ELEGY FOR ELARIO’S: When The Jewel ruled the jazz

Pianist Michel Camilo’s hands moving so fast, they go out of focus … spittle spraying out of the bell of Freddie Hubbard’s trumpet … Rod Piazza teetering on a dinner table while blowing his mouth harp.This highlight reel of random memories is from the long-gone Elario’s. It’s playing in the head of Rob Hagey, the jazz club/restaurant’s former music booker.

From 1978 to 1992, Elario’s ruled the San Diego jazz scene from a perch high atop what is now Hotel La Jolla. (Then, it was called the Summerhouse Inn.)

Another random Elario’s memory comes back to Hagey, who grew up on nearby Hidden Mountain Road and only relocated from La Jolla a month ago — to Santa Fe, New Mexico.

“That smell,” Hagey said. “It was everywhere. I was married and I would come back home and get kicked out of bed because I smelled like cigarette smoke.”

San Diego had other venues for jazz at the time. In fact, La Jolla even had two others: Chuck’s Steakhouse and the Blue Parrot, both on Prospect Street.

“But Elario’s, in its heyday, was undoubtedly the best and most notable,” said George Varga, pop music critic for the Union-Tribune, who estimates witnessing nearly 100 Elario’s performances by the likes of saxophonists Henry Threadgill and Maceo Parker, Brazilian music legend Hermeto Pasocal and Varga’s favorite, a quartet that only ever performed for two weeks at Elario’s in February 1989: bassist Charlie Haden and his drummer, Larance Marable, guitarist Peter Sprague and pianist Mike Wofford.

Jazz, blues and rock music legend Papa John Creach, shown playing Elario's in 1988, was at one time a member of both Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna.
In the 1970s, legendary jazz, blues and rock violinist Papa John Creach — shown playing Elario's in 1988 — was a member of both Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna. JOHN R. McCUTCHEN/COURTESY SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE

“No other venue in San Diego County that I can recall was regularly bringing in such major national and international jazz artists at that time,” said Varga, who credits a combination of factors: the ample room size, good sound quality and the unusually attentive and knowledgeable audience.

“Frequently, jazz audiences applaud after every solo,” Varga said. “When Charlie Haden and his quartet performed at Elario’s, I remember KSDS Jazz 88 DJ Ron Galon commenting: ‘This audience is so hip, they know when not to applaud.’ ”

Secret of Elario’s success

But there was also a secret reason jazz musicians loved playing Elario’s. The club occupied the entire 11th floor, and guests occupying the entire 10th floor didn’t appreciate their rooms rattling to the rhythm. In fact, many had to be moved or offered deep discounts. So Steve Satkowski, Hagey’s predecessor, hit on an idea.

“What they did was offer engagements to the musicians, where we gave them a week or two in the hotel, a food and beverage per diem and one-bedroom suite with an ocean view on the 10th floor,” recalled Ted Burke, the Summerhouse Inn’s former switchboard operator and reservationist. “It was just a sweetheart deal, and the musicians couldn’t complain about the music because they were making it.”

Jazz musicians wanted to play the Village Vanguard in New York because of its rich history. They wanted to play Elario’s for the free room with the beautiful ocean view and the vacation in La Jolla.

Today, the former Elario's space is a restaurant called Cusp.
Today, the former Elario's space is a restaurant called Cusp. COREY LEVITAN

How it began

Elario’s opened in 1972, along with the Summerhouse Inn, as its restaurant. The hotel’s original general manager, Afredo Frettoloso, gave the eatery his father’s first name. In 1975, La Jollan Martin Mosier and his family bought the hotel, which came with Elario’s.

“I thought I was just buying into a real-estate investment where I didn’t have to get actively involved,” Mosier said from his Las Vegas home. “But then I realized it would be more profitable if I operated it myself.”

It was Mosier’s idea to bring in music. He started with the Ken Kaiser Trio and Joe Marillo in 1976, before assigning the booking to Satkowski, his operations manager, who was more dialed into the local music scene and had the required jones for jazz.

“I’m more into classical music,” Mosier said. “But anything that gave us publicity, I looked at as good because it brought people into the dining room and the bar. And jazz filled the room.”

For almost 15 years, improvised live music blared from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. every Wednesday through Sunday atop the Summerhouse Inn.

“To play for people five nights in a row, it was remarkable,” said former San Diego Symphony percussionist Jim Plank, who drummed for hundreds of Elario’s dates. “But then to have it somewhere so upscale like that was also very unusual, because the whole origin of jazz music is saloons and brothels.”

National noise

The club generated an immediate buzz. Occasionally, it got so crowded, it became a fire hazard.

“I remember once, coming out of the elevator going up and you couldn’t even move when the door opened,” Hagey said.

In April 1985, Grammy-winner Chick Corea debuted his Elektric Band at Elario’s, a recording of which eventually became the album “Live From Elario’s (The First Gig).” This upped the club’s cachet, as did a nationally syndicated KPBS-TV series, “Club Date,” that ran from 1988 to 1992 and was a bit of a cheat.

“They dimmed the lights and put out cocktail tables in this studio at SDSU,” said Plank, who played on most of the broadcasts. “They never said we were at Elario’s, although I think they implied it. But it was a great opportunity for musicians to rehearse before playing Elario’s, and a good promotion for the club.”

Chick Corea performs at Elario's on April 16, 1985.
Chick Corea performs at Elario's on April 16, 1985. BRUCE K. DUFF/COURTESY SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE


Mosier sold the Summerhouse in 1991, which rebranded as Hotel La Jolla and changed hands several times since. (It’s now listed as a Hilton property.) Elario’s switched to all-local acts in 1992, then ditched jazz altogether in 1993. It became Elario’s Bistro and Sky Lounge for a while, followed by the Crescent Shores Grill, Clay’s, The Grill at Hotel La Jolla and, now, Cusp, which features performances by singer-songwriters on Thursday nights.

The gaping void left by Elario’s was part of the reason the Jazz at the Athenaeum series, launched in 1989, became so successful, it spawned the Athenaeum Jazz at the TSRI (The Scripps Research Institute) series in 1996.

In the years since Elario’s closed, Hagey often walked his dog below the hotel and looked up to those top-floor windows.“I would remember what a wonderful life that was,” he said, “to be given the freedom to promote and enjoy such great music.”