By John Grossi
Anyone who knows the Zell family in Long Beach knows that the Zells love music.
Dad Brad has not only played in bands his entire life, but works in the music industry for QSC, helping local musicians buy and operate their sound equipment for live performances.
His children take after him, both playing multiple instruments, performing as singers, writing music… and gigging all over town. Brad, son Luke, and daughter Ava first performed in concert together as the Zell Family Band in 2014 at the Brix location in Sunset Beach. Luke (then a sophomore at Wilson High) beat the drums, Ava (in 8th grade at Stanford Middle School) was on bass, and Brad played guitar and sang.
They’ve never looked back. For six years (until COVID shut everything down in 2020), just about every week you could find one, two, or all three of the Zells performing somewhere around Long Beach or SoCal. And not always as the Zell Family Band. As Luke and Ava got older, both blossomed into amazing solo artists who enjoy playing more contemporary sounds for younger crowds and pursuing their passion to perform when not busy with studying.
And then the pandemic hit. No more gigging to say the least. Stripped of their musical outlet, side hustle, and leisure pursuit for 3-4 months at the start of the pandemic, Brad finally had a revelation… this would not be the day the music died. The driveway concert was reborn.
Takin’ It To The Streets
Starting during the summer of 2020, with a socially distanced audience (long before vaccines became available), Brad and family set up their amps, instruments, and mics on the driveway of their Calderwood Street home. They didn’t know what to expect…they just knew they wanted to play music, see people, and get out of the house. What it became was much more than a family jamming in their driveway. It became the Calderwood Concert Series.
There were two disconnects happening during the pandemic and Brad was the perfect man to build a bridge. First, both through his job and avocation, Brad knew a tremendous number of musicians who were out of work. Musicians who had previously made a living by touring, gigging, and recording suddenly were not allowed to play anywhere. Second, Brad realized that his neighbors, an active group who often held block parties and other informal gatherings together, were sorely missing human interaction, live entertainment, and a reason to venture outside. Light bulb! Brad didn’t just decide to play music for his neighbors; he brought them a tour. Moreover, it was an elite tour.
Every Saturday from 5-7 pm for the past two years, an exciting new artist came to Calderwood to play. These professionals from all over SoCal recognized that the power of music didn’t demand a famous venue. Brad’s many connections meant that artists were relatively easy to find. Musicians like to play music but during COVID, there was nowhere to play. Brad’s only stipulation? That he, and sometimes his children, could play along as part of the concert band.
Major talents included Robert Jon and The Wreck, a rock band with a big international following that normally tours to sell-out shows all over Europe; or Cedrice, the soulful R&B singer who took the nation by storm when she became a top 10 finalist on The Voice. Brad tried to bring all sorts of different music for his neighbors to watch, and the artists were happy to come. The driveway tip jar often totaled more than $1000 for the out-of-work artists… the biggest show bringing in $1700 for the headliner.
Something He Never Expected
Brad gets teary-eyed thinking about the comments some of his neighbors made about how much the concerts meant during the pandemic.
“It gets me emotional to think about… there are so many neighbors who say it’s one of the things that helped them get through the pandemic, because they were able to enjoy life and not just be locked in their house the whole time. It’s been very nourishing and really just, powerfully great.”
Brad notes that none of the neighbors connected to a concert ever got COVID, and that they did their best to keep concerts at a reasonable time from 5pm-7pm so that the neighborhood could get back home peacefully for dinner. Especially for some of the older neighbors, the Calderwood Concert Series during the pandemic was the experience of a lifetime.
Says Brad, “A lot of our neighborhood doesn’t like to go out and drive or stay out too late to experience this kind of entertainment. So for them to be able to walk down the street, see live music, throw $20 or $40 in the tip jar and be happy, it’s invaluable to them.”
With restaurants and venues back open, gigging around town is once again a priority for the Zell family. Brad and daughter Ava, now graduated from college, can be seen playing together or separately at places like The Ordinarie in Downtown Long Beach or The Hangar at LBX. Luke Zell, newly engaged and planning a move to New Orleans, intends to pursue a solo career in music. His first few professional releases are available on Spotify under “Luke Zell.”
Nevertheless, Brad and his musician friends haven’t forgotten what the Long Beach neighborhood concert series meant to them and their audience during the pandemic. Instead of weekly driveway concerts, Brad now tries to book a band at least every other month when he knows the neighbors will be in town. In addition to outside bands, it’s no rare sight to catch Brad, Ava, and Luke outside on the driveway playing a small warm-up show for the neighbors, the night before they head to a public venue. Sometimes wife/mom Jenni joins in on the bongo drums or puts out snacks for the neighbors.
If you ever see them out there, Brad wants to make sure you know you’re invited to come over, pull up a chair and enjoy. The pandemic has taught him and the neighborhood that community is as important to artists as artists are to the community!