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 areat least philosophicallyjazz 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 lineuprotating almost weeklynever 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.
"There are two kinds of rooms," Yeakley says, "listening rooms... which are pin-drop silent... you paid a cover and you're there to watch what happens," and those where you can "play loud and watch people livingdoing life." He says it is good when you can play the Blue Whale or the Catalinaboth historic LA jazz clubsbut that gigs like his series at the Continental Club make jazz more accessible to a wider audience, and they allow him and his peers to keep making a living off of their art. Both types of shows are necessary and have their merits. But for a living, gigging musician paying the bills, the weekly, chatter-filled bar shows bring home the bread and amount to the collection of melodies and pairings that will lead to those pin-drop gigs where musicians showcase their labors of love.
The series' concept always starts with one musician, whose style informs the enlistment of the rest of the artists for the week(s). "If I have a swinging drummer, I might call a swinging pianist... or if I have a real outside saxophonist then I'll go that direction." This method is applied at the start of every month when Yeakley lines up his roster and builds his temporary bands around complementary styles. Shuffling between lineups allows for Yeakley to play with any combination of pianists, bassists, saxophonists, vibraphonists, and morethere's no set dynamic. Sets can be groovy, swinging, balladic or heavy. While usually starting with a standard or tune all the players know, that's really just the starting line to a free-for-all where the group can foray into more improvisational territory, adding flourishes and taking new paths.
Yeakley likes to think of playing these different types of rooms as viewing museum art versus viewing street art. "If I'm going to Catalina's or Blue Whale to hear something, it's like I'm observing art in a museum where it's supposed to be quiet, I'm supposed to sit there, I'm supposed take it in, and I'm supposed to think about what's happening, and that's a valuable experience." The storied clubs and performance-centric venues greatly contribute to the persistence and appreciation of jazz, and Yeakley will continue to play shows there. But the real lifeblood of the music, what preserves the vigor of jazz is largely its nightly presence in clubs like the Continental. Jazz is experiential for both player and audience, but that experience cannot always as academic or stern as listening rooms call for.
"Jazz is not a traditionally classy type of music," Yeakley says. "It's just been vacuumed up by classy institutions and museum-ified and institutionalized by schools. But that's not where it started." Jazz is not just one thing, he says. This tradition Yeakley refers tothe noisy and raucous late-night joints that housed the energetic tunes and personalities of jazz playersis one kept alive by these seemingly innocuous jazz nights that so many working musicians have to thank for letting them perform for a living. Every night may not be some grand showcase or a tune heard 'round the world, but these frequent and cover-free performances keep LA's jazz players sharp and give them a consistent audience. And the opportunity to play live so often and for pay cannot be beat, Yeakley says.
"Live performance is my absolute favorite thing," he says. While he admits to writing non-stop and is prepping for a new record, getting on stage is where jazz really comes alive for him. Being in LA allows him to work with accomplished musicians, not only to hash out carefully crafted albums, but also to jam nightly with and make a living doing what they love for people who love it. Even if the audience aren't strict jazz listeners, Angelenos love live music no matter what, and this appreciation for live tunes helps keep Yeakley and his peers in business.
While he loves composing and showing off his own tunes, Yeakley says that crafting "the song, the melody, the chords start[s]. But then you have to have the conversation." This conversation is live performance. Music, like conversation, should be natural and free and not completely bound up by design. There must be a guiding force or theme, but tangents and asides and new connections are what define the conversation of music. The band may have a sense of direction at the start, but the music "needs to be vital and have a sense of urgency," Yeakley says. This is why he values live performance so much and why he dedicates so much time to gigging and collaborating with diverse musicians in live settings, rather than spending all of his time in a recording studio refining particular flourishes or melodies.
Polished albums and tight arrangements continue to be necessary for jazz, though. Yeakley writes incessantly and has a couple records out, Clean Numbers
and Dirty Words
, and is planning a new album for 2018, set to be more groove than swing this time around. Yeakley says "the goal with putting a record together is twofold for me: one, it's to capture a momentit's a time capsule... it's a statement of a time and a place and that's an important endeavor." While Yeakley's emphasized the advantages and passions for live gigs, he naturally has recording goals and will continue to pursue album projects. But a record, he says, "is also a means to an end. A song is not a strict, holy book; the lead sheet is not a venerated, holy itemit's a map for communication to happen and that communication can only happen when it's done live." So the record, he says, "is a time capsule, the performances are like looking inside of it in real time."
Getting to that point of recording, though, couldn't happen without Yeakley's dedication to live performance. He says "that's why a place like [the Continental Club] is so great because it's a sandbox for me to try out ideas and different lineups. Let's say I know the lineup I want to have on the record, maybe one night i get them in here... and maybe I make them read some of these charts and just hear how it is. Then it's basically a rehearsal in front of the club of something that might eventually become a record. That's why these gigs are so important."