George H. W. Bush was midway through his sole term in the White House when the San Diego Music Awards debuted in 1991 at La Jolla’s Sherwood Auditorium. On Monday at Humphreys Concerts by the Bay, the SDMAs will celebrate its 25th anniversary with no sign of presidential pomp or circumstance, but lots of reasons to celebrate. (Ticket information appears below.)
“It’s pretty amazing that it’s lasted 25 years,” said saxophonist Karl Denson, who will perform at Monday’s awards fete and is a multiple SDMA winner with his jazz-funk band, Tiny Universe. Since last fall he’s been performing around the world as the newest touring member of the Rolling Stones.
“I’ve always been of the opinion that, the closer you are to the ocean, the less art you are privileged to experience,” Denson noted. “We’ve managed to create a cool little scene here.”
That scene has grown exponentially since 1991. So have the SDMAs, which is produced by the nonprofit San Diego Music Foundation and received a near-record 32,000 online ballots this year.
Since the late 1990s, the foundation has provided several thousand guitars to more than 70 San Diego County schools. The instruments, which have been donated or provided at a discount through San Diego’s Taylor Guitars, have given nearly 50,000 area students the opportunity to learn to play through the foundation’s Guitars for the Schools program. As of last year, the program has been expanded to also include Lemon Grove’s Deering Banjos.
“For about 7 or 8 years we donated the money we raised to music programs at the San Diego Unified School District. Then we created the foundation 16 years ago and partnered with Taylor,” said SDMAs mastermind Kevin Hellman, who was the head of the foundation and is now its treasurer.
Hellman, who is the publisher of the weekly magazine San Diego City Beat, is resigning from the foundation at the end of the year. It is not yet known which foundation board member will take the reins of the SDMAs after he steps down.
Jewel to P.O.D.
“I’m proud we’ve helped more than 50,000 kids to go through music programs,” Hellman said. “And I’m proud we’ve been able to feature young artists very early in their careers, from Jewel and Switchfoot to Jason (Mraz) and P.O.D. - it’s a long list.
“We always want to raise more money and do more good. But it’s gotten tougher and tougher the last 5 years. As the music industry has changed, a lot of sponsorship money has dried up. So it’s hard to continue doing the show.”
Hellman laughed when asked how he would have reacted if, in 1991, anyone had suggested the SDMAs would be going strong 25 years later.
“I would have told them they were crazy!” he said. “Or, at least, I would have told them that I wouldn’t (still) be here. I didn’t think I would live 25 years longer.”
The performers at the first SDMAs in 1991 included The Rugburns, A.J. Croce, Earl Thomas & The Blues Ambassadors, future “American Idol” music consultant Stevie Salas, Rockola and the Rebel Alliance Songwriting Consortium, featuring Mojo Nixon, Paul Kamanski and Beat Farmers’ members Country Dick Montana and Joey Harris.
With the exception of Rockola, which is apparently now defunct, and Montana, who died on stage in 1995 during a concert in Canada, all of the debut SDMAs performers are still active.
So are such past winners as Switchfoot, Nickel Creek and Jason Mraz, who each went on to win Grammy Awards. Nearly all of the artists set to perform Monday are themselves past SDMA winners. The list includes Big Mountain, B-Side Players, Gregory Page, jazz guitar great Peter Sprague - who is this year’s Country Dick Montana Lifetime Achievement Award-winner - Berkley Hart Selis Twang, Louis XIV and teen troubadour Cody Lovaas, who last year became the youngest winner in the event’s history at 16.
‘Gothic Catholic rock band’
Lovaas, of course, wasn’t alive yet when the SDMAs launched a quarter-century ago. Singer-songwriter Gregory Page, who will perform at Monday’s event, attended the first edition in 1991, when he was nominated with Baba Yaga, his self-described “Gothic Catholic rock band.” He has since won several times at the annual awards as a solo artist.
“I don’t tell people about having won, but it’s nice when others refer to it,” said Page, whose new, Mraz-produced album, “Let’s Fall in Love Again,” is being released this month.
“My mother has my SDMA trophies and she’s proud of her son. I’m grateful the SDMAs provide guitars for kids in classrooms. That kind of musical outreach is really lovely and important.”
Eve Selis, a seven-time-winner, agreed.
“It’s been scientifically proven that music makes people smarter,” said Selis, who is nominated this year in two categories. She will sing at Monday’s event with the group Berkley Hart Selis Twang. It wil be her first SDMA performance in 12 years.
“Because I teach voice lessons and work with students who sing and play guitar, I see the importance of music in their lives and how it helps them in school as well. So having these guitars come into schools through the SDMAs, especially if it’s an area where they might not be able to get guitars on their own, is really exciting. The SDMAs represent a great community coming together and musicians doing good.”
The SDMAs had 12 categories in 1991. That number has grown to 28, reflecting the growth of the event and of the constantly diversifying music scene it honors. But it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for the event or Hellman. He has worked tirelessly at a mostly thankless job, with key help from some devoted volunteers, but has himself been the subject of past controversy.
At the 1993 edition of the awards fete, Hellman and a member of the band Uncle Joe’s Big Ol’ Driver traded blows in front of the stage at Humphreys. Their fisticuffs erupted when the musician tried to storm the stage to protest the Album of the Year win by Stone Temple Pilots, a Los Angeles-based band whose inclusion on the SDMAs ballot had inspired a petition drive to have them disqualified.
In 1996, after growing criticism that the awards show lacked credibility and had too narrow a musical focus, Hellman invited some of his most vocal critics to come on board. Several of them did.
More categories, more inclusive, more chatter
They helped revamp the nominating process to ensure worthy local artists weren’t overlooked. They also convinced Hellman he should no longer be involved in counting ballots and insisted that a band he managed be ineligible for any nominations. Doing so helped eliminate the conflict-of-interest charges that had marred previous editions of the awards.
“As with most music awards shows like this, there are always massive growing pains,” said Michael Halloran, the program director for radio station 91X and a longtime San Diego music champion.
“Because, when you first start, no one knows how deep the community is. But the wonderful thing is that everybody rears their ugly heads and demands to be counted. And that’s my favorite part. There are more categories now, the SDMAs are deeper than they ever were and are more inclusive. If there have been problems in the past, it seems like they have been fixed at this time.”
Perhaps the only remaining source of contention is a non-musical one: the remarkably loud and incessant chattering each year by hundreds of SDMA audience members. They congregate near the outdoor bar at the rear of Humphreys and seem determined to drown out introductions, acceptance speeches and performances alike.
Asked if he would consider having the bar at Humphreys close for at last part of the awards ceremony, Hellman replied: “That’s up to Humphreys.”
Apparently, that’s not the case. A Humphreys representative told the Union-Tribune that the individual or organization renting the 1,450-capacity outdoor venue can determine when and how long the bar is open.
“Well, I’ve never had that conversation (with Humphreys),” Hellman said. “They work with us at an extremely reduced rate. So, as far as I’m concerned they should make their bar money to pay their staff and cover their costs.”
But isn’t it disrespectful to the musicians being honored at the SDMAs to be subjected to the unrelenting din of people more interested in drinking and blathering than listening and showing their appreciation for the nominees, winners and performers?
“I don’t want to say either way,” Hellman said. “A lot of people come (and are loud), and I know what some think about that. But some people come just to enjoy the party and being there. They are not there to see who wins or loses. And whether it’s right or wrong is not for me to say.
“I wish everyone would pay attention, (because) we spend a lot of time working on the awards show. But, after 25 years, it is what it is. Those who want to pay attention can go up front. And those who want to hang out with friends (in the back) and have a couple of cocktails can do that.”
San Diego Music Awards 25th anniversary
With: Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, Louis XIV, Big Mountain, Gregory Page & His Accompanists, Berkley Hart Selis Twang, B-Side Players, Cody Lovaas, and 2015 Country Dick Montana Lifetime Achievement Award-winner Peter Sprague
When: 7 p.m. Monday
Where: Humphreys Concerts by the Bay, 2241 Shelter Island Drive, Shelter Island
Tickets: $35 (general admission); $75 (VIP seat); $500 (VIP table of 8)
Phone: (619) 381-8789