Photos by Devika Agarwal & Alex Zamora.
Photos by Devika Agarwal & Alex Zamora.

While ambling down Pacific Avenue in Santa Cruz on a warm afternoon, you may hear the strumming of guitars, the whistling of wind instruments, and the beating of drums filling the air. Locals and tourists alike get the privilege of listening to talented and eager musicians. These local musicians often go unnoticed as busy people scurry to work, school, and the Metro Station, without time to stop and enjoy the mellifluous sounds that come from their instruments.

The musicians do not express any feelings of competition among one another. Many of the musicians support each other in their efforts, jamming together. Most did not wish to give their last names and preferred to speak on the basis of relative anonymity. But approach one of these musicians and you might learn that they each have a unique story about what brought them to Santa Cruz, and what the city has come to mean to them.

Fighting for the right to perform

Last January, street performers were cited by a Santa Cruz Police Officer for singing political songs during a protest. The $445 citation was allegedly issued for a Municipal Code 9.36.020 violation. This edict prohibits “Unreasonably Disturbing Noises.”

Members of Homeless United for Friendship and Freedom (HUFF) were performing their popular revised version of Petula Clark’s 1966 “Downtown.”

“When you are poor, and rents are making you homeless, you can always go … Downtown!”

HUFF started in the late 1980s and today has about 80 members, 12 of which are active participants, who set up tables on Pacific Avenue in the hopes of sharing information. They say they were only singing their satirical song that afternoon to raise awareness about the homeless mortality rate in the city.

Four performers were cited that day. One of these was Robert Norse, a very active member of HUFF, who had set up a table in front of Bookshop Santa Cruz. A resident in a nearby apartment who was trying to sleep complained to police, which is what brought officers to Norse and his friends.

“If we were singing at three in the morning, it would have been a different story,” Norse said. “I sympathize that [the resident] was disturbed, but it is a public space, and [they] chose to live there.”

According to Norse, these citations are given out relatively frequently, though it is not public information how many exactly have been given to performers in the past few months. However, the people that are cited for playing music are often greatly affected by it.

“These citations really have a serious effect on people that have no money,” Norse said, “Which is the case for the majority of these performers.”

But it hasn’t stopped street musicians from bringing their instruments and their voices to the streets.

‘They will get by’

Thirty years ago, a pick-up truck ran out of gas in Santa Cruz, and a man that goes by the name of Jay stepped out, never to get back in. Ever since that day, he says, he has been performing on Pacific Avenue. Today, the older and wiser Jay, along with his friendly attitude and his distinct white beard, can generally be found downtown Wednesday through Sunday.

Jay often strums classics on his guitar. On this particularly warm spring day he is singing and strumming the Grateful Dead’s “I Will Get By” for the people passing by. Several stop to soak in the significance of the song and what it means.

A man walking by with his friend says, “Hold up man, I want to listen to this for a second,” and they stop. A second quickly turns into 10 minutes, as the two men listen carefully to Jay’s resonating chords.

“Performing here is like therapy for me. It’s as if all of us [street performers] have an unspoken language,” Jay said.

Jay explained that the performers are numerous, and a close-knit community within themselves. They support each other and feed off of each other’s talent to create variations of existing songs, as well as coming up with their own.

And although opening up a guitar case on the street and starting to play is simple in theory, there are restrictions. As a result of city law, musicians are prohibited from performing within 14 feet of any building, statues, street signs and directory signs, and also 50 feet of any change making machines or ATMs.

Many of these laws were passed during a crackdown from the City Council last year. In February 2009, City On A Hill Press reported, “The decision came amid the claim from downtown business owners that their businesses have been negatively affected by the atmosphere of illegal activity and homelessness and new businesses are deterrred from coming to Pacific Avenue.”

Yet even with all of the rules, Jay explains that he prefers street performing to getting gigs and playing at venues.

“The best part of being out here is the sunshine and getting to express myself,” Jay said.

The positive attitudes of many of the street performers on Pacific Avenue draw people in to stay, listen, enjoy, and support.

The good old days

With his steady smile and tattered fedora hat, Mark enjoys acoustic jam sessions with his mandolin strapped across his chest.

“I had Lyle Lovett flip me a 50 once,” Mark said.

Mark plays the mandolin with Jay and friends every Wednesday through Friday and has numerous stories from the 30 years he’s been here. In that amount of time, so many different types of people have come and gone, yet Mark has been there throughout.

Mark describes the “old” Pacific Avenue as a grassy knoll, where people would just lounge around, playing and listening to music. His reminiscent tone and far-off look reveals how much he misses those days.

Thirty years ago, Pacific Avenue was a different place. After the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, Pacific Avenue was almost reduced to rubble, and everything had to be rebuilt, changing the area forever.

“We would just sit around together jammin’ and drinkin’ carrot juice,” Mark said.

Mark said the best thing about street performing now is the types of observers and fans they attract.

Brooke Stephens, a second-year UC Santa Cruz student and resident of Santa Cruz, often ventures to Pacific Avenue solely for the purpose of listening to the music. This particular day, she stops to listen to Mark.

“It’s obvious that these musicians are very talented,” Stephens said. “I think we are really lucky to be able to listen to them like this.”

According to Mark, fans are what make it worthwhile. The younger crowd that is drawn to the music is what Mark enjoys.

At times, parents will hand their small child a dollar bill and tell them to go put it in a performer’s guitar case. The kids will timidly approach the musicians, stand watching for a moment, then place the dollar bill in the case and scurry away.

“When little kids lock eyes with me I get inspired,” Mark said, “You can just tell that they are going to be future arts supporters.”

Spending a half hour with Mark, it becomes clear he’s a storyteller.

Mark had one story that would make a local stop in their tracks. A friend of Mark’s was playing guitar outside of the grocery store when a man walked out, stopped, lifted his small round sunglasses up and said, “I like your version of ‘Crocodile Rock,’” and handed him a hundred dollar bill. It was Elton John.

For love of the instrument

Guitar street performer Corey has some of the same sentiments as the other musicians. The joy in performing comes from the individuals that really appreciate what these musicians are doing.

“Some people will sit and listen for up to three hours,” Corey said, “That’s why I really like to do this, because other people enjoy it.”

For numerous performers, the money that they make on Pacific Avenue is their sole source of income. But there are also a number of musicians who do it because they really enjoy it, and have day jobs.

“This used to be how I made my living,” Corey said, “Well actually, not how I made a living, but what I had to do so that I didn’t starve.”

Corey plays guitar on Pacific every weekend and even gives private lessons on other time.

Younger than the usual crowd, drummer Sarah stands out not only for her talent, but also for being a female, as the majority of the street musicians on Pacific Avenue are older men.

Sarah has only been performing on Pacific Avenue for a fewmonths, and like many others, does it just for fun. She comes down to Pacific Avenue on the occasional weekend to share music that she has written and loves. She recently moved to Santa Cruz with her bongo drums.

The first time Sarah walked down Pacific Avenue and saw all of the people sharing their music with passersby, she knew she had to join in, in some way.

“I was so inspired by all these older people playing music all day with their friends,” Sarah said. “That’s what life should be about, sharing what you enjoy.”

These people, whether they have been in Santa Cruz for 30 days or 30 years, exude a passion for not only sharing their music with the public, but also sharing their life experiences and stories. Sarah explained that her profession has nothing to do with her passion: music.

“It’s truly frustrating to not be able to do what I love everyday,” Sarah said. “But playing music here is really sort of therapy for me.”