New chords

By María José Durán

3S Underground Jazz hopes to revolutionize local music scene

A new way to understand live music is thriving in University Heights. 3S Underground Jazz brings together the best musicians in town to perform in a very particular setting.

The audience can sit on one of many couches at the 3rdSpace venue and listen carefully, or chat lively in one of the adjacent rooms, or even go upstairs to the kitchen and prepare a snack.

This music event has been happening in University Heights on the first Tuesday of every month for almost three years. The session starts sometime after 8 p.m. and features a main band, followed by a jam session where musicians from San Diego or out of town improvise together.

A jam session by 3S Underground Jazz on Jan. 5 at 3rdSpace in University Heights (Photo by Matan Chaffee)

A jam session by 3S Underground Jazz on Jan. 5 at 3rdSpace in University Heights (Photo by Matan Chaffee)

For its first concert in 2016, Underground Jazz chose a repertoire full of classics. The music changes from soothing to upbeat in an instant and fills the whole room, basically without amplification. The sound is not too loud, nor too low. It feels organic and pure.

Up on the makeshift stage, there is a stand-up bass, drums, a piano, sometimes a saxophone or an acoustic guitar. Some nights there’s singing, and others just the compelling melody.

On the night of Jan. 5, there was a flash-flood warning and not many people made it to the session. But Underground Jazz organizer Ben Wanicur told Uptown News that people usually pack the venue.

“It’s been gaining momentum lately, so the past five or six sessions we have had anywhere from 50 to 80 people. Tonight [Jan. 5] I thought it was going to be really bad, because when it rains, people don’t come out,” he said.

The sessions are at 4610 Park Blvd. at 3rdSpace, Underground Jazz’s home, which is called a “Co-Working and Club for the Creative.” During the day, it’s a working space where many San Diegans program, write, paint, or edit their videos.

3rdSpace is located at the edge of one of coolest blocks in University Heights. The small door and the narrow staircase don’t advertise the big, well-illuminated space that awaits inside. It features plenty of room to work, have meetings or hang out. Its members pay a monthly fee for the right to use the space.

“I became interested in this place because I came in and I saw the piano, and I thought it was a good place to play music,” Wanicur said. Certainly, the acoustics of the big common room help the live performances.

The venue is different from other spaces that offer music in San Diego. The most common ones are bars, where people scream at each other and can barely hear the band, or concert settings with folding chairs where people are focused on listening.

“I think this gets the best of both worlds, because it’s a concert setting, a big enough space and very casual. You can bring food, or if you want to talk to people you can go upstairs, hang out and still listen to the music,” Wanicur said.

If you are lucky enough to sit in the first row of chairs, you can watch the fingers of the saxophonist move swiftly along the metal instrument 4 feet from you. The setup feels very familiar, without a formal stage or an amplification system. You can even hear the musicians whisper to each other, and their snaps to mark the tempo.

Larry Zeiger is a regular of the event.

“This is my favorite place for listening to music,” he said. “Ben [Wanicur] does an amazing job at attracting the top musicians in San Diego, who all come and give their talent and their time.”

3S Underground Jazz organizer Ben Wanicur speaks with journalist María José Durán. (Photo by Matan Chaffee)

3S Underground Jazz organizer Ben Wanicur speaks with journalist María José Durán. (Photo by Matan Chaffee)

The main band that played at the January session has never performed together before. Wanicur acknowledged that “we rehearsed for about half an hour before we started. We were all playing songs from the jazz repertoire, so it’s music I knew they knew.” However, the band sounded like the members had been playing together for a long time.

After the main band plays for a little over an hour, the jam session took over. Other musicians bring their instruments, get on the improvised stage and do what they do best.

“There is a certain amount of tradition behind jam sessions,” Wanicur said. “If you are a musician you should have a lot of respect for the people and be willing to hang out and listen. You might be the best musician there but the people don’t know who you are, so don’t be surprised if they don’t call you up right away.”

The $5 cover at the door goes directly to pay the musicians. The event goes from 8 to 11 p.m., including the main concert and jam session.

For Wanicur, there is a future in San Diego for this kind of venue. He hopes that more music will come to 3rdSpace, even from out of town.

“I feel like we are almost getting to that point,” he said. “We have 80 people coming every time, we could start doing other events and more concerts as well.”

—María José Durán is a freelance writer from San Diego. She can be reached at

Leave a Comment