The little tumbledown bungalow at 2881 Adams Avenue is home to an astounding collection of thousands of records that span more than a century of original American music. Early and obscure jazz artists’ recordings lie alongside blues, American ethnic and regional folk, gospel, old-time revival music, rock and roll and much of what later has become known as country. Old 78’s crowd Lou Curtiss Rare Records, filling every corner of the ancient house. Reel to reel tapes form some 90,000 hours of the Lou Curtiss Sound Library go back to the earliest days of music recordings. Perhaps the DNA of 20th-century American music—the seeds of the hybridized formats we listen to today, are to be found in the little shop on Adams. Besides that, Curtiss has a wealth of recorded music from San Diego’s music scenes that go back to the late ’50’s; much of which come from the Jazz Roots Festivals he started in 1967. These contain recordings of many artists who later went on to fame and much of the music of San Diego’s coffeehouse scene from a generation ago.
Though Lou Curtiss has been a tireless promoter of his kind of music, the cultural renaissance of the art form that he has worked for seems to have passed him by. The most recent Roots Fest on Adams was not produced in any way by Curtiss; it has become the successful production—and property of—the Adams Avenue Business Association and it brought tens of thousands of San Diegans to the neighborhood to hear free music made by Steve Poltz, Candye Kane, Gregory Page and others whose music are the lineal descendents of the genres that Curtiss has spent decades to collect and share. The Fest was a great success as it always is. For Curtiss, however, there remains a missing dimension.
Besides preservation of early music, the dimension that animates Curtiss is promotion. Curtiss has occupied the Sunday evening slot at San Diego City College’s KSDS, Jazz 88.3 FM with a show devoted to old time music. In addition, he established a regular forum in a bar in Kensington that afficionadoes crowd nightly for their fix. Jazz fans rave about the show and the bar evenings, but Curtiss remains frustrated at the collectors who keep their treasures hidden out of sight and at the lack of empathy that marks the archives of early music.
“It isn’t enough to have a two chord singer-songwriter with a ten-person following while great San Diego traditional musicians like Wayne Brandon or Clarke Powell never work anywhere but the Roots Festival or the (Adams Avenue) Street Fair,” said Curtiss of the kinds of clubs that routinely book whom they know rather than find those they don’t.
Coffeehouses are a particular sticking point for Curtiss. If asked, he’ll dispense volumes of information on the scene that used to exist here until the late sixties, when the politicians in San Diego made life uncomfortable for counterculture businesses that dared to play music that some found threatening and were places whose four walls incubated ideas that rattled the cage that was American society then. Curtiss can tell you who did what where, when and how it sounded—and then find a recording of it for you from his magnificent archive. He laments that more coffeehouses do not host folk nights or make room for blues, jazz, folk or Yankee ethnic bards.
Curtiss has helped archives beyond his own, including the Smithsonian Institute and UCLA. He is adamant that Hurricane Katrina did untold damage to southern blues and other music from the delta region and works to keep it from being scattered in the hurricane’s wake. His dream is to have another kind of festival—perhaps a San Diego Folk Life Festival that would bring together not only music, but many other aspects of regional Americana and life to celebrate the little known and unsung cultures that shaped the country.
For those who want to find out more about fine music of many kinds, the first stop should be to the little bungalow on Adams Avenue or to tune in to Curtiss’ radio show. Coffeehouses can find a trove of elegant and wonderful music they can play for free, and offer their clientele something they will hear nowhere else.
For Lou Curtiss, the music of an earlier age is a siren to a world of original art unspoiled by commercialism. His archive is a kind of of time machine that measures the distance from who we are to where we have been. It deserves to be discovered and appreciated today.