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John Seman: The Story of Monktail

By Published: November 21, 2012
JS: Early on in different Monktail ensembles we participated in a lot of cool Seattle festivals. There was Arts and Nature, there was Olympia Experimental Music Festival down in Olympia, we did Earshot a couple of times, which is great. It was probably five or six years ago that Sounds Outside came around. That was thanks actually completely that Reptet played at Cal Anderson Park for their annual Fourth of July thing. They hooked up with the guy who was running the park booking and they said, "We've got this Monktail thing over here and that would be a great way to do more outdoor concerts." Cal Anderson Park was just that big reservoir for years then they capped it and fixed it up. It was an excellent park.

In 2006, we did the first one. All of the Sounds Outside festivals were collaborative efforts between Reptet and John Ewing, Beth Fleenor and the Frank Agency, and me, Monktail and everyone else involved in that. Everyone took on different things, so we would rent the stage, we would rent the sound guy. We basically had to rent every table and chair for the whole thing. The first couple of years it was subsidized by the city. We did five years total, and the last three years we had to raise the money for every single solitary thing that was used from every mike and mike stand to every little table and chair to all of the tents, all of the equipment. I mean, I can't believe that we did it sometimes for as long as we did. It was hard and it took a lot of work by a lot of people. And it took a lot of money, a lot of people out of pocket putting money together to make it go off, but then once it did you would be like, "Oh, that was so awesome! Let's do it again." We got a lot of funding from very generous grants in the city and the county, and then after the economy really tanked here, after the '08 collapse so to speak, after 2010, there was no feasible way to pull it off.

Although that was unfortunate that we had to not do it anymore, I am so overwhelmingly proud of what we did there, and proud that as a community, as just a little slice of the Seattle creative music community, we were able to try to bring ensembles together and musicians together and the community together to make something like that happen. It definitely gave me a great deal of respect for everyone else who puts together some sort of large scale recurring event. And ours was free too, which was good but also another hurdle to overcome. It was a fantastic experience, a learning experience.

So, hooking up with Folklife, we knew some people over there, and it turned out that Table and Chairs also knew some people over there. What happened was I talked to Folklife and they said, "Simultaneously, we have been in touch with Table and Chairs. Would Monktail and Table and Chairs sit down with Folklife and maybe come up with some way to bring some creative music to the Folklife festival?"

AAJ: So Folklife approached you?

JS: No, we approached Folklife and Folklife said, "Table and Chairs has also approached us." And so we all met and it was like it was hard because they have a million acts that want to play there all of the time and they have a limited number of resources. The festival is free, and the performers are not paid. So there is a limited amount of resources, and what could we do to bring creative music? So the idea was that why don't we joint curate an evening for one of the four nights of the festival. So we came up with Friday night in a nice theater in Seattle Center, and there were a lot of ways we tried to piece the puzzle together. What we came up with was two soloists, two duos, two trios, and two quartets with the time distributed evenly between each combination but with more time given to the larger ensembles. It was one of the wildest combinations of groups that I had seen in a long time.

There wasn't a lot of coordination beforehand because once we had the bands together it was like, alright, we are going to do this. Everyone knows the deal that it is a free festival so we are all just doing this to bring some creative music to Folklife, and it went off really, really well. It seemed like there were a lot of musicians because once you start adding it up there were like 16 musicians involved. I can only hope that Folklife would bring us all back in years to come or expand and open it up a little more. It felt like, between some of the other regular jazz festival programming and what we were a part of with Sounds Outside, that it was nice to be on both sides of that this time, performing and also doing a little programming.

AAJ: Are you satisfied with where you are right now, musically?

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