Although State Street shopfronts come and go, one band’s musical residence along the changing corridor has stood the test of time. For 20 years, Ulysses Jasz has livened up the James Joyce pub on Saturday nights with its festive Dixieland-New Orleans jazz sound. On Saturday, December 8, the indefatigable merrymakers celebrated two decades of music with their 2,000th show at the swinging State Street spot.
How did Ulysses Jasz become such a beloved area treasure? “Gradually, by reputation, I suppose,” said band leader Alex Marshall, who founded the band in 1998. “It started off as a jazz jam for just whoever wanted to come by. It was on a Monday night, and it grew and grew and grew, and eventually came into being a regular band. It just kept on going from there.”
Years in, the band is maybe more popular now than ever. “I think the pub is pretty well packed out every week we play. In the last few years, the interest in our music has increased somewhat — maybe because it’s happy music for troubled times.” Ulysses’s music swings and shouts with joie de vivre.
There’s also something quite singular about the buoyant band’s musical geography, led by a Scotsman, who with his musicians fills the Irish pub with sounds evoking New Orleans’s French Quarter. Ulysses take listeners on a journey back in musical time, playing numbers written from the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s: “Joyful songs worth playing,” Marshall said, “from the golden age of American songwriting. It’s the only pub in town that presents early jazz on a regular basis maybe one of the few in Southern California. So, it’s unique; I like to think so, anyways.”
In the U.K., “jazz is very often found in public houses,” Marshall said, and James Joyce owner Tommy Byrne, who comes from Ireland, heard a familiarity in the band’s sound. Marshall himself first found jazz when attending art college in his hometown of Edinburgh, Scotland, where he and fellow students were encouraged to strike up their own jazz bands. “They supplied us with a record player and albums, and there were all kinds of jazz albums — eventually we divided up into modern-jazz aficionados and traditional-jazz aficionados.”
Marshall’s first jazz band found its home at Edinburgh’s Royal Mile Café, where his tastes landed clearly on the traditional side. “An ingredient which I think is essential in jazz is the ability to swing. Swing’s a thing that makes people shake their shoulders or their ass or tap their feet. … Nobody’s tapping their foot to the avant-garde variety. I believe jazz went off the rails when it changed to bebop and avant-garde jazz; it became a minority interest instead of a majority interest, more esoteric.”
A late-1970s visit to Santa Barbara inspired Marshall to head out west. Now, Ulysses has an ever-changing lineup of talented players hailing from across Southern California. Set lists are fresh by necessity; each night is its own odyssey. The band never rehearses, instead playing to the tune of each week’s new rotation of musicians and moods. “Every week, the band is different. I have a pool of 50 musicians to draw upon and assemble the band every week. … I’m the only original member left,” Marshall said. His enumerated handwritten set lists reflect the band’s rather improvisatory imaginations, each a document of the moment; no show is ever the same.
What keeps Ulysses Jasz in town — and why Santa Barbara? “There’s a very rich cultural heritage here. It’s a special place that attracts special people,” Marshall said. Ulysses, in their popular pep, resonate with all kinds of Santa Barbarans. Whatever changes occur in Santa Barbara, here’s hoping Ulysses Jasz continues to uplift ears and hearts on Saturdays for many years to come.