ENCINITAS — “Legend” is not a title that can be affixed to just anybody’s name. But when describing the life and talent of Anthony Ortega, it’s hard to exclude the word from discussion. “One reason he’s not as well known is that he’s played it super cool, like a family man,” explained his wife, 76-year-old Mona Ørbeck Ortega. “He didn’t try to get attention, or go to jail like Art Pepper.”
In the United States, Ortega, the 83-year-old saxophonist, has never had the name recognition of jazz greats like Charlie Parker, but that doesn’t mean his ability is any less. In France, where he toured in the 1950s, he’s been written about by critics with the type of symbolism found in the poetry of T.S. Eliot or Allen Ginsburg.
Consider the following from an article published in 1993 by noted French critic Gil Pressnitzer:
“Did he exist? Or (was he) a myth? As the lamb dreams of electric robots, the world of jazz didn’t remember Ortega, the most bizarre of jazz musicians. Ortega is alive in a place near San Diego.”
Ortega’s reaction to the praise?
If duality and displacement are common themes throughout the scant literature on “Tony” Ortega, it’s because he’s led an unconventional if not “bizarre” life.
Born in Watts, Los Angeles, in 1928, he received his first saxophone when he was 14. He remembers the date he received it — Feb. 6, 1943. Shortly after, he spent the next five years under famed jazz teacher Lloyd Reese, who taught him how to play the saxophone, as well as the clarinet and flute.
“In those days, Lloyd charged us three dollars an hour for lessons,” said Ortega. “He told me if I wanted to play with the big bands I had to learn how to play the clarinet and flute as well.”
After a brief stint in the army from 1948 to 1951, Ortega was recruited by jazz great Lionel Hampton to be in his band, in which he spent the following two years touring the states, playing second alto. In 1953, he accompanied Hampton’s band to Europe, where he played with the likes of Clifford Brown, Art Farmer, and Quincy Jones.
During his European tour, he met his future wife, Mona Ørbeck, in Oslo Norway, where the two eventually married.
“We met at the Penguin club… a jazz club where guys from out of town or America would go and jam. He asked me to dance a little bit,” recalled Ørbeck Ortega. “I thought ‘Oh well, I won’t see him anymore’… soon after that he called me from Germany and asked me if I wanted to get married.”
This April, they will have been married 58 years.
Ortega’s life after the Hampton band reads like a series of hits and misses.
Fresh from Europe, with the responsibilities of a married man, he spent the next few years torn between East and West coasts, a Mexican descendant looking for gigs in an industry dominated by black and white musicians.
“In some ways it was hard for him,” said Ørbeck Ortega. “Many wondered whether a Mexican could play really good jazz.”
Familial obligations meant turning down gigs he wished he had taken (he passed on Gene Krupa and Stan Kenton), and taking unwanted gigs just to make ends meet (playing strip clubs on 42nd street in New York). Highlights during this period include playing Birdland with Maynard Ferguson, working Las Vegas with Red Norvo, and recording his first American album “A Man and His Horns” (1956), produced by longtime friend Quincy Jones.
“There were tough times,” said Ortega. “But we managed to raise four children, and I never had to get a regular job like some other musicians.”
Despite a roster of impressive performances (for starters, he’s played with Dinah Washington, Barbara Streisand, Frank Zappa and Elvis), including film and TV work, his contribution to the world of jazz has not found its way to the vocabulary of mainstream America.
His wife, an accomplished musician in her own right (she plays piano and vibraphone), offered some insight.
“I think he was way ahead of his time,” Ørbeck Ortega said. “When everyone else was trying to do bebop, and be like Charlie Parker, he was avant-garde. He’s always been a little difficult to understand, even for some musicians.”
In the years 1966 and 1967, Ortega’s unconventionality — his cavalier, go-where-life-takes-me attitude — came into critical focus with the release of “New Dance” and “Permutations.” Though he didn’t know it at the time, these two albums would signify a monumental shift, not only in his personal life, but also for the world of jazz.
“The Shadow of Your Smile,” (“New Dance”) for instance, represents a radical departure from the bebop of his youth, to the exploring, meditative, sound that he had been secretly flirting with even under Maynard Ferguson. In his hands, this popular song is almost unrecognizable, given feudal dread by Chuck Domanico’s omnipresent base, and barely held together by Ortega’s teasing, heartbroken sax.
Though he has gone on to release other albums, Ortega’s legend will likely hinge on “New Dance” and “Permutations,” as future generations see in it evidence of the burgeoning “free jazz movement,” which included individuals like Eric Dolphy (a friend of Ortega’s) and Ornette Coleman.
Nowadays, Anthony Ortega, the man whose life spans the major eras of jazz music, an individual who has outlived some of the bigger names who have eclipsed his own, can be found Sunday evenings, “haunting” Mr. Peabody’s in Encinitas, where he plays to an intimate crowd.
“I play every Sunday night till June 3,” said Ortega. “I make it fun and accessible for everyone. The younger crowd really seems to dig it.”
Loved abroad, overlooked at home — his story has all the underpinnings of cinematic melodrama and romantic journalism. Yet, Ortega has been quick to shrug his shoulders, and brush it off, downplaying the slight with a dose of gratitude.
“I’m lucky, man. Lucky.”
Where: Mr. Peabody’s; 136 Encinitas Blvd., Encinitas
When: Every Sunday through June 3
Cost: No cover