What's Happening at the Symphony

Gil Castellanos: All Are Welcome On The "Altar Of Joy"

Interview by Elizabeth Nonemaker

Since jazz trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos arrived in San Diego in 1995, he’s worked tirelessly to build a jazz scene marked by its inclusiveness. We caught up with him to learn about why he chose to make San Diego his creative home.

EN: You were born in Guadalajara, grew up in Fresno, and went to school in Boston and Valencia. What brought you to San Diego?

GC: It happened in a very strange way. The Los Angeles house I was living in got condemned during the Northridge Earthquake. I ended up moving to San Diego with, literally, the shirt on my back. I didn't know one soul here except my girlfriend at the time and her mother. We moved into a studio apartment with her for about six months.

EN: How did you get involved in the music scene?

GC: There really wasn’t one for me to be a part of. I tried, but it wasn’t the warmest welcome. So I told myself, I'm going to create my own scene. And I'm not going to shutter anyone out. I put a group together. I started doing workshops. I started hosting two jam sessions a week. 

One of them ran from midnight to four in the morning every Saturday. It was at a warehouse, and it was really word-of-mouth, very underground, but it spread like wildfire. I had a core group, a house band. We started by playing two to three numbers, and then we opened the session up.

EN: And anyone could get up and play with you?

GC: My biggest thing is there’s no level in music. If you play, and you have the courage to come out and bring your instrument, and you want to play on what I call the altar of joy, the stage, you are welcome.

EN: You also started the Young Lions Series, a performance and mentoring program for young jazz musicians. Did that come from the same desire to open the scene up to everyone?

GC: For me, it’s community service. The youth need an outlet to perfect their art, because they're not going to get that in school. I love performing. I love playing my trumpet. But my heart and soul are really with the youth.

EN: How do you bring your passion for community-building into your work as curator for the Jazz @ The Jacobs series?

GC: I’m really just having fun, and I try to get the symphony involved as much as possible. I’m trying to bring in something that has not been presented to San Diego. I want people to say, “Wow, even if we went to Los Angeles or New York, I don’t think we could have had the experience we got tonight.”

EN: Are there any upcoming shows that you’re particularly looking forward to?

GC: All of them. We’re opening with the Ella Fitzgerald centennial concert, featuring Mike Wofford, one of the few musicians who played with Ella that is still alive. Everybody and their mother should be there. Of course, for the Ray Brown and Oscar Peterson Tribute, I get to hire not only my favorite players, but my mentors, my musical fathers that helped me throughout my career. To return the favor and have them perform for a San Diego crowd is just going to be incredible.

EN: So, 22 years later, do you feel like San Diego has become that all-welcoming scene?

GC: It’s one thing I’m really proud of. San Diego feels like a family. The loyalty, the trust, and just being creative and working together. It’s something I try to teach all of my students. We have to have each other’s backs and be a community. That’s what I love about San Diego — there’s no clique. I think that equals success.

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