Banjo benefit: Quartet to perform concert for Rotary Club of La Jolla

By Ashley Mackin

The Alison Brown Quartet will play a special concert to raise funds for the Rotary Club of La Jolla, 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 2 at the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library, 1008 Wall St.

Though Brown, a Grammy-winning (and four-time Grammy-nominated) banjoist has a solid love of bluegrass, she said those who attend the show will hear a little something extra.

“What we do as a quartet can’t really be called ‘bluegrass,’ ” Brown said. “It has a foot in bluegrass, a foot in jazz, and we dabble in Celtic music, too ... but the instrumentation of the group is more like a jazz trio — a piano, a bass and drums,” and of course, the banjo. She added that growing up in Southern California (and going to La Jolla High School), she was exposed to different kinds of music, so having the different styles integrated into her songs seemed a natural fit.

Brown said the banjo is an instrument that “caught my ear and my imagination” as a youth, and for those learning the banjo, the first music they typically learn to play is bluegrass. She was able to explore her new love as a member of the San Diego Bluegrass Club (now the San Diego Bluegrass Society). “It was surprising to me when I first discovered it, but there is a pretty good bluegrass scene in Southern California,” she said.

Though the passion was there, she said, “I always thought my musical interests would just be a hobby for me, I didn’t really imagine that I would become a professional banjo player. I had my sights set on going to Harvard to become a lawyer or doctor.”

She did go to Harvard for undergraduate studies and got a Master’s in Business Administration from UCLA. But while working as an investment banker in the late 1980s, she took a break from working full time and reconnected with the banjo.

It just so happened that at the time, singer Alison Krauss — who is credited with helping renew interest in bluegrass through her contribution to soundtracks for films such as “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” — needed a banjoist for her group Alison Krauss and Union Station. Brown performed with Krauss for several years, and on Krauss’s Grammy-winning album “I’ve Got That Old Feeling,” before winning her own Grammy for best country instrumental performance for a track off her album “Fair Weather” in 2001.

But with two parents in the La Jolla Rotary Club — John and Barbara Brown — and the venue for her upcoming show, Brown said she couldn’t wait to come back home.

“I love the Athenaeum. I love the whole vibe of that part of downtown La Jolla, so I’m really looking forward to playing there,” she said.

The Rotarians are excited, too. Rotary Club of La Jolla President Pat Stouffer said of Brown, “She is a well-rounded musician and I am in awe of her talent.” He said she played a concert for the Rotary Club in 2000, the year her father was club president, and it was a “fantastic evening.”

Funds raised from the event will help the Rotary Club complete its three avenues of service — to youth, community and the world. On April 26, the Club will work with La Jolla High School students to landscape an area of the campus in need of “sprucing up.” That same day, Rotary members will also travel to Tijuana, Mexico to build a house for a family in need.

■ IF YOU GO: Concert tickets start at $40 and available