Gaucho Jazz still swings the Mission after 17 years
Bandleader Dave Ricketts credits fan support for
group’s long-running residency at Amnesia.
Every Wednesday night, a portal to a bygone era briefly opens at Amnesia Beer & Music Hall in San Francisco’s Mission District.
Starting at 8:30 p.m., guitarist Dave Ricketts and his astonishingly proficient sextet take the stage for two hours of tunes rooted in the traditions of gypsy jazz and New Orleans swing. For 17 years, the outfit known as Gaucho Jazz has been delighting those who find their way to the intimate space on Valencia Street. At other times, they’ve also held court at Tartine Bakery. Along the way, they’ve released seven albums, had their music featured in the Keanu Reeves film “Destination Wedding,” and become one of the last remaining true music residencies in a city struggling to hold onto its cultural identity.
It’s been a long road for Ricketts, who was raised in Baltimore, studied guitar in New Mexico and has called the Bay Area home for 22 years. Before he was tapped to join the established Hot Club of San Francisco, he was teaching second grade in Cole Valley and waiting tables at Cafe La Med Noe. Now, once a week, he is in the featured seat on a cramped stage surrounded by some of the Bay Area’s most seasoned musicians.
Perhaps even more surprising than the caliber of talent he regularly assembles is the cost of admission: zero dollars. Any musicians committed to their craft deserve the benefit of compensation, but the embarrassment of riches hidden away on Wednesdays at Amnesia is something one must see to fully appreciate.
As is the case for many guitarists of his ilk, Ricketts cites the French gypsy jazz hero Django Reinhardt as a major influence on his own work. To see Ricketts’ fingers madly sprint across the frets is to see a master at work. That such displays often take place in a room filled with no more than 50 people seems criminal.
Meghan Rutigliano recalls first seeing Gaucho upon returning from last year’s Burning Man festival.
“I came to the Mission that night looking to experience something live and visceral,” she says. “I found that here.”
A San Francisco musician herself, Rutigliano says she tries to return for Gaucho shows whenever possible and enjoys inviting new friends to experience the band for the first time.
“I always try to bring someone with me,” she says. “I really like that all of my friends, however different they are, always end up loving it.”
Norm Barahona of Oakland admits he wasn’t planning to see Gaucho but found himself compelled to peek inside during a recent Wednesday.
“Hearing the music is what brought us in here,” he says.
Ricketts says the group has thought about charging at the door during their residency at Amnesia, which has been in operation since 2002, but they haven’t gotten around to making that decision.
“It’s a weird thing, having a long residency. It starts to become like a home life in some way,” Ricketts says. “We take the show part very seriously, but we don’t know how to sell it any better than we’re selling it.”
The issue certainly isn’t the product onstage.
In addition to Ricketts on guitar, Gaucho Jazz currently features bassist Ari Munkres, accordionist Rob Reich, guitarist Craig Ventresco, percussionist Steve Apple, and Leon Oakley on cornet and trumpet.
If Oakley’s name rings a bell, that’s likely because he played in the legendary Turk Murphy Jazz Band in San Francisco from 1967 to 1979. Not only was he a regular with the group at the iconic Earthquake McGoon’s on Clay Street, he appeared on several of Murphy’s recordings. At age 79, Oakley’s sails still blow strong when he takes a solo during his sets with Gaucho. His contributions to San Francisco aren’t even limited to what he does with a trumpet. “He designed some of the BART trains!” Ricketts shares, referring to Oakley’s long career as an electrical engineer with the Bay Area Rapid Transit system.
When it comes to what inspires Oakley to return each Wednesday after all these years, he quickly credits Ricketts’ willingness to let others take the reins.
“Dave allows me to bring in tunes,” Oakley explains. “He’s openhearted and interested in what I bring in. I think I was lucky that he wanted to add a horn to the band.”
The unfortunate cost of keeping such a dynamic band together for so long is that, inevitably, you lose people.
Acclaimed multi-instrumentalist Ralph Carney was another longtime member of Gaucho before his death in 2017. In a recollection that speaks to the group’s intrinsic camaraderie, Ricketts says he opted not to cancel a gig in Portland scheduled for a few days after Carney’s death.
“When Ralph died, I went back to Portland to play this gig,” he says, “My buddy Ted told me we should buy the nicest bottle of Champagne we could find, have a couple of sips, say some nice words about our buddy, and then pour it on the ground for our friend. That’s what we did the night we played that gig.”
In tribute to Carney, Ricketts later had the cork from that Champagne bottle fashioned into volume and tone knobs for one of his guitars. The ironclad respect the men of Gaucho Jazz have for one another is a testament to their shared affinity for a kind of music that is arguably best heard in the small spaces and low-lights of clubs like Amnesia — places where the prospect of acclaim is secondary to the warmth of the atmosphere.
There’s nothing to suggest that Gaucho may soon be in search of a new home, but when your primary means of collecting show revenue for your weekly residency is to pass a literal boot around, it never hurts to give fans an additional avenue to show their support. To that end, Gaucho Jazz is currently crowdsourcing funds via a GoFundMe campaign for their upcoming eighth album.
There’s reason to be optimistic they’ll hit their goal too, as Gaucho’s fans have funded the band’s last four records. In 2012, a Kickstarter campaign for the group’s fifth record, “Part-Time Sweetheart,” received $12,001 in pledges from 135 backers. Even more heartwarming, when Ricketts’ guitar was stolen in 2009, fans raised more than $4,000 to help him purchase two replacements.
“People going out to hear live bands in the Mission is part of a dying culture,” he says, “but we’ve survived because people are still dreamers in the Bay Area and we’ve benefited from that for nearly 20 years. We’re very grateful. It always feels wonderful being on that stage.”
Gaucho Jazz residency at Amnesia: 8:30-10:30 p.m. Wednesdays. Free, donations encouraged. Amnesia Beer & Music Hall, 853 Valencia St., S.F. amnesiathebar.com
Written by: Zack Ruskin September 12, 2019