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Generation Next: Four Voices From Seattle

Paul Rauch By

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I've found you've got to look back at the old things and see them in a new light. —John Coltrane
Each generation, an insidious notion arises, and is passed about the musical world that jazz music, the only uniquely American art form is somehow experiencing a slow, but certain death. Inevitably, this notion is set aside, and somehow projected forward in time, as a new generation of artists rise to the occasion, not only facilitating the survival of, but enabling the forward journey of the genre. In Seattle, the vibrant scene has moved forward from Quincy Jones and Ernestine Anderson, across generations to current innovators such as trumpeter/composer Thomas Marriott, trailblazing bassist Jeff Johnson, and iconic pianist Marc Seales, to name but a few.

While this cycle of musical innovation, reinvents itself generationally, the path that leads musicians to this music, and beyond into a life dedicated to it as a profession changes decade by decade. What a young jazz musician is challenged with today differs greatly from the artistic, social, and economic challenges two and three generations in the past. This has been a topic of much discussion in the jazz press in recent years, as many veteran players recall how things were, "back in the day," whether the "day" is ten, twenty, even thirty or forty years ago. There is a belief that younger generation players who have developed their craft largely within the confines of academia, lack the experience and character of expression that can only be earned on the bandstand. This interview is an opportunity for four young jazz musicians from Seattle to have a voice in the matter. Three are juniors at Garfield High School, in Seattle's Central District, the other a senior at Ingraham High School in North Seattle.

Each has a unique story that adds color to their respective views and experiences to this juncture on their journey in life and music. Vocalist Serena Dominguez is the daughter of two great musicians from Spain. Her father is the great flamenco-jazz pianist, Chano Dominguez. Her mother Marina Albero is a noted pianist, as well as a pioneering innovator of the psalterium, or hammered dulcimer. Bassist Ben Feldman, and guitarist Owen Boxwell, are performing professionally as sidemen, and as leaders of their own ensemble, The Boxwell/Feldman Group. Trumpeter Bell Thompson studies with innovative trumpeter/composer Samantha Boshnack, and recently did a live studio session on Seattle's jazz and NPR station, KNKX-FM 88.5.

One afternoon at Tula's Jazz club, we discussed topics of concern for the next generation of musicians moving forward, including mentorship, gender bias, education, and each artist's personal path forging an original musical identity. The result was more than compelling and informative. It was bright, intelligent, humorous, and genuine, carrying with it the anticipation and hope each new generational wave of young musicians bring. I hope you enjoy.

All About Jazz: To be able to actually play this music someday, one needs to connect with its tradition, history, and development. To immerse one's self in the language so that you can understand it and eventually assimilate it. Immersion, imitation, and assimilation: This is, and has been, the process, not only with Jazz, but with all music. Talk about your path to this point, to your understanding this music.

Serena Dominguez: I've been into music since always, because my parents are musicians. I started getting interested in jazz, and I would want to play with my friends, and my mom would say, " Hey, let's make a band and play jazz." She would give me a list of people I should listen to, and I just started listening to a ton of jazz. My parents were playing it, it was something that came natural for me, almost as if the assimilation came before anything else, because it was all around me, I understood it already, but I didn't actively try to understand it. So I started listening to Chet Baker, Ella Fitzgerald, Coltrane, all the big names, and I thought it was super cool. I felt like I understood what they were doing, because I had been around it for so long, so it was so cool to have the musical background to finally understand it, after years of just listening to it.

Ben Feldman: I grew up much different, my parents aren't musicians. In seventh grade, I was playing rock guitar at the time, and Owen showed me a Joe Pass album his teacher had shown him. When I heard that I was really just entranced by it and started listening to it all the time, his solo album, Virtuoso (Pablo, 1973), one of the best solo jazz guitar albums, ever. So I started getting into jazz guitar, and it became an immediate addiction. I just sort of dropped everything in school, and I was just listening to music during all my classes, reading theory books under my desk. I started practicing seven, eight hours a night, until 1:30 in the morning every day.

Owen Boxwell: He would be such a mess in school, sleeping constantly, the teachers would be furious at him!

Dominguez: He's going mad, there's jazz in the world!

Feldman:I was just the worst student ever, and my teachers were taking away my jazz books, because I wouldn't stop reading them. I also immersed myself in the history, and I became interested in studying as many history books on jazz that I could, because I wanted to understand from that perspective as well. So that's pretty much how I got into this music, and trying to understand it.

Boxwell: Ben and I really fed off each other in middle school. We would constantly be checking out stuff. It would be like, "Hey have you heard this album?" If the other person didn't, we would vibe the shit out of each other. We were developing and checking out shit together. 100% of our conversations would be about records, walking down the halls putting on music, we were annoying! That's how it started, we were finding jazz together and that's how we found the music that we're listening to today.

Feldman: And we took lessons from the same guitar teacher.

Dominguez: You guys are jazz bros, so cute!

Feldman: From a former cult leader, it was pretty insane.

Boxwell: He had a show on Seattle Public Access, Bruce Howard. It was called the Forum.

Feldman: He was scary, and indoctrinated us to his weird views on jazz.

Boxwell: One of his things was you couldn't listen to music with horn players.

AAJ: Wait a minute, do you mean that you could not listen to recordings with horn players, and couldn't be in the same room with horn players?

Boxwell: Any music with horn players, so I deleted like 2000 Coltrane songs from my library, and all this stuff.

Feldman: Just last week I found a list of jazz recordings he gave me when I was first getting into it, and one of them was a McCoy Tyner record, and he warned me to check if there are any horns on it.

Boxwell: McCoy Tyner, watch out for horns, that was the phrasing, watch out! , Feldman: We eventually graduated from that teacher though, once we realized he was a cult leader, and then we started enjoying music with horns finally.

Bell Thompson: I started studying jazz taking lessons with Owuor Arunga, he left me to go tour with Macklemore. I went to Garfield, and at one point we started playing "Satin Doll," and that was really fun to me. I only listened to Miles Davis Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959) for three years when I decided to start playing jazz. I still wasn't that invested, I thought that this wasn't that exciting.

AAJ: How well do you know the records? The classic recordings in jazz?

Feldman: I think it's fair to say Owen and I know them very well.

Dominguez: It's intimidating!

Boxwell: Sure, we were listening to albums during every one of our classes!

Feldman: I failed every one of my classes in middle school because I was listening to and reading about all the records.

Boxwell: It wasn't even totally about the enjoyment, it was kind of competitive.

Feldman: We were competing with each other.

Boxwell: We reveled in finding stuff the other one hadn't listened to. We've heard a lot of stuff. For three and a half years it was the only genre we listened to, and we listened all the time. Constantly.

Thompson: I don't feel like I know the records. I feel like I really know like, two records! Chet Baker in Milan (Jazzland 1959), John Coltrane Blue Train (Blue Note, 1957), maybe Hank Mobley Soul Station (Blue Note, 1960).

Dominguez: It was around me all the time, so I never bothered to learn anything about it. Does that make sense? I didn't learn the names and players, and that's on me, it's just that I don't have good memory for stuff like that. For me, everything is in the music, and it doesn't make a difference who is playing it. If it vibes with me, if I feel it, if I understand it, I'll listen to it more, and I'll find out more about that specific band, performer. I'm not a jazz aficionado like these two. My goal is to know way more about this beautiful genre, because it's my favorite thing ever, but I don't know that much about it. It will come. There is so much, it's overwhelming.

AAJ:There are people who think that playing music that swings or has a strong blues content is old-fashioned. I worry about the music losing touch with its African-American roots. How do you see this?

Boxwell: You look at all the best modern players , and they can swing the shit out of stuff. Guys like Sean Jones, Taylor Eigsti, and guys like that, when it comes to swing, they really bring it. I think a lot of people who consider it unhip who just focus on modern jazz are just making excuses, for not bothering to learn the older stuff.

Feldman: The more I play modern jazz, the more I realize the importance of learning the old stuff too. I have studied the old stuff for my entire time as a jazz musician. I feel like a lot of modern players, when they don't really learn that history, you can tell in the way they play. It sounds really stereotypical, in terms of modern jazz. They always use the same chords, and they all are very dramatic all the time. When you listen to the older records, there is a lot of subtlety, sometimes the excitement is in the small changes, with the way they are fitting into the band. I think a player like Gerald Clayton really understands that, and other great musicians like Ben Wendel. I hear a lot of Ahmad Jamal in that style, even though it is totally modern. I think it is really essential to learn the history of the music.

Dominguez: I think this applies to anything. I feel you have to at least try to get interested in the origins of whatever you are trying to study, whatever you are trying to play. For example, I keep going back to classical music in my head, because that is what I studied for a long time, since I was seven years old. Having all that background with harmony rows, transposition, how it all starts from Bach to Beethoven, to Mahler, that has so much to do with jazz, people don't realize. There's the African American roots, that's so important to understand what you're doing. Modern jazz, would not have happened without what came before it. So neglecting that is hypocritical in my opinion, you have to understand where it came from, in order to play it with the intention it was meant to have.

Thompson: It has been interesting trying to learn how to swing, to transcribe, to be able to swing, to hang out with Sam (Boshnack), and see her shows, and be in Wayne Horvitz' band at JazzEd, and play his songs, which are very different. I like modern jazz more after listening to older music that swings. I went to a Wayne Horvitz concert in sixth grade, before I studied jazz, and I thought it was really weird, but now I like it , after learning the older music. Without it, I don't know that I would have come around the same way.

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