Why Wil Blades is the Latest Celebrated Jazz Musician to Leave the Bay Area

Wil Blades performs at the Boom Boom Room in San Francisco in December 2012. (Ryan Hughes)

Deep ambivalence often greets the news of a Bay Area jazz musician making the move to New York City. There’s sadness and disappointment at losing yet another player to the siren call of Gotham, tinged with a streak of respect for their moxie and pride at their cultural contributions. But when the word arrives about Bay Area cats taking their talent to Los Angeles? Well, that hurts, stoking an intrastate rivalry that tends to be felt much more strongly up here than down there.

The latest departure cuts particularly deeply, as Hammond B-3 maestro Wil Blades isn’t a young lion looking to make his mark, but a stalwart of the local scene. He arrived in the Bay Area from Chicago in the late 1990s at the age of 18 and, over the next two decades, built a vaunted national reputation as a hard-swinging player equally adept at New Orleans funk as Ellingtonian suites.

He celebrates his 40th birthday and bids adieu to the Bay Area with performances on Aug. 25 at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage and Aug. 26 at Santa Cruz’s Kuumbwa Jazz Center. The concerts feature a brilliant cross-section of longtime collaborators, including drummers Scott Amendola, Mike Clark and Brandon Etzler and guitarists Jeff Parker and Jack “Tone” Reardon. Blades will also be joined by an early mentor, trumpeter/percussionist Oscar Myers, and New Orleans alto sax great Donald Harrison Jr., “an incredibly underrated musician,” Blades says.

Blades' move reflects an unfortunate reality for artists in the Bay Area. His wife is a film and video editor, and in both of their fields, “if you want to take further steps, you have to leave the Bay,” Blades says from his new digs in Los Feliz. “You’ve seen that over the years with Josh Redman, Benny Green, Will Bernard, even though some of them have moved back.”

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Blades’ departure is a leading indicator of a full-blown bear market on the Bay Area jazz scene. Indeed, it says as much about Los Angeles' rising stock as it does about San Francisco and beyond, as every week seems to bring word of another player relocating to the Southland. Former Brooklynites like Soulive guitarist Eric Krasno and saxophonist Hailey Niswanger are living in Los Angeles. And Blades’ comrade Jeff Parker made the move several years ago from Chicago, where he’d earned international renown for his work with Tortoise and various AACM trailblazers. Like Blades, the decision also had to do with his partner, a filmmaker and teacher at California Institute of the Arts.

With the emergence of Kendrick Lamar and the constellation of jazz-trained musicians working with Brainfeeder and Flying Lotus, the L.A. scene has generated more buzz than at any time since mid-1950s. As a native Angeleno who started writing about the Southland jazz scene in the early 1990s before moving to the East Bay in 1996, I can attest that the scene was just as buzzworthy back then.

Part of what’s changed is a steady inflow of ambitious young musicians drawn to the increasingly strong music programs at leading institutions. The University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music, long famed for supplying Hollywood with film composers, has built up a powerhouse faculty roster, including bassist Alphonso Johnson, saxophonist Bob Sheppard, keyboardist/composer Patrice Rushen, composer Vince Mendoza and drummers Roy McCurdy and Peter Erskine (with whom Oakland drummer Victor McElhaney was studying before he was killed in March).

Across town, the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music continues to boost its jazz program, launching a global jazz studies major last fall. Cal Arts in Valencia has incubated adventurous improvisers for decades, while Cal State Northridge and Cal State Long Beach also boast strong jazz programs. The historic rivalry between USC and UCLA doesn’t seem to impact fraternization on the bandstand.

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“People always allude to that, but all the students play with each other,” says Berkeley-raised tenor saxophonist/composer Hitomi Oba, a UCLA graduate who now teaches music theory and leads several ensembles as the school. “My students are always over there. It’s an exciting time as UCLA is hiring some new full-time faculty and they’re trying to make it distinct from other programs.”

The schools draw young Bay Area musicians to Los Angeles, but what keeps them there is the numerous opportunities for work, whether teaching, playing recording sessions or composing for film, television and games. East Bay bassist Victor Little, a 50-something ace who’s toured or recorded with Booker T. Jones, Charlie Musselwhite and Patti Austin among many others, has thought about making the move, though he’s loath to pull up stakes without a solid gig already lined up.

New Orleans alto sax star Donald Harrison Jr., left, and drum great Mike Clark, right, join Hammond B-3 organ master Wil Blades at his 40th birthday party and Bay Area farewell at Freight & Salvage on Aug. 25 and Kuumbwa on Aug. 26.
New Orleans alto sax star Donald Harrison Jr., left, and drum great Mike Clark, right, join Hammond B-3 organ master Wil Blades at his 40th birthday party and Bay Area farewell at Freight & Salvage on Aug. 25 and Kuumbwa on Aug. 26. (Courtesy of Wil Blades)

The opportunities available down south became evident when he was spending a little time in Los Angeles last year on vacation. A friend called him up and told him to bring his bass down to a studio downtown “where they were auditioning a band for Taylor Hicks from American Idol,” Little says. “I get down there and every guy in L.A. is there, a cattle call. I did my thing and they called me back, but it didn’t end up happening. I’ve thought a lot about the L.A. thing. It’s really hard to make it in the Bay Area."

The same real estate prices that make the Bay Area unaffordable have swept away dozens of spots that once presented live music. "People are not wanting to spend the money," says Little. "They might go out one night a week.”

Blades arrived as the dot-com bubble was rapidly inflating and started working steadily within months. Over the years, a plethora of regular gigs whittled down to three, “the Boom Boom Room, Madrone Art Bar and the Royal Cuckoo,” Blades says. “There used to be Bruno’s and Pearl’s and Doc’s Lab, and so many more.”

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The scene took a major hit after 9/11, but it was the 2008 recession that radically revamped the musical landscape, though many of the most significant changes were out of sight for fans. “Working musician gigs, private events, restaurant hits, weddings, the gigs we don’t advertise but are key to making a living,” Blades says. “They can pay several hundred dollars, and if you have a few in month it helps subsidize the gigs that don’t pay as much. A lot of those went away in 2008.”

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For Blades, L.A. is more than a field of opportunity, it’s a frontier that seems particularly ripe for a player dedicated to the mighty but unwieldy B-3. “I counted 10 places around the Bay Area that have Hammond organs,” Blades says. “Here there are zero. I’m hoping to build a scene. The newness is pretty exciting.”

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