Meet Donna M.

Tessa Souter and Andrea Wolper BY

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The music was alive with emotion - inferred pain and heartache along with triumph and redemption. From Shirley Horn's lyrics to Roy Hargrove's trumpet playing, it provided an impromptu soundtrack to what was going on in my life at the time.
Reader: Are you a jazz Super Fan? Do you know a jazz Super Fan? If so, be sure to see the call-to-action at the end of this column. But first, meet our Super Fan for June, Donna M.:

Raised on soul music, Donna M. was a relative late-comer to jazz (Vince Guaraldi's Peanuts score notwithstanding!), but once she got the message, she jumped in as a full-fledged Super Fan. Her journey with jazz took her from tragic loss to love, and her desire to share her enthusiasm for the music she says saved her from despair led to unexpected social media success.

Tell us a little about yourself.
I was born and raised in the city of "Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection" (that's unofficial!), Philadelphia, PA. My hometown for the last seven years has been Seattle, WA, where I work for a small tech company.

Besides music, my passions are reading books on history, biographies, and finance, international travel, cooking, gardening, wildlife, birding, and animal welfare. I am making a commitment this year to hike the numerous trails in the area. The Pacific Northwest is truly beautiful.

What's your earliest memory of music?
The soundtrack of my childhood was all things Motown and the soul music produced by the hit-making record label, Philadelphia International. My mother's taste in music filled the household daily: Stevie Wonder, The Delfonics, the Chi-lites, Isaac Hayes, Main Ingredient, WAR, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Minnie Rippleton, The Temptations, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, the Isley Brothers, Bobby Womack...the list goes on and on. My favorites were the Jackson 5 (Michael Jackson was my first crush—before the surgeries!) and Marvin Gaye. My maternal grandfather would often come to prepare Sunday dinner, and he'd have What's Going On? on repeat on the record player. That album is a permanent part of my musical DNA.

I wasn't formally exposed to jazz as a child, but I loved the soundtracks to all of the Peanuts television specials. It wasn't until I was almost an adult that I realized that Vince Guaraldi's music was jazz.

How old were you when you got your first recording?
I remember saving my allowance around the age of 11 to buy 12" singles. The first one I got was Marvin Gaye's "Got to Give It Up." It's the ultimate get-up- and-dance song, and I was in heaven.

What was the first concert you ever attended?
It was a Jackson 5 concert at the Spectrum in Philadelphia. But the first one I actually paid for myself was Prince's Purple Rain concert in 1984, also at the Spectrum. I went with my high school sweetheart. It was amazing to me that Prince had the same, if not more, energy than he appeared to have in the Purple Rain movie.

Was there one album or experience that was your doorway to jazz?
In appreciation of volunteer work I had done for the PEco Energy Jazz Festival back in 1996, I was given free tickets to see Shirley Horn and Roy Hargrove. It was one of the first bona fide jazz shows I ever attended, and I didn't know what to expect. I had heard of Shirley Horn, but I wasn't familiar with her music. (That's pretty sad, I know).

At that concert I got a glimpse of what would captivate me a decade later. The music was alive with emotion— inferred pain and heartache, along with triumph and redemption. From Shirley Horn's lyrics to Roy Hargrove's trumpet playing, it provided an impromptu soundtrack to what was going on in my life at the time.

Then there was the trombonist...

I didn't catch his name when Roy Hargrove introduced him. All I know is that my guests and I couldn't keep our eyes off of him. Ku-umba Frank Lacy was like a controlled Tasmanian Devil (that's a good thing!). His energy, his exuberant playing, and the way he engaged the audience..."WOW!"

That was my introduction to live jazz. I'm not sure why I didn't pursue it further at that time.

How long have you been going out to hear live music?
Almost 45 years (gulp!).

How often do you go out to hear live music?
Approximately four times a month.

What is it about live music that makes it so special for you?
What I love about live jazz is the intimacy of the room, especially when there's a savvy audience that appreciates what the artists are bringing to the table.

Another aspect of live jazz, when compared to a pop concert, is that you never get the tunes the way they were recorded. There are always different nuances and flavors that truly depend on what's going on in the world, how a musician's day went, etc. Each show is different, and every solo is different from the last time they played it.

What are the elements of an amazing concert?
Musicianship, mastery, and heart.

What makes a great jazz club?
A place where the musicians most respected by other musicians play. A place that is down to earth, and serves affordable, tasty food that doesn't require someone to be a foodie to enjoy it.

Which clubs are you most regularly to be found at?
When I lived in Philly, I would travel by train to New York to see live music at the 55 Bar, Smalls Jazz Club, Iridium, the Zinc Bar, and Jazz at Lincoln Center. Here in Seattle, you can find me at Tula's, The Triple Door, and Jazz Alley.

Is there a club that's no longer around that you miss the most?
Jimmy Mak's in Portland, OR. It wasn't pretentious. Plus, there were many nationally-known jazz artists who would stop there on their West Coast tours, and I could travel there from Seattle relatively easily.

If you could go back in time and hear one of the jazz legends perform live, who would it be?
Dexter Gordon and Ella Fitzgerald. Dexter was charismatic, even though I've read that he was an introvert in private and found socializing a challenge. He had been to hell and back and I'm always interested in people who haven't had an easy life. His music to me is sincere, honest, natural, and playful.

I didn't listen to Ella for a long time because of "A Tisket, A Tasket." That was all I associated her with before I started listening to jazz. When I finally decided to listen to some of Ella's music, I was wowed by the purity of tone and her range. And I'm intrigued by the life story of someone who didn't have it easy but somehow was able to sing with such beauty and grace.

Tell us about Elements of Jazz.
Elements of Jazz is my way of paying homage to a genre that literally saved me from despair.

In October 2006, I found out that one of my closest friends had died from cancer. The news shocked me to my core, particularly since he had made the choice not to share the diagnosis with me, and had disappeared from my life six months earlier.

My grief was deep and fathomless. Months went by, and I desperately wanted my heart to stop hurting. One day, during a particularly painful episode, I was clicking around the Internet, checking out music. Something was propelling me to listen to jazz—any kind of jazz—because that's what my friend had loved and tried to share with me. I listened for a few minutes that day. I came back to it the next day, and by the third day I felt a little better. I made it a part of my daily routine to listen to jazz. Days gave way to weeks and weeks turned into months. Not only did jazz help me cope with my friend's death, but I actually enjoyed listening to it, I became obsessed. My tastes were all over the place: Oscar Castro-Neves, Afro-Cuban jazz, Dinah Washington, Wayne Shorter, Carmen McRae, Sean Jones, McCoy Tyner, Count Basie...

In 2008, I started Tweeting as @ElementsOfJazz. I wanted to share my newfound love with everyone, so it was a natural progression for me. People seemed to appreciate my sincerity and the consistency with which I posted. They saw me as a real person who tweeted about a subject I was passionate about, and eventually I cultivated a following of about 10,000. I caught the eye of NPR online, which led to an interview with the now defunct A Blog Supreme in 2010. That same year, I started the Elements Of Jazz blog. It's been on hiatus since I started my current job, but I hope to get back to it this Autumn. Meanwhile, the Jazzerati A-Z section (an unbelievably comprehensive listing of jazz-related Twitter accounts -Ed.) is about to get a major update.

What's the story behind the GRAMMY live blogging?
In Autumn of 2010, I received a Twitter message from Bev Jackson, at that time the Director of Social Media for the GRAMMYS. She was aware of @ElementsOfJazz, and wanted to know if coming to Los Angeles as part of the GRAMMY Blogger Program would appeal to me. Would I like to be flown to LA and given a room at the Hilton, cover special events on social media platforms, and receive a stipend? In less than a nano-second, I said, "YES!" That's how I got to attend the 53rd-56th GRAMMY Awards. The whole thing was one of those surreal, once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

How do you discover new artists?
I get recommendations from my Twitter family and musicians. Musicians are always checking out everybody else. I also listen to stations like JazzFm.com, WBGO.org, and other public radio stations that still broadcast jazz.

Vinyl, CDs, MP3s?, streaming?
Primarily CDs and MP3s. Occasionally streaming.

If you were a professional musician, which instrument would you play and why? Piano—a beautiful instrument with a beautiful sound. Listening to piano music has always soothed my soul, even when I was a young child.

What do you think keeps jazz alive and thriving?
Evolution of the genre, and not hanging on to the past.

Finish this sentence: Life without music would be...

Is there anything else we should know about you?
I recently married a jazz musician. How full circle is that?

Calling all jazz super fans! Do you drive your non-jazz-loving friends crazy with your encyclopedic knowledge of jazz history? Is jazz a big part of what makes life worth living? Do you have an extensive collection of recordings, save ticket stubs, go out to hear live jazz a lot, remember the first concert you ever attended? If any or all of those sound like you or someone you know, we'd like to consider you (or your friend) for an upcoming column. Contact us for consideration.

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