Where the jazz goes down

By Jeff Clemetson

Handlery Hotel plays host to San Diego’s local jazz scene

A list of San Diego’s successful music clubs would include places like The Casbah, The Observatory North Park, The Music Box, Soda Bar, Winston’s and many other hotspots located in Uptown, Downtown or the beach areas. But there is also one surprising addition to that list that has been successful for jazz music in Mission Valley — The Handlery Hotel.

For the past two and half years, jazz fans have packed the Handlery Hotel’s 950 Lounge every Friday from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. to hear their favorite local and occasional touring jazz players.

Jazz flutist Holly Hoffman has been promoting a successful jazz happy hour at the Handlery Hotel for the last two and a half years. (Photo by Jeff Clemetson)

“It’s like an old-fashioned jazz club, like when I started playing jazz clubs, where it isn’t a supper club or requires a heavy reservation or heavy cover charge,” promoter Holly Hofmann said.

Hofmann is a jazz flutist who has a long history of putting on jazz shows in San Diego. She ran a jazz series at Horton Hotel in Downtown from 1990 to 1997 featuring national acts; then held a similar series at the Bristol Court Hotel for a few years; and from 2000 to 2008 put on Jazz in the Park at the Art Museum in Balboa Park on every first Wednesday of the month.

“I have a big history doing this because I believe that if you know how to do this you should do this so that everybody has a place to play,” she said.

Her latest jazz series at the 950 Lounge is a departure from the focus on national touring acts she used to promote and instead is a chance to promote local acts by making the show times and location easy for them to book around.

“I designed it that way so guys can play this gig and then go to another gig,” she said. “It was designed to be a room for all the local artists who make their living here.”

Hofmann said she only books “real jazz” for her concert series — think Miles Davis as opposed to Kenny G.

“When I say ‘real jazz,’ it’s the music of the masters. It’s not the music of smooth anything. It’s what I call mainstream and be-bop primarily in this room. I listen to all kinds of music and I support all kinds of music but I don’t support people calling things jazz that aren’t. It’s music at a very high standard,” she said, adding that while there are occasional singers, the groups she books are mostly instrumental.

The room at the 950 Lounge has only 80 seats and some limited standing room, so only around 100 people can cram into the small club.

“We turn people away every week,” Hofmann said, and shared that there was once a show of local all-stars players that was so packed that around 250 people had to be turned away. The popularity of the Friday shows prompted Hofmann and the hotel to look at ways to expand the jazz show series.

“We’re probably going to add another night because they can’t get everybody in — maybe in the fall,” she said.

In addition to the free shows at the 950 Lounge, the Handlery has also opened up its ballrooms occasionally for larger jazz shows. In March, Hofmann’s series celebrated a two-year anniversary with a ballroom concert and on Aug. 20 there will be a fundraiser for Gilbert Castellanos’ jazz academy in the big ballroom, as well.


Big band concert

The success of Hofmann’s jazz series has inspired other local musicians to put on their own jazz concerts at the Handlery. On July 23, the hotel will put on its first Big Band Sunday show featuring The Ira B. Liss Big Band Jazz Machine.

Although not a production put on by Hofmann, Ira B. Liss said that it was his 30-year association with her that helped him decide to look at the hotel for his big band concert.

The Handlrey Hotel will host the Ira B. Liss Big Band Machine on July 23. (

“We’ve known each other a long time and she has actually performed as a guest with the band in the past,” he said. “And she pitched it to the management of the hotel and they liked the idea and I met with them on several occasions with the general manager and they said ‘Let’s do something.’ So we’re doing it.”

Unlike previous jazz shows at The Handlery, this one will be held outdoors in the hotel’s Terrace Garden.

“It’s actually quite nice with a gazebo and grass. They use it for weddings a lot and it holds about 250 to 300 people very easily,” Liss said.

The big-band show starts at 5 p.m. and tickets are $15. The all-ages show will feature Liss’ 18-member Big Band Jazz Machine, which has been together for 38 years and has put out four albums with a fifth on the way. The group, which features vocalist Janet Hammer, plays both original compositions and standards.

“We tend to play a little more modern than most big bands who like to play Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey,” he said. “We’re kind of a little more modern although we respect the tradition.

“We’re a little more cutting edge but we swing as well as anyone.”

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