Overton Berry: Essentially Elegant

Originally published in Earshot Jazz May 2012

When pianist Overton Berry accepted his induction into the Earshot Jazz Hall of Fame last month, he turned to the audience and said, “This is a tribute to everyone I have ever listened to. I’m learning from all of you.” Typical Overton Berry – generosity blended with humility that makes everyone listening feel good and like he is speaking directly to them. It looks effortless, but this grace emanates from decades of entertaining audiences.

Many musicians get trapped in a house of mirrors when they focus on building their chops. Berry almost did. He remembers practicing as a youth at the black musicians union hall (Seattle’s white and black musician unions integrated in 1958), working hard to play every note possible.

Joe Brazil: Justice for Joe

Attacking the Ivory Tower

A rally at the Husky Union Building on the University of Washington campus kicks off “Joe Brazil Day.” On April 21, 1976, 350 people march to the University President’s Office and present a written demand – before May 5, an open meeting involving testimony from students, faculty, and community be held to officially grant or deny tenure to Assistant Music Professor Joe Brazil. Brazil, a saxophonist from Detroit who recorded with John Coltrane, teaches the History of Jazz, the most popular class in the School of Music. He frequently brings leading jazz artists to perform in class – Earl “Fatha” Hines, Dizzy Gillespie, McCoy Tyner, and many more.

“I’ll accept this,” says President John Hogness, “and I’ll have an answer.” Ed Woodley, head of the Black Student Union isn’t satisfied. “We’re tired of waiting and getting no answers.” The protesters head for their next stop.

Behind locked doors, police guard the Music Building. Five uniformed officers secure the west door, eight at the north, and ten at the east. More stroll through the corridors. Classes are cancelled. Outside, the crowd chants “Justice for Joe!”

Brazil had been denied tenure by the School of Music faculty during the previous school year. No public notice of the meeting was given and no minutes had been taken. Protestors believe this procedure violates the Open Meetings Act enacted in 1971 by the Washington State Legislature.

“It’s unfortunate it had to come to this,” says Brazil. “Hopefully people came here to learn.” Brazil is not vengeful. He tells the crowd that many of the people voting against his tenure are “just dumb, not mean.”

Jovino Santos Neto: Mind in Motion

March, 2012

Inside the rehearsal studio, Jovino Santos Neto stops playing the piano. “I would like to hear you taking off here… like a solo at the end,” he says. The words come quickly. He speaks as fast as he thinks. He thinks as fast as he creates. And he creates as fast as he hears.

Vocalist Flora McGill asks, “Can we do it all the way through with the solo to feel how long that is?” “Of course!” says Jovino. His hands pounce back onto the keyboard.

“I can do like this, that I used to do with a band.” This time through, Jovino introduces the song with tinkling bells in the upper register of the piano. Flora’s clear lyrics add a floating waltz over the piano’s steady gait. She sweetens the end of her notes with vibrato. The voice and piano play two different rhythms that mesh, weaving a fabric of sound.