John Seman: The Story of Monktail
The director and cofounder of Monktail Creative Music Concern with drummer Mark Ostrowski, bassist/composer John Seman has spent much of his childhood and his entire adult life defining this band and his musical direction. A highly educated player with the kind of street sense that can only be gained through constant performing, recording and touring, he is also a skilled producer and organizer. This is most recently evidenced in his efforts to bring the first ever improvised music event to the 2012 Northwest Folklife Festival, in conjunction with the Table and Chairs Music label.
All About Jazz: How did you get your start playing music?
John Seman: I started playing music when I was very young. I think at about three or four I took piano lessons and I liked it, I liked playing the piano. I didn't care for practicing the rudimentary exercises. The story goes that I started writing, not anything complicated, but I started improvising. As I got older I stopped playing piano, but I played trumpet and I played tuba, I got a drum set. I got back to the piano because the friends I played with, we would try to figure out tunes off of records. I just started to understand hearing music and being able to play it back on the piano. The piano is where that always happened, versus the guitar or something else. My early experience practicing and improvising led me to remember chords in the left hand, skipping a key on the piano, and the melody in the right hand going up and down the scales. That was as much information as I needed, as a young teenager, to start playing.
Once I was playing tuba in junior high and high school, I wanted to be in jazz band as a drummer. Here is where I meet my friend Mark Ostrowski. He has the audition before me for high school jazz band. I hear him play, and a couple of kids before him, and I realize that I am not going to get this gig.
AAJ: Where was this at?
JS: This was at Governor Mifflin High School in Shillington, Pennsylvania, which is a suburb of Reading, Pennsylvania, which is a suburb of Philadelphia. So this is Southeast Pennsylvania.
When I joined junior high school, I played trumpet and I played drums and I didn't know which I wanted to play in band. When I talked to the band director he was like, "Well, you've got to pick," and I looked in the back and there was a sousaphone. I was like, "Can I play that?" And he said, "Yes, absolutely!" They had no one else to play and I was kind of a tall kid.
And so the director and I had a similar conversation in high school. I said, "I want to play drums in the jazz band but I am not as proficient as these other players." He said, "Well, we're not really going to have a tuba player." So I said, "What about the bass?" Because they didn't have a bassist. They had a kid who played the bass lines on a keyboard. So he gave me a week to learn the bass charts, and I borrowed a friend's electric bass, and I went back and I woodshed for that whole week. He said, "Alright, and I'll tell you this. Everything that the bass plays in a jazz band is a solo. There is no one else covering your notes, so you have to play them right."
I started out improvising. I would not read the chart note for note, first of all because I still wasn't that good at sight reading, but because I could hear the key centers. That job gave me a really open experience at a really young age of understanding root movement and harmony in the role of the bass, whether it was in the concert band, marching band, or the jazz band. In that jazz band is where I met Mark Ostrowski, in about 1990. The rhythm section of that jazz band started rehearsing outside of school and we were like a band. We went up and down the East Coast playing all of these high school jazz band festivals and we won awards, and we were really just energized by that band director and by everyone else in the band.
I was starting to write music and I was starting to take it seriously. I had this LP box set of music of the twentieth century. It was Schoenberg and Stravinsky and Bartók, and it overwhelmed me because I thought the role of the composer was in movie scores, you know, there was John Williams. As a little kid I grew up thinking that was what a contemporary orchestral composer would do. At that point, in the eighties and nineties, some of that was in the last fifty years, and it opened up an entire new world to me. And then I would say simultaneously, playing the bass, it turned me on to [bassist] Charles Mingus.