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John Seman: The Story of Monktail


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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."

Monktail Non GrataI 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.

I remember, at one point, I would go to the record store and I used to buy heavy metal, rap and whatever, and then eventually I started getting into the Kronos Quartet and the Black Angels (Nonesuch, 1990) album. Song X (Nonesuch, 1985) somehow got into the mix there and I remember bringing that to my band director-it was [saxophonist] Ornette Coleman, [guitarist] Pat Metheny, [drummer] Denardo [Coleman], and [bassist ] Charlie Haden-and I was like, "This is fantastic! What is this?" I didn't understand it, and he goes, "Oh, that record, I hate that record. When that record came out I threw it in the trash." That was the first time that I started to deviate. I was like, ,"No I really think this is fantastic." I didn't understand it, so I listened to a lot of Ornette, but I was still kind of a traditionalist. I listened to a lot of Bird [saxophonist Charlie Parker], I was getting into [trumpeter] Miles Davis, and the jazz band stuff was all [pianist] Count Basie stuff.

In high school, I got to take some private classes in composition and arranging with the band director and with the director of the music program at that school, which is an unheard of luxury now. But I would stay either during last period or after school and it was like music detention with the teachers, and we would go over orchestration, we would go over theory and harmony exercises, transposition, transcription, and it was a fantastic education that led me to apply to a number of music schools. Then I ended up going to the Oberlin Conservatory as a composition major. I wrote a bunch of music and about halfway through my time at Oberlin I switched from a composition major to a minor and developed what they call an independent major, which was in ethnomusicology and double bass.

My ears and eyes were open to composition performance ritual and the social aspects of music in the broader global cultural context. College is a very isolating place, especially in music school. There is a lot of time in the practice room, there is a lot of time in the library, and I think understanding music on a global scale, even intimately within specific cultures, was a way to connect the feelings I had about music and about interacting with musicians.

That early experience as a teenager playing in that jazz band and playing with all of the musicians opened me up to that musical experience that is beyond any other social exercise. It led me as an adult to understand the climate and culture of improvised music, which is just as broad and varied as any social context, but it all happens within music. Just in Seattle, I can imagine the different neighborhoods of improvised music and they are all rich, full, diverse, growing cultural hives, like any other cultural thing like brewing [laughter] or any sort of church thing. They all have their little rituals and customs and cultures and personalities. I think maybe sometimes that is hard to see. I would say that was the start. There was a little spark there where I started to, if not completely understand it, to look for it and begin to at least appreciate it in my own experience.

I graduated from Oberlin and spent some time traveling around, but ended up in Washington, DC, doing a year of graduate school at the University of Maryland as an ethnomusicologist and simultaneously getting into field recording. The history of field recording in ethnomusicology led me to examine a series of historical recordings and understand the equipment involved, like a DAT versus bringing a crank phonogram. That led me to the world of archiving and preservation, which is what I was doing as a gig working in studios, and then I ended up moving to Seattle. And then shortly after I moved to Seattle, Mark moved to Seattle

AAJ: When was this?

JS: This was in, like, 1999. I graduated from school in the mid-nineties and spent a number of years knocking around DC, sort of being an academic, but I also worked in a record store and I worked in a couple of studios, but I wasn't playing. Ever since high school I have tried to record every rehearsal, every gig, every performance, every little moment, almost saving it up for those quiet times when there isn't a lot going on. You can go back through the tapes and listen and re-experience it. With improvised music, so much happens in the moment. But if you don't get to look at it again, I mean, imagine if with all of the great work of art you only got a fleeting look at them. You didn't get to sit and examine them.

I was working with different ways of recording, multi-tracking or stereo recording, whether it was with a little walkman-style cassette recorder or a number of mikes around the room. By the time I moved to DC I had seven or eight years' worth of cassettes, DATs, CDs, and reel-to-reels. We got a reel-to-reel machine in the early nineties and I put a ton of stuff on that.

AAJ: Were you playing with Mark Ostrowski through this time?

JS: Absolutely. That is about when I really started playing seriously and writing for a group, and improvising with a cohort. Mark and I started playing in like 1990. I have a cassette that I found from 1990, and it is punk rock-ish sort of stuff. Mark is not actually on it, I don't think. But I have some other stuff from '91 or '92, which is about when we graduated from high school. It would basically be him and me and one other person. There was a guitarist who was also from New Jersey.

That is also where I grew up. I grew up in Jersey and then moved to PA when I was 12, and a few years after that I met Mark who was born and raised in PA. I had this neighbor across the street from me and he was also from New Jersey, and I learned bass about the same time that he learned guitar. We were doing theory together, we were doing exercises together, we were going through Guitar Player (magazine) every week and learning Randy Rhoads licks, you know, the brief era of Stu Hamm, Joe Satriani, Surfing With The Alien (Relativity, 1987).

It was a really cool time to be into music as a teenager because you could discover Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, but then there was new stuff happening. It seems to me like it was the last time that rock went through this weird phase even being involved with MTV where there was Fishbone, Primus, Jane's Addiction, and sort of this LA punk funk thing-the Chili Peppers, but there was still a gritty rock thing happening. It was maybe the last gasp of sceney rock labeldom. It was inconsequential because it all seemed the same to us, whether it was Stravinsky or Ornette.

AAJ: That is interesting because my next question was going to be how you got exposed to creative music in the context of listening to rock and jazz.

JS: For me it was solos. As I was growing up I got into heavy metal- Iron Maiden, Metallica, Motorhead, the Misfits, and I was a huge Cliff Burton fan as well as Lemmy and Geezer Butler. It was all metal all the time, but I was never a shredder. If I played guitar it was really bad. As much as I practiced licks and scales, groove was where I felt very comfortable. Licks was a different story.

I was reading an interview with Satriani, or Kirk Hammet, or Steve Vai, or someone, and they talked about [saxophonist] John Coltrane. I had that Ornette record, Song X, but I didn't really piece it together. I like to say that it was solos that led me to Coltrane and Miles. Our teacher sat us down and made us sing the solo from "So What," [from Miles Davis' Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959)] and we needed to understand that, here is the song, and there is not so much of a melody-I mean, there is a melody in the bass, but it is really a repeated figure-and that the melody of the song was improvised by the leader of the band. When you would sing the verse, instead he makes it up. It still didn't make sense, and then in jazz band, we had a saxophonist who would learn the guitar solo from "Creeping Death," the Metallica song on Ride The Lightning (Megaforce, 1984), and he would play it when it was his turn to solo. He memorized it. That wasn't a very creative music sort of thing [laughter].

AAJ: So in the context of all of this listening of jazz and rock, iconic figures like Mingus, like Miles, like Lemmy, like Cliff Burton, how did you wind up being inspired to play creative music?

JS: I had like a total mind fuck. My first composition class, my first year at Oberlin, I thought, "Okay, we're going to get in here." I had gotten into Stravinsky and Schoenberg, and I thought I was hip. I thought I knew what was happening. I even understood serialism. I read Vincent Persichetti's harmony book. I was ready to delve into some serious shit and analyze it.

The first day we opened a phone book and started doing some Christian Wolff composition where you open the phone book and the different numbers of whatever page you happen to open it to, that is the score, the line of phone numbers in the phone book. We were performing this in day one of composition class and I'm like, "What the fuck is this shit, man? I have no use for this!" And then the next day we did [John Cage's] "4'33," and a percussionist came in and did a Cage percussion piece. Okay, now I kind of get that, but then they played it again and it was different. The score can be performed as many times as you want, every time it is going to be different. That got into my brain and it was antithetical to everything that I imagined composition to be.

I had separated the two, that improvisation in a jazz context while it is swimming in this melody and harmony and rhythm, it is established more here. There were other parameters. A great deal of it was left up to the performer. As an aspiring composer, I was unfamiliar with that concept. By the end of that year I was overwhelmingly a fan and a practitioner of indeterminacy, and it informed every little concept, whether it was jazz or rock or whatever.

Every summer I would go back to PA. Mark was a year behind me, and over the summer-I have got these cassettes that we would record-we would take this rock band setting and do indeterminate compositions with like electric guitar, electric bass, drums, saxophone, or, you know, screw drivers and beer bottles, or like a stapler. We had whatever was in the basement because we were all playing in these basements. We couldn't get a lot of gigs doing that [laughter], in the summer, but it was where the social experience of improvised music happened versus in the classroom where, at least for me, it still felt very isolated even though we were all doing it together. With a room full of composition students, everyone's kind of got their own thing sometimes, from my personal experience.

I was a big Frank Zappa fan in college, so much so that when I went to graduate school my thesis was going to be on the music of Frank Zappa as the twentieth century interloper, how he brought avant-garde aesthetics and ideas to popular music. All throughout the sixties, seventies, and eighties these kids were going to these big rock concerts at the LA Forum and they had no idea that really it was being informed by John Cage, Penderecki, Varèse for sure, Stravinsky.

Once I was in DC I worked in a record store. It was a time when I wasn't a student so I had income and I had access because I worked in a record store. I was a big Ornette and Eric Dolphy fan, and electric Miles and Zappa. It wasn't until I got to Seattle, there was that unheard music series on Atavistic, and Nipples (1969) by [saxophonist] Peter Brötzmann was reissued, trumpeter Joe McPhee, so many records from the US but also the European school-[guitarist] Derek Bailey, [saxophonist] Evan Parker, [drummer] Han Bennink, and then they were coming here too. Earshot [festival] was bringing them in. It was to me the great connection of all those things, the humor and attitude of Zappa with the avant-garde, that it was some sort of high conceptual thing but I am actually going to put it down in the basest human comedy, almost like a sitcom, and the serious musical expression of any virtuoso performer that you would find in a concert setting, and with the free jazz aesthetic of American free jazz in the sixties and seventies. But before that, we had a free jazz trio in '92.

AAJ: Who was in that group?

JS: It was Mark, me, and our friend Larry, who played tenor saxophone in our high school jazz band. Lawrence Moore is his name and he is actually on the composition faculty at the University of Miami, a successful academic composer. We just basically improvised. I have some tapes that we did in that time between '91 and '94. We mostly did real fast bebop swing although it could be atonal, it could go anywhere. The European side of the free jazz thing wasn't in on it yet. That wasn't until much later but it was our best interpretation of like heavy metal meets bebop. The two things were separate. We were playing in this little pub and we did this Pauline Oliveros composition, and the audience was perplexed [laughter].

AAJ: What is your role in Monktail?

JS: I am cofounder; director, I would imagine; and bassist.

AAJ: Cofounder with Mark?

JS: Yeah, with Mark. The concept of Monktail was started in high school. Like I was saying, it was always Mark and me and a third party, sometimes more but it would be him and me and Larry, or our friend Mikey Collyer, who played guitar, or whoever else was around. We became a very tight rhythm section and we practiced as a rhythm section with that concept of Mingus and [drummer] Dannie Richmond, or [bassist] Bootsy [Collins] and drummer Clyde Stubblefield, this sort of aspect of it toward whatever we did whether it was a loud rock thing or a fast swing thing, or some more amorphous/indeterminate thing. We didn't have a name.

We had one name for that guitar/bass/drums trio, which was called Open. That is either a really good name or a really bad name for a band, but we were called Open mostly because it was always open as to who was going to perform with us. Larry, the saxophonist, he coined the term "Monktail" because he worked at a fish deli. It was a name that was knocked around and it was put on tapes, and it was sort of our alternate name-Monktail.

AAJ: Was this in Pennsylvania?

JS: It was in Pennsylvania, right in Pennsylvania. In '99, I moved to Seattle, and Mark came the year after. We started playing together and we met a few people. We met [pianist] Stephen Fandrich and [guitarist] Stephen Parris, and we met them through a mutual friend of Mark's. Mark lived in Boston with a guy named Sean Owen, who I think was in the graduate program at the New England Conservatory. He is from Seattle, from Oak Harbor, and he grew up with Stephen Parris. He went to Cornish and was an undergrad with Stephen Fandrich and this host of other Cornish performers. So when Mark came out and met me and introduced me to Sean, Sean introduced us to all of these Cornish musicians. But he left right away to go to London where he got his doctorate in musicology.

Meanwhile, we were here now, Mark and I performing, and we started practicing with Fandrich and Stephen Parris. I met [saxophonist] Bill Monto, we lived in the same apartment building, and that was one of the first groups here-Deal's Number. It was Bill Monto, Mark Ostrowski, and myself, Bill Monto on tenor sax. And there was also Floss. We met [saxophonist] Izaak Mills, who was a Cornish student, but we met him at the record store that Mark ended up working at. So this music community started blossoming. There were about six or seven of us, and once again it was the same story. It was Mark and me with this guy, Mark and me with that guy. We started recording, and many of the recordings, whether it was Special O.P.S., or it was Shit Orange Horsey, or even Deal's Number, a lot of them were first recordings, like, we met these two guys, let's go record, and that would become a band. The concept of what we were doing over all started rearing its head again like it did in high school but now we were serious. We wanted to get gigs. I had already gotten Monktail.com back when I was in college.

AAJ: Monktail.com in the nineties? You had a website?

JS: Yes, 1996. On it was mostly some recordings from that band Open, as well as our free jazz trio which was called Yeast. Now nobody went to it. I would put stuff up, and you had to go to the library to go to the computer and look it up. But I had it registered then, and once I was in Seattle I started posting daily improvisations. I didn't really know anybody before I met all of the Cornish folks, so it was just sitting there with nothing too good on it.

We started tossing names around like Collective, and our model was absolutely the AACM [Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians]. "Creative music" seemed like the most open term to use, versus "strictly improvised" or "composed" or somewhere in the middle. I remember we were sitting at The Deluxe on Capitol Hill and we started writing it all out. We wrote out a charter with Mark and I as co- founders; I would be the director and he would be like the president or something. We had a board with Monto and Fandrich and Parris and Izaak. We started putting together email lists and we started promoting gigs.

The first Non Grata gig was like August 9, 2001. I remember it was at the Arts and Nature Festival. It was Fandrich, Stephen Parris, Monto, Ostrowski and me, and I remember because I had brought the newspaper and we started doing conduction. I conducted Fandrich, who is an accomplished singer, singing and vocalizing this short Sunday Seattle Times article about President Bush and what a dip shit he was. When he would give speeches at night he was apparently very tired because he was an early morning kind of guy and there were all the little slips of tongue. There had been so many in this last month during his first seven or eight months in office and this article had compiled them. Fandrich would read them in a funny way and we would play a musical tag, and it was very humorous. It was several short weeks after that that they didn't make fun of the president for a long time.

AAJ: That was before 9/11.

JS: Yeah, exactly. It is totally meaningless, but that is why I remember the gig. So my role in Monktail is as gig booker, band wrangler, bassist, producer-I have produced five albums on the Monktail label: two Floss, Non-Grata, OPS, and Deal's Number, not all by myself, but I was the antagonist, the antagonizing producer-and the website, and the email list, all of that kind of promo and gig stuff.

AAJ: Now you have also done some organizing of festivals. Can you talk about that?

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?

JS: That's a good question. Up until the last couple of years I had not been satisfied musically, although, like I said, we produced the five records on Monktail and a number of shows, a ton of live recordings that we put out on the web, and a ton of gigs, posters, and flyers, but it still seemed open-ended to me, like I didn't know where this was going. Several things happened in the last couple of years. I think the first little knock was that Brian Heaney gave me a call and he said, "Hey, do you want to play this gig?" It was him and me and Greg Campbell, and I had not played with either of them although I was familiar with them in the community. It was an outdoor gig at this party and we played in but we played out. It was a little of both but it was completely improvised. I guess, as an improviser, you definitely get your comfort zone especially if you perform with the same people all of the time. It is like the pathways in your brain get a little more comfortable. And here was a place where I could not rely on any of those but I could be informed by them.

We still had to create our own vocabulary, and it had been a while since I had really jumped in. This wasn't like, "Let's go play in the basement and have a couple of beers." This was, "No, we are going to go play outside for some people who aren't there to hear creative music. But we are three creative musicians. We could probably put something together that is appropriate yet is still interesting." We didn't hold back. It was a really good feeling, and that sort of blossomed into what is now Ask the Ages, four years later actually. It is one of the most satisfying ensembles I have ever been in and a lot of musicians have come through there. We played last month, it was a double bill with Moraine, and we had [saxophonist/flautist] Kate Olsen and [vibraphonist] Stephen Bell, who are also in the band now, and we also had [trombonist] Stuart Dempster. It is a very satisfying band. Brian has written a few tunes and they have evolved over these years into things that are really different than where they started.

I have been playing with two guys I had respected once I had moved here, back when there was the Speakeasy and there was I-Spy. I used to go see them, it is saxophonist Wally Shoup and [guitarist] Dennis Rea, and playing with both of those guys has been ear opening, much like Greg, Brian, and Stuart, in that I find that my experience in my own little world is applicable to something larger than that. So I have tried to find ways to expand on my improvised music experiences yet simultaneously I have finally put together a band with some of my closest musical comrades, Mark Ostrowski, Stephen Fandrich, and Bill Monto, with a couple of guys we have really gotten to know in the last year or so when we were doing the weekly at Faire and since then at the new weekly at Electric Tea Garden, [saxophonist/flautist] Darian Asplund and [trumpeter] Robby Beasley, and that is the Lil Coop Sextet.

The other thing that has happened in the last couple of years is that I stopped having a 9 to 5-which, as a gigging musician, was extremely tough. But a creative musician can find creative ways to make a living. In the last year-and-a-half, I have worked on building a studio, so now I have a performance, recording and preservation studio where I have also done a couple of production things for different organizations, and focused a lot of time on writing, arranging,recording and rehearsing this band to where we are playing my compositions.

Floss- UnwaxedSome of them are straightforward and then some of them are very indeterminate and a sort of mix of indeterminate and serial and free jazz. Some of them are new and some of them are old, so it is about 50/50 new stuff that I wrote while I had more time, once I wasn't doing the 9 to 5 and some of them are old things that we used to do with either Floss or Deal's Number or Non Grata, the Monktail big band that we have rearranged for this sextet.

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