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Matthew Yeakley: Keeping the Profession and Art of Jazz Alive in Los Angeles

Matthew Yeakley: Keeping the Profession and Art of Jazz Alive in Los Angeles
Jonathan Manning By

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As a city full of studio musicians, floaters, stadium pros and black-box indie acts, Los Angeles gives people like Yeakley the opportunity to collaborate with a near infinite combination of artists from unique backgrounds who each bring something new to the table when they get up to play jazz.
Matthew Yeakley says "it's an amazing time to be in Los Angeles playing jazz." The guitarist and educator has lived in the city for ten years, honing his instrumental and compositional talents, teaching jazz privately and at a high school, and sharing the stage with local artists including Tony Austin, touring drummer of Kamasi Washington, Jay Jennings, trumpeter of Snarky Puppy, and more. As a city full of studio musicians, floaters, stadium pros and black-box indie acts, Los Angeles gives people like Yeakley the opportunity to collaborate with a near infinite combination of artists from unique backgrounds who each bring something new to the table when they get up to play jazz. "There's so much freedom, artistically, to do what you want here," says Yeakley.

Los Angeles is a city of working artists and entertainers. It is packed with professional music-makers who, while all having those big, lofty projects in sight, are no strangers to hard work and keeping alive using their artistic talents. "One of the things that's beautiful about LA," Yeakley says, "is there are people who are doing studio work and pop band work and they're playing in all these different settings but ultimately are just great players." Diversity is what keeps LA's music scene so fascinating and Yeakley knows and appreciates this. With the likes of Kamasi Washington playing on To Pimp a Butterfly or Miles Mosley playing on Korn singer Jonathan Davis' upcoming solo record, it is clear the LA jazz community is not sacrosanct about the genre.

To Yeakley, jazz is not just one thing. "Jazz is not a specific kind of music," he says. "Jazz means freedom." This notion rests at the core of Yeakley's philosophy about jazz and its place in LA. There is an incredible variety of musical talents and backgrounds in the city, and a great number of them are—at least philosophically—jazz musicians. But, "in LA, anything goes," says Yeakley. "In other cities, they have vast musical traditions and they say this is what we do here and it's got an architecture to it," Yeakley points out. While LA is plenty storied musically, Yeakley makes a great point: LA does not have the famous street bands of New Orleans or Delta Blues tradition of Mississippi or jam bands of San Francisco. Variety and a multitude of musical niches define LA and contribute to its vibrant jazz scene.

Many still do not consider LA to be a jazz hub, but when speaking with someone like Yeakley, one gets an idea for the impressive scope the city actually has. If you're from somewhere like New York City, "you might not think jazz has this vibrant scene in LA," Yeakley says. "If you're in the mecca of jazz, everything else seems like a step backward." But this could not be further from the truth.

LA might not have the slew of decades-old clubs like NYC or elsewhere, but what it does have is an eclectic and vast mix of clubs catering to everyone from the aficionado to the casual listener to those just wanting music to drink to, and there's no shortage of any of those groups in the city. Yeakley's Underground Jazz Series at The Continental Club in Downtown LA proves that.

Every Wednesday Yeakley throws down with LA-based musicians in the walk-down, red-walled Continental Club. The constantly varied lineup—rotating almost weekly—never rehearses or prepares a setlist. The club "lets us really go," Yeakley says. "It's a great place to play more adventurous things." Sets typically comprise of standards or tunes the group briefly calls out before or during the show. But while this gig may not be the testing grounds for new compositions, what it allows is exploration of group dynamics for future collaboration and free-flowing energy that both entertains and can result in inspiration for a more strict and taut composition down the road.

Freeform riffs trail off of standards, rollicking along spontaneously and intuitively as the band intently, but more joyfully, listens to each other for cues. "Someone could say let's do 'I'll Be Seeing You' but make the last chord a B major" and then they just cruise from there, following whatever path they like. What makes Yeakley's series special is the appeal to all audience types. Patrons drink and laugh hardily, letting the musicians set the tone for their night, but there are also those who watch every lick, roll and arpeggio with intense focus. It's serious musicians playing serious jazz but Yeakley and company aren't austere about it. He points out that jazz wasn't born in quiet academic institutions; jazz originated in the bars and brothels of New Orleans, where most purveyors probably weren't keeping time or scrutinizing melody.

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