Before Seattle Rocked: A City and its Music

Originally published in Earshot Jazz January 2012

Who organized Seattle’s first jazz festival in 1939? It was a member of the Husky Hot Club, a junior at the University of Washington named Norm Bobrow. When Seattle led the nation in gender equality by being the first major city to elect a woman mayor in 1926, how many women were in the Seattle Symphony? Less than ten percent of the orchestra’s musicians were female. Are there any operas about the state of Washington? In 1912 a local woman wrote Narcissa, depicting the life of Washington missionaries Narcissa and Marcus Whitman who were killed by members of the Cayuse tribe.

The Royal Room: A Noble Idea for a New Venue

Originally published in Earshot Jazz January 2012

For “Solitary Man,” guitarist Tim Young lifts his face, neck outstretched, high notes squeezing out the side of his mouth. Robin Holcomb crowds in next to him to harmonize. Wayne Horvitz purrs on the Hammond B-3 organ while Jon Hyde’s head slips and slides atop his shoulders in sync with the bar gliding over his pedal steel strings. Geoff Harper’s bass line locks in with drummer Andy Roth. All audience heads nod in unison. The fifth of seven bands on Saturday, December 17, at new Columbia City venue the Royal Room, Varmint carries the tagline “No original music. No rehearsals.” They also belong to the origin story of a noble idea for a new venue.

Jazz Repertory Builds in Seattle: A Bridge from Past to Future

Originally published in Earshot Jazz December 2011

It’s the middle of the night at a Cleveland hotel in the early 1940’s. A teenage French horn player can’t get to sleep. The muffled sound of piano playing seeps through the wall from the room next door. At 5:00 am the piano finally stops. This repeats every night for a week.

The late night piano player is Duke Ellington, by then already a pioneer of original jazz compositions (“Mood Indigo,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” “Sophisticated Lady,” “Solitude,” “In a Sentimental Mood,” “Caravan,” “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart,” “Prelude to a Kiss,” “I Got it Bad and that Ain’t Good,” “Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me”). Ellington went on to chronicle the African American experience through music, be awarded 15 honorary Doctorate degrees, and receive from Richard Nixon the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The sleepless horn player is Gunther Schuller, employed as principal horn for the Cincinnati Symphony. Schuller, who would get a job offer from Ellington, went on to play on Miles Davis’s Birth of the Cool, teach at the Manhattan School of Music and Yale, establish the first degree granting jazz program in the world as president of the New England Conservatory, and lead the way toward the preservation and performance of Ellington’s music as jazz repertory.

Duke Ellington Sacred Music Concerts Bless Seattle

Originally published in Earshot Jazz December 2011

Seattle has been blessed to be able to hear the Duke Ellington Sacred Concerts performed live every winter for the past 22 years. No other city can make that claim. But this year the piece “99% Won’t Do,” written by Ellington in 1963, takes on added significance with the Occupy Wall Street protests.

Concert Preview: Robin Holcomb and Talking Pictures

Originally published in Earshot Jazz November 2011

Robin Holcomb’s music is not new to Talking Pictures – guitarist Ron Samworth, trumpeter Bill Clark, drummer Dylan van der Schyff, and cellist Peggy Lee. The Vancouver, BC group first convened in 1993, took note of Holcomb’s 1990 recording Larks, They Crazy and soon incorporated some of the material into the ensemble’s repertoire.

Although audiences in Paris, Koln, and Amsterdam have attended their performances, this is the first chance to hear the ensemble live in Seattle.

This concert will feature music from the group’s recent recording The Point of It All with Holcomb and Wayne Horvitz. On the CD, Horvitz’s shimmering Hammond organ camouflages Clark’s muted trumpet. Samworth’s quiet electric guitar swells and feedback rub against Lee’s flickering cello, then both instruments pluck pizzicato arpeggios behind Holcomb’s voice singing Shel Siverstein’s lyrics that resemble a Civil War ballad. An arrangement of Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” plays with the dual imagery of America’s history seeking shiny minerals in a pan and burning herbs in a bowl. This is music that invites you in to a deep world of human history, emotion, and imagination.

Concert Preview: SWOJO Plays the Music of Robin Holcomb

Earshot Jazz
November 2011 issue

When Robin Holcomb reviewed artists for Seattle’s funding organization Artist Trust, one of her assignments was the Seattle Woman’s Jazz Orchestra (SWOJO). After attending one of their weekly rehearsals, the director, Daniel Barry, heard Holcomb’s big band – the Washington Composers Orchestra (WACO). WACO’s roots are in New York’s downtown scene from the 1980’s where Holcomb and husband Wayne Horvitz wrote for and rehearsed the New York Composers Orchestra (NYCO). This ensemble was a slimmed down big band – five saxophones, three trumpets, two trombones, French horn, and rhythm section.

Impressed by the music, Barry invited Holcomb to write for SWOJO. For this concert, SWOJO will perform selections of Holcomb’s big band music rearranged for the larger ensemble, a piece originally written for the ROVA saxophone quartet, and premier a new work written for this event.

The music library for SWOJO is very deep. Holcomb says, “I think my new piece is number 206 in the book.”

Holcomb’s big band music is a new chapter for SWOJO. With its programmatic terrain, shifting densities between figurative and abstract sections, and room for free improvisation this repertoire will be an interesting adventure for both performers and audience.

Robin Holcomb: Fostering New Music

Originally published in Earshot Jazz November 2011

A very used Steinway upright piano stands against the dining room wall. The ivories on G below middle C, D above middle C, and the highest F keys are missing, exposing the rough wood below. “It’s hard to find the right thickness to replace them,” says Robin Holcomb. From this piano, in the heart of the house, Holcomb works out her song cycles, telling her own version of obscure but vital American historical tales.

She evolves a long tradition of American popular music. Our first national music that transcended regional styles from other countries can be traced back to songs by Stephen Foster in the mid 1800’s and ballads that followed the Civil War. The words were in English, telling stories with classical depth and drama, favoring direct expression over complexity, set to music with undemanding technique for amateurs. Likewise, Holcomb’s music uses English and tells deep and dramatic stories. But the expression balances ideas directly stated with those merely implied. She juxtaposes music with hymn-like harmony next to free jazz exploration by masterful improvisers. The resulting sound is simultaneously old and familiar while remaining fresh and surprising. It feels like drinking from a cool, clear deep well with some unexpected but refreshing flavors, even a few tickly bubbles.

Concert Preview: Gary Peacock with the Keith Jarrett Trio

Originally published in Earshot Jazz October 2011

Not only does bassist Gary Peacock supply harmonic and rhythmic foundations for the trio with pianist Keith Jarrett and drummer Jack DeJohnette, he also provided the catalyst for their first recording together. In 1977 Peacock recorded six of his compositions with Jarrett and DeJohnette on Tales of Another. At the time Peacock lived in Seattle and taught music at Cornish College.

Concert Preview: Evan Flory-Barnes and Acknowledgement of a Celebration

Earshot Jazz
October 2011

Evan Flory-Barnes stands six foot three, in suit and tie, in front of a thirty five member chamber orchestra at Seattle’s Town Hall. He scans the musicians. Left. Right. He rubs his palms together. No baton. He smiles broadly and adjusts his jacket. He glances down at the score. His head tips back. His eyes close. He whispers in a slow tempo, “One, two, three, four...” as he conducts with both hands, fingers gently closed. The count off is more like a jazz ensemble leader starting a familiar ballad than a conductor launching a symphony debut.

Violas and cellos sway back and forth in unison between two notes. A celeste chimes like an old fashioned clock. Glissandos rise from a harp. Dense chords drift in from wind instruments. An oboe moans. French horns herald an opening melody. Acknowledgement of a Celebration, a ten movement, fifty five minute opus commissioned by Meet the Composer, rises into the air.

So begins the initial scene from a video recording of the 2009 premier of Celebration. Copies of this DVD and audio CDs will be available at this year’s Earshot Jazz Festival performance of the piece.


Concert Preview: Nelda Swiggett's Stringtet

Earshot Jazz
October 2011

Clumps of notes. That’s how pianist Nelda Swiggett describes musical shapes that are the basis of her compositions. But don’t be misled by the word clump. The notes are not dissonant, grating, or random. Her music is precise without being dry, clean without being dull, and light without being fluff. The sound is as clear, direct, and crisp as the gaze of her piercing blue eyes. And behind those eyes teems a sharp mind that leaves plenty of air within and around those clumps.

Swiggett finds material for composition by improvising at the piano. Her hands strike the keys, she finds pleasing sounds, and figures out harmony and time signature later. But the improvisations do not grow from the blues like much of jazz. Her roots penetrate classical music. “I was a serious classical pianist growing up, and now have my own piano students playing Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, etc. I'm rediscovering all that great music as well. It's all fodder for the imagination. But everything goes through the jazz filter.”


Concert Preview: Scrape with Jay Clayton

Earshot Jazz
October 2011

Scrape together eight violins, three violas, three cellos, one bass, one harp, and one guitar, feature a violin soloist with equal parts jazz, punk, ambient, and classical influences, add one mercurial vocalist, sprinkle with lyrics from jazz standards and poetry, stir gently over original compositions and arrangements, then pour into an intimate resonant venue. What do you get? Two sets of transcendent music.

Branching from jazz improvisation and instrumentation, swing and blues are replaced with lushness and subtlety. Imagine composer Gil Evans deep in the Hoh Rainforest, entranced by Snoqualmie Falls, or following a sunset behind snow capped Olympic Mountains.

When Seattle sampled the new sonic cocktail served up a year ago by composer Jim Knapp and his former student, violinist Eyvind Kang, heads turned, palettes whetted, and ears tickled. This performance of the novel acoustic chamber ensemble will add singer Jay Clayton, celebrating her seventieth birthday. Jay lives in New York but was on the Cornish faculty with Knapp for twenty years.


Concert Preview: Jim Knapp Tribute

Earshot Jazz
October 2011

Jim Knapp makes music, mentors musicians, and likes laughter. For the past forty years, Knapp fed the Seattle jazz scene with his compositions, improvisations, ensembles, and students. And he shows no signs of slowing down. This concert is an opportunity for the community to give back for all of Knapp’s selfless gifts to the Seattle music environment.

All of Knapp’s music expresses his dry wit, experimental outlook, and meticulous craft. As a composition student, one of his early works for the University of Illinois jazz band was titled "Summertime." After quoting the first three notes of the Gershwin opera tune, the melody is abandoned for a lush exploration of harmonies and textures hinted at from just that fragment.


Julian Priester: Spirit Child

Originally published in Earshot Jazz September 2011, Vol. 27, No. 09

Outside room 209, on the second floor of Kerry Hall at Cornish College, flattened cardboard boxes and a hand cart lean against the wall. They await Julian Priester, Professor of Trombone and Jazz History. He retired on May 14th, 2011 with an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts after thirty two years of service. With the help of a student, the boxes will transport Priester’s teaching materials from his studio back to his south Seattle home.

Inside the studio, nine boxes full of scores, books, recordings, trombone mutes clump in the far corner. Sun filters through two tall south facing windows that gaze over the corner of Roy and Boylston streets. Cracked and chipped white paint ornament the stark walls, high ceiling, and radiator. A crisp black Kawai baby grand piano rests atop utilitarian grey industrial carpet.

Silence hangs in the air. On a small chalk board, neatly written scales and rhythms hint at the sounds that filled this studio. Here, and in nearby rehearsal rooms, Priester shared his skills, stories, and studies. A quiet end to this chapter in his career belies the length of experience, depth of artistry, and breadth of creativity Priester carries forward into every situation.

Lessons from Listening to the KPLU School of Jazz

Earshot Jazz
August 2011, Vol. 27, No. 8

Inside Avast! Recording Studio A, a rectangular room with dark wood rafters, curtained walls, and a concrete floor covered with rugs, a high school jazz band director stands on a podium to the left. Student trombone and trumpet players sit in two parallel rows of chairs to the right, separated by low walls of sound absorbing material. The saxophonists sit in a row of chairs straight ahead. Through a glass sliding door in the corner is the lone drummer. A baby grand piano parks to the left. An upright bass perches on the right. As the music dictates, soloists step forward to stand in the middle of everyone. Microphones poise in front of each of the twenty instruments. Each musician wears a set of headphones. Additional microphones capture sound from various zones within the room.

Through a large glass window, engineer Johnny Mendoza leans over an expanse of knobs, buttons, meters and sliders. “Take one,” his voice announces over the headphones. The recording console is top of the line and rare, a Trident A-Range thirty-six channel board from 1975, number three of only thirteen ever built. Consoles from London’s Trident Studios are famous for the wholesome sound on the Beatles’ “Hey Jude.” They were used on more than 300 other gold and platinum recordings at Cherokee Studios in Los Angeles. Stuart Hallerman unearthed this unique machine in Lynnwood and promptly installed it in the studio in 2005.


Seattle Jazz History Hiding in Used Grooves

My back ached. My fingers were covered with dust. I had to pee. 15,000 used records to search and I was only up to the H’s. Then the familiar chimes of Red Garland’s piano introduction to “If I Were a Bell” rang through the record store. Miles Davis’ gravelly muted trumpet crooned the melody, “Ask me, ‘How do I feel?’ Ask me now that we’re cozy and clinging…” My woes disappeared. I whistled along contentedly to the solos on the 1956 record Relaxing with the Miles Davis Quintet.

That’s one of the cool things about used record store shopping – the salesperson wove me into his improvised real-time commercial-free playlist. Goodbye earbuds. “The looking and hanging out at a record store is a thrill,” confesses one character in Vinyl, a documentary film about record collecting.

I wouldn’t go as far as “thrill,” but the hunt for interesting recordings is a personal habit that goes back to my first discretionary income. As a young Missouri teen the early 1970’s I would spend my meager allowance on Top 40 singles at Kmart. During college I would comb the racks at Illinois record stores weekly looking for Blue Note, Prestige, and Impulse jazz albums. Pilgrimages to Chicago’s Jazz Record Mart drained my bank account. My collection moved with me in the mid 1980’s to New York City where compact discs from Tower Records and J&R Music became the source of growth.

Thirty boxes of records and CDs followed me to Seattle in 1993. My first stop was Bud’s Jazz Records in a Pioneer Square basement. Hearing I was new in town, Bud Young played me local saxophonist Don Lanphere’s 1949 recording with New York bebop pianist Al Haig. Then he proudly pointed me toward the section of the store dedicated to new recordings by local artists. Scanning the CD spines I began to familiarize myself with the names of Seattle players.

On a recent tour of Seattle used record stores, I can still find those names and more. I found the most in West Seattle at Easy Street Records. The rarest was a 1960 Max Roach record Parisian Sketches with the Turrentine brothers and Seattle trombonist Julian Priester. This vinyl included an original composition by Priester called “Petit Dejeuner.” A block south at Rubato Records I came across percussionist Tom Collier’s Mallet Jazz.

The second largest cache of Seattle recordings was at Everyday Music on Capitol Hill. I found a 1994 recording Lopin’ of saxophonists Don Lanphere, Bud Shank, and Denny Goodhew with the New Stories rhythm section of Marc Seales, Doug Miller, and John Bishop. At nearby Wall of Sound I spotted a 1981 solo piano vinyl recording Guides & Spirits by Murl Allen Sanders.

The third biggest stash was at Silver Platters in Queen Anne. That’s where I found Don Lanphere’s 1983 vinyl Out of Nowhere signed by Lanphere and trumpeter Jon Pugh. At nearby Easy Street was pianist Dawn Clement’s 2008 CD Break.

The mellowest vibe was at M&L Records north of the University District. I found trumpeters Fred Radke and Mike Vax on vinyl from 1982 called First Reunion with a rhythm section of Barney McClure, Dan Dean, and Tom Collier. At nearby Neptune Music I didn’t find much but the basement location reminded me of Bud’s Records.

Searching through record albums is one way to learn about jazz history. The packaging yields information in liner notes, recording dates, personnel, and repertoire. The grooves contain voices of artists and their conversations. Each song is a meeting room – a gathering place for stories and emotions. Listening to recordings transports a former now into the current now. We feel resonance with the assiduous song of humanity. Pioneering New Orleans saxophonist Sidney Bechet said, “I got a feeling inside me, a kind of memory that wants to sing itself… I can give you that. I can send it out to where it can be taken, maybe, if you want it. I can try to give it to you.”

Giving songs defies profitable business models. When bassist and record company owner Gene Perla was asked for advice on starting a label he said, “Rob a bank and leave the country.” Bechet said, “My answer—all I can say of it—it’s just to be giving, giving all your life, finding the music and giving it away.”

That generous creative urge can be seen today in the large number of self-produced releases. Seattle’s Origin Arts label won JazzWeek’s Record Label of the Year in 2009 with over 250 albums from 12 years of operation. These CDs are typically financed by the recording artist.

Meanwhile, stores are closing. Tower Records closed in 2006. Bud’s closed in 2008. J and S Phonograph Needles on NE 45th closed last year. Borders Books filed for bankruptcy this year. Music collections soon will evaporate into the Amazon Cloud.

One collector mused in the book Vinyl Junkies, “I don’t believe in the idea of ownership—hey, we’re all gonna die someday so you don’t own that record, you just get to use it for awhile. There is no joy in ownership, the joy comes when you play the record. The hair stands up on the back of your neck and that’s it, that’s what you’re living for.”

The last stop for my hairy neck was Ballard to mine the quarry at two stores on either side of Market Street. In the doorway of Sonic Boom hangs an enlarged copy of the Blue Note album by Lee Morgan of the same name. There I unearthed I Dig Dancers by Quincy Jones. In the band from 1960 were trumpeter Floyd Standifer and bassist George “Buddy” Catlett. Across the street at Bop Street Records there was a good four inches of shelf space for vinyl from singer Ernestine Anderson.

But I headed for the door empty handed. The salesperson spun the Rolling Stones “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” That’s for sure. “But if you try sometimes, you might find, you get what you need.” I’ll be back.

Four Swinging Schools on Seattle’s North Side

Earshot Jazz
July 2011, Vol. 27, No. 07

There is definitely something up in the Seattle area, in the water, that just breeds great jazz ensembles,” says Erika Floreska, education director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, in the 2007 documentary film Chops. It isn’t the water in Seattle that breeds jazz. It’s the teachers in public middle schools that stock tributaries for their counterparts in high schools downstream. And all of these teachers rely on a support system of parents who tirelessly volunteer and raise money to pay for additional coaches and long-distance travel expenses.

Most national recognition for turning out high-quality young Seattle jazz students goes to Garfield and Roosevelt high school bands, led by Clarence Acox and Scott Brown respectively. Perhaps a more fitting word would be respectfully. Together, Garfield and Roosevelt have placed in the top three bands for the last eleven years of the Essentially Ellington Competition and Festival in New York City. But four more schools on Seattle’s North Side are swinging students into the groove of jazz – Ballard, Eckstein, Hamilton, and Nathan Hale.


A Week at the Historic Home of Seattle Jazz

Earshot Jazz
July 2011, Vol. 27, No. 07

Four members of the Seattle Jazz Hall of Fame can be seen in one place every week of the year – the New Orleans Creole Restaurant. During a recent week, seven Hall of Fame inductees were spotted there. This heart of Seattle jazz beats where the city was born, the historic Pioneer Square district.

The Seattle jazz community has a home at the New Orleans Creole Restaurant. Built and cared for by Gaye Anderson, she has persevered in the face of losing her partner to cancer, financial insolvency, lapsed liquor licenses, economic recessions, and even earthquakes. Come on in any night of the week to hear the history of our city’s jazz heritage being made.


Profile: Chuck Deardorf

A Mirror and Focus for the Jazz Community
May 2011, Vol. 27, No. 05
Seattle, Washington

Chuck Deardorf perches on a stool at the back of the stage, the best view of the audience. This vantage point is ideal for a bass player’s role as harmonic backbone and center of gravity for the groove. The club’s wooden stage amplifies low notes. Where inexperienced bassists would produce unfocused booms, Deardorf’s tone is even and clear over the entire neck of his German acoustic bass, built in the late 1800s. His fingers crawl over the strings like a spider. Quick solo phrases end on a brief sustained note with a touch of vibrato. His sound is refined, precise, fluid – reminiscent of ECM recordings from the late 1970s.

Read the full article here.

Todd DelGiudice

Originally published in Earshot Jazz, April 2011, Vol. 27, No. 04

Imagine playing saxophone with Charlie Parker’s trumpet player. Todd DelGiudice (rhymes with Judas) doesn’t have to imagine, it’s part of history. Red Rodney hired him in 1993 for several gigs when he was only a junior at the University of Miami. Todd played so well he was invited join the band after graduation. “It was awesome,” says Todd. “Red sounded beautiful. I was living the dream.” Unfortunately, his degree came after Rodney’s death and the hopeful plans evaporated.

Preview of Portland Jazz Festival

A Mirror and Focus for the Jazz Community
February 2011 Vol. 27, No. 2
Seattle, Washington

Jewish and African Americans Playing Jazz Together – the 2011 Portland Jazz Festival
By Steve Griggs

It took Bill Royston seven years to bring the theme for the 2011 Portland Jazz Festival to life. Inspired back in 2003 by an account of Willie “The Lion” Smith in Nat Hentoff’s American Music Is, the Portland Jazz Festival Artistic Director explores the musical relationship of African Americans and Jews in the 2011 theme Bridges and Boundaries: Jewish & African Americans Playing Jazz Together. But is the Pacific Northwest ready to embrace race, religion, and politics related to jazz?

Ready or not, we have a schedule that covers two weekends (February 18-27) and packs in more than 100 events. Ticketed concerts include internationally recognized contemporary jazz masters Randy Weston, Anat Fort, Dave Frishberg, Don Byron, Esperanza Spalding, Nik Bartsch’s Ronin, Poncho Sanchez, the 3 Cohens (Anat, Avaishai, and Yuval), SFJAZZ Collective, Regina Carter, Joshua Redman, and Maceo Parker. Royston suggests adventurous attendees check out the progressive quintet with a new recording contract, the Blue Cranes (on the Nik Bartsch show), and a group of three Jewish and three African American musicians, the Afro-Semitic Experience (on the 3 Cohens show).

The festival showcases local jazz musicians and school ensembles with more than 70 events free to the public. In addition to Portland veterans like Tom Grant, Gary Hobbs, Rebecca Kilgore, Gordon Lee, Ron Steen, and John Stowell, Royston recommends listeners check out saxophonist Devin Phillips, a recent import from New Orleans.

The venues for the festival and partner events are theaters, hotels, restaurants, pubs, cafes, schools, churches, and synagogues. The festival’s web pages have convenient links to Google Maps and venue web sites. Royston thinks acoustics are best at the Newmark Theater, but he also recommends the Rogue Distillery and Public House, home of the festival’s special brew – Jazz Guy Ale. Royston is the Jazz Guy, with his picture on the bottle’s label to prove it! But you don’t have to go to the Rogue Distillery to find the beer. All the venues serving alcohol will feature the sponsor’s drinks.