At La Cuevita on Figueroa, the sound of a trombone solo cuts through the air on a busy Sunday night at the Highland Park bar. It’s not an intruding sound, but more like background to an engaging story. Live jazz is a hard sell with so many pieces involved. Musicians? Instruments? Sounds too crowded for a bar. It would be easier to just hit a button on a playlist.
But Christian Castillo, 28 and Robert Nava, 29, have been playing live jazz at La Cuevita for a year now. One of their first gigs involved Castillo on upright bass, Nava on drums and the electricity going out.
As an upright bass and drum duo they were able to keep playing and the owners of La Cuevita wanted them back, only next time with a full band.
“It’s always been the two of us, bass and drums, since jazz band in high school,” says Castillo.
Over time other local musicians played with the duo and eventually they worked their way up to inviting their high school jazz instructor Greg Samuel and his trombone or Mr. Samuel. He’s now one of a revolving crew of musicians who play with Castillo and Nava as part of their Northeast Groove Ensemble, which plays at La Cuevita on Sundays starting at 8 p.m.
It’s been about ten years since Nava and Castillo graduated from Eagle Rock High School, where Samuel has been the instrumental music teacher for the past 20 years. To this day Nava can recall specific lessons from Samuel’s class.
“Throughout my life I still remember those lessons. Today I brought up a lesson that I remembered, and I told it back to him like he told it to me,” says Nava.
“We used to perform for different school functions around the city,” Samuel says. “Now we play these gigs and they’re adults now, but it’s funny, because I’ll tell them that it reminds me of those old gigs.”
When Samuel first began playing with the group he thought he would take command of the group. He even calls Nava and Castillo kids sometimes by accident. They had to have a talk with him to tone down the mentor mode he was in. Now they play at La Cuevita almost every Sunday.
At La Cuevita, the jazz band, which includes a mix of players, some of who did not take classes from Samuel, is lit by low light and an attentive audience swells around the bar at around 10:30 p.m. Toward the end of their second set, Samuel sings “Red House” by Jimi Hendrix, a blues ballad with enough bite to captivate the audience. Their list includes a few original jam songs, and La Cuevita patrons seem to follow all the usual jazz room rules: give the players room and clap at the end of a moving solo.
“I love the fact that there is a bar that wants live jazz music in Highland Park,” says Castillo.
The band accepts tips during their set, but it’s more of a tradition than a necessity. Other players in the group include former Samuel students who are trying to break into the professional musician circuit. Castillo is a video producer for Fox Sports and Nava is a landscape architect.
“We do this purely for the music and the community,” says Castillo.
Samuel still teaches music at Eagle Rock High School, but due to budget cuts the jazz program has been scaled down. Castillo describes Samuel’s method of teaching as passionate and personal.
“If you worked hard enough he would make you think that you could do anything with music. There were other passionate teachers, but if he taught chemistry we would be out here doing chemistry for fun. He always showed us that we could do better.”
Nathan Solis is a Highland Park resident who writes about and photographs the L.A. music scene. You can find more of Solis stories, reviews and photos at Smashed Chair.