SAN JOSE -- Electric guitars wailed and saxophones grooved, and barbecue smoke wafted over music lovers, as dozens of musicians jammed as they have every summer for three decades at an automotive junkyard.

"Anyone is welcome, but the whole idea is to unite musicians, young and old," said Jimmy "J.D." de Leon, a 64-year-old, soft-spoken, retired county transit worker and Army veteran who still plays guitar in his newest rhythm and blues band, Stone Cold.

The jam session and picnic are known affectionately as "Day on the Dirt." That's because it's held on the gravel and dirt grounds of a salvage yard owned by De Leon's brother, who dismantles old vehicles for proper recycling. Longtime participants said they used to kick up clouds of dust, but now they have a temporary wooden dance floor. Still, the yard is on a gritty street south of downtown lined with repair shops and other salvage yards.

On a warm midsummer weekend, not a smidgen of dust managed to settle on the beige, thinly pinstriped pants and vest that De Leon wore over a pink, long-sleeve shirt with a pointy collar. The dashing gentleman wore black and white wingtip shoes and a black fedora and sported dark sunglasses.

"Lots of people tell me I'm the only Mexican who can out-dress a black man," he teased with a barrio homeboy's smart smile.

Tradition continues

De Leon started organizing the jams in the early to mid-1980s when his brother's auto yard was in southeast San Jose. As much as it now is a gathering of musicians he's come to know, the event also pays homage to his late father, Vicente de Leon. A trumpet player in swing and Mexican bands, the elder De Leon also used to gather his musician pals to play at a place in East San Jose nicknamed "The Hole."


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De Leon figures he's just continuing the tradition. The first band to play Sunday blasted his ears out with heavy metal.

"The genre of the music here is wide open," he said. "My dad and my grandfather did the same thing. It's like a rite of passage, picking up the next generation."

De Leon has played with more than a few R&B bands, but if he had a brush with fame, it was when he was in the eighth grade. Back then, the young guitar player could perfectly perform Chuck Berry riffs, skip across stage just like the rock 'n' roll legend, and then top it off by doing a back flip while playing the guitar behind his back.

When promoters from music television shows heard about him, De Leon told them his whole band had to come along. But the promoters wanted only him, he said, and never called back.

After high school, De Leon served in the Army in Germany during the early 1970s before settling back in San Jose. He said he has no regrets about missing his big chance in showbiz.

"If I had gone that way I'd be a washed up musician," he said. "At my age now, I'm fresh."

Every year, the jam session gets a little bigger and a bit more organized. Several dozen amateur and professional musicians took turns playing '70s rock, R&B, Latin cumbia, Tejano, Ladance tunes and heavy metal.

The audience was a mix of fellow musicians and longtime friends, who brought their own folding chairs and beverage coolers. Dress was informal. More than a dozen Harley-Davidson motorcycles were parked by the front gate, including a sleek, blue beauty owned by De Leon.

"A lot of us have played together in different bands, but it's great when we get to play for each other," said Marti Gutierrez, vocalist for the band Graywolf, who said she met De Leon several years ago when they both played at a benefit honoring a fellow musician who had died.

Motion music

Many of the musicians were older, too. Some said they've known De Leon since they were students at local high schools in the 1960s. Like De Leon, several said they have been performing on and off for decades at local clubs, festivals and parties.

"There's so much good music here in San Jose, but sometimes it's hard to find the right combination of talent," said Ramon Jordan, a drummer and retired carpenter with a graying ponytail.

Tapping his right foot as he listened to a hard rock band called Jurimiko, Jordan said he met several musicians on Saturday with whom he hoped to play in the future. Shortly before taking the stage himself, with a group called Under Pressure, Jordan admitted they hadn't played together in several months.

"We're going to go up there and wing it, and I'm pretty sure it's going to feel good," he vowed.

De Leon doesn't charge admission; he said the event relies on donations and volunteers. He's launching a nonprofit, called Music in Motion, with hopes of creating a video archive of interviews with local musicians.

"Doing all this takes a lot of work," said David Rosas, a 58-year-old contractor and part-time musician who was sitting with friends about 30 feet from the stage. Earlier, Rosas had pointed to De Leon and said, "This guy's a giver. He's got a big heart."

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