepted a position at the quaint Santa Barbara airport greeting travelers at the SkyWest Airlines ticket counter, where his sense of humor and twinkling eyes found a new home and a new audience.

The Scozzaro family traveled to dozens of national parks across the United States in their loyal Westfalia van, and when the kids finally left home for college and graduate school, Joe took advantage of his free airline tickets to visit them often. He also continued to play his accordion all over town — at the Solstice Parade, the I Madonnari Festival, weddings, nursing homes, and children’s events. He was a member of the Accordion Club and Italian clubs and volunteered for the Organic Soup Kitchen.

Most of all, Joseppi was simply Joseppi, a truly original Santa Barbaran who helped create lasting moments of opportunity and joy for the thousands who heard his jokes, enjoyed his smile, or tipped a glass of two-dollar draft beer at his club. The night Joseppi’s closed, Joe left promptly at 2 a.m. but gave the keys to a group of loyal customers who stayed ’til sunrise, telling stories and savoring the last delicious moments. As we do now, they were celebrating the life of, and the life created by, Joseppi Scozzaro, who leaves a legacy of community building, humility, generosity, family, and a warm heart.

A memorial tribute will be held at Godric Grove, Elings Park, Sunday, October 22, 10:30 a.m.


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