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Seattle Jazz Fellowship: A New Beginning For Live Resident Jazz

Seattle Jazz Fellowship: A New Beginning For Live Resident Jazz

Courtesy Jim Levitt


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It takes everybody showing up. It takes people getting off the bench and off the sidelines and saying,’I’m going to show up to this person’s gig because it’s good for all of us'
—Thomas Marriott
The local jazz scene in Seattle has been vibrant and at times prolific over the last one hundred years. The city hosted the only fully integrated jazz club scene in the 1920's and '30s, inspiring Black musicians from the south to escape Jim Crow, and find a place to not only engage in the bustling club scene in the seemingly remote northwest outpost, but to simply live a life free of the tyranny of the south. It was exactly why Ray Charles arrived as a teenager in the late 40's, and crafted his art with Seattle stalwarts like Quincy Jones, Bumps Blackwell and Ernestine Anderson.

As the decades passed by, Seattle continued to produce great jazz talent, but like Charles, Jones and Anderson, the majority moved on to bigger cities where they could not only make a better living as a professional musician, but where they could challenge themselves by paying dues with the best of the best, the true masters of the genre.

Trumpeter Thomas Marriott is a modern day example of this phenomena, with one significant difference—he returned to Seattle seeking balance in his life as a musician, husband, father and member of the Seattle jazz community that had, in a sense, raised him as a favorite son. He maneuvered between local club engagements at the legendary Tula's Jazz Club, and time as a sideman on the road. To date, his professional tenure in his hometown has produced thirteen albums on the Seattle based Origin Records label, including his most recent, Trumpet Ship (2020), that features east coast dynamos Orrin Evans, Luques Curtis and Mark Whitfield. He performs with Evans' Captain Black Big Band, The Spanish Harlem Orchestra and others, a coast to coast hook up that was a bit more difficult when the aforementioned Charles, Jones and Anderson undertook such a venture.

In 2019, Tula's was shuttered, a victim of the gentrification and high real estate pricing of downtown Seattle. In a way, it was the final curtain of the traditional operative philosophy of staging live jazz in a dinner club setting. The music became less accessible to the jazz public, especially new jazz fans first discovering the music—a passion more typically stoked in live performance than by records or radio programming. There was no hope that anybody, in the current economic model of the 2020's, would magically open a new place reminiscent of Tula's. The Royal Room in the south Seattle Columbia City neighborhood featured jazz along with more experimental forms of music. A cultural abyss had formed, new ideas were being bandied around the city. The future of the Seattle jazz scene was seemingly in peril, proliferating among the city's educational institutions, but fluttering in the real world where a professional musician must dwell. Things that for decades had occurred organically in terms of mentorship, community and fellowship seemed to become institutionalized along with everything else culturally significant in Seattle. The flame of artistry and innovation had grown dim, with no place to gather energy and light.

While the city's jazz showroom, Dimitriou's Jazz Alley, and the Royal Room both turned to a non-profit model for the music side of their respective rooms, Marriott envisioned a different approach to the non-profit credo—one that could create impetus for resident players to stay in Seattle, where musicians could be paid a respectable wage, and patrons would have more access without the obligation of buying expensive dinners and drinks. During the pandemic shut down, he put his thoughts to paper, creating a blueprint that prioritized building community, increasing mentorship, incentivising excellence and lowering barriers to access. With the final goal being a permanent residence with four to five nights a week of live jazz performance, Marriott knew they would have to start small, and create an organization built on donations and eventually, memberships. With those principles in tow, the Seattle Jazz Fellowship was born.

As a first step, Marriott formed a partnership with Vermillion Art Gallery and Bar, a club in the arts district of Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood. The room has an official capacity of 88, but the core bar room where the music is performed, is an intimate brick lined classic, that seats 55 patrons at best. Marriott purchased a suitable piano and placed it in the room, an acoustically bright and resonant space. The house PA is used more for balance, as the space supports acoustic performance admirably. The fellowship would stage two sets, with two different bands each Wednesday night, a weekly shot in the arm for a jazz scene awakening from the Covid slumber. Marriott set up a weekly jam session on Monday's at the Royal Room as well, and began thinking in terms of staging larger events outside of Vermillion during seasonal breaks between weekly runs.

Between October of 2021, and the end of January in the new year, the principles outlined in Marriott's vision were put to the test with a thirteen-week run on Wednesday nights at Vermillion. The music began at 7:30, with two one-hour sets performed around a half hour break to hang. Marriott hired two separate bands for each installment, with the Vermillion stage playing host to Seattle greats Marc Seales, Chuck Deardorf, Marina Albero, Greta Matassa,Gail Pettis, Bill Anschell, Nathan Breedlove, Jeff Johnson and John Bishop to name but a few. Newcomers to town were introduced, such as Chicago expat Ron Perrillo, and youth was served by the brilliance of Xavier Lecouturier, Dylan Hayes and Jackson Cotugno.

Each Wednesday began however, at 5 PM, with SJF Artist-In-Residence Julian Priester, the iconic trombonist who has been at the forefront of jazz innovation since the 1950's, spinning iconic recordings he has contributed to, and leading a discussion of the cultural and historic significance of each. "Julian Speaks" is an all-ages, free event that represents a wide swath of the Fellowship's stated mission, and has proven to be perhaps its most important venture.

"My favorite part of everything we've done," states Marriott definitively. "He's spent his entire career at the forefront of the music. To have that kind of resource, and have it go untapped in our community, is just ridiculous." Marriott was just as emphatic about how the experience of spending time with a true master like Priester, has impacted his humanity and artistry as a musician. "It's helped me personally better define myself as an artist. I really appreciate and respect that about him," he says. "Hanging out with Julian has confirmed a lot of what I already thought and felt about the music. I feel more connected when I hear Julian say things to the listeners that I also feel deeply. I see Julian, and all musicians that I know like him as fellow travelers— that we see things eye to eye about what this music means in terms of its importance and how it makes us feel—that the feeling part is the most important part."

The concept was brought to Marriott by the Fellowship's Board of Directors, in particular. pianist Dawn Clement and vocal artist Johnaye Kendrick who both had worked side by side with Priester at the prestigious Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. It provided a unique opportunity to casually engage with a true jazz master, an invaluable source of engagement and understanding for those who attended. Combined with the following two sets of music featuring the best of the Seattle jazz scene, the well attended Wednesday night event soon became the most important jazz hang in Seattle, for a variety of reasons. On the edge of the omicron breakout, it provided a safe haven for jazz fans and musicians alike. All who attended had to show proof of full vaccination status and personal ID. Masks were worn by all those not actively drinking. Not being an establishment offering food, masks were in place the overwhelming majority of the time. The artistry on stage was mesmerizing for a jazz public starving for live music after two years of seclusion. Guests such as trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis dropped by, with the reputation of the session being bolstered by Marriott's long term pedigree, and in the case of Marsalis, veteran musicians like Breedlove and Perrillo. To Marriott, many boxes were checked, and much was learned to assure the success of the venture going forward. The macro view was encouraging. In terms of building community, providing access, promoting artistry and incentivising excellence, the first thirteen weeks of the Seattle Jazz Fellowship would have to be deemed a success.

"How did we succeed in achieving those goals? I think we hit on every mark," says Marriott thoughtfully. "There is more we can do, consolidate a bit, have a clearer focus on planning and promotion, and continue to discover ways to be more inclusive and keep excellence as a focus."

With the next run of Wednesday night performances slated to begin on April 20, SJF has turned its focus to staging shows featuring out of town guests, and the formation of the Fellowship 'Ceptet, a powerful all-star assemblage of Seattle players. Both marks were met on February 8, when the 'Ceptet opened for a group of New York musicians led by bassist Alexander Claffy at the Royal Room. Claffy's band featured Portland native Nicole Glover on tenor saxophone and trumpeter Benny Benack lll. The band also graced the Monday night jam session at the Royal Room, as well as the legendary long-time Tuesday session at the Owl 'n' Thistle. The gig tied together Claffy's tour, which had scheduled dates in Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver B.C.

"The jazz community is hyper-local everywhere. It's just a big family when you participate in this music," says Marriott, who gladly stepped in to help and fill in the Portland-Vancouver gap. "We take the risk on their behalf." Marriott also stresses that bringing in talent from around the country is an antidote of sorts for complacency, to show us where the bar is. Otherwise, we would think we stood at the top of the hill, without actually knowing where the top of the hill is.

The premier iteration of the Fellowship 'Ceptet personified in many ways the diverse nature of the Seattle scene in terms of style. A powerful front line featured Marriott, his brother, the fine trombonist David Marriott, Jr., veteran alto saxophonist Alex Dugdale and young up and coming tenorist Jackson Cotugno. Newcomer Trevor Ford played bass, and fourth generation Seattle musician D’Vonne Lewis chipped in on drums. Barcelona born and raised pianist Marina Albero, now an eight-year resident of Seattle, filled the piano chair admirably, with her roots in flamenco and Afro-Cuban music plainly evident in her interpretive jazz style. Performing Marriott originals and a Thelonious Monk classic, the band's hour-long set was a smash hit with the packed house in Columbia City.

The next date for the 'Ceptet will be on March 26, when they will share a bill with the great George Cables, and his trio. While Marriott eventually would like to have a year-long tenure with each iteration of the band, the first year will see some changes as the concept is explored in full. For the March performance for instance, two Seattle jazz icons will join, in pianist Seales and drummer Bishop. A remarkable young bassist, Grace Kaste, currently a senior at Seattle's Roosevelt High School, will join as well. Marriott plans on focusing on some of Priester's music, and actually have him compose new music for the band. It will never be a tribute band, instead focusing on originals and Priester's music. The seven-piece assemblage represents the Seattle Jazz Fellowship putting its best foot forward as jazz ambassadors in the city.

What lies ahead over time will be decided by willingness to engage, and become a part of something important and tangible. It is that sense of family that drives innovation and excellence in a holistic sense. Writers, promoters, entrepreneurs, fans and of course, the musicians themselves, are motivated by the community that is found through the fellowship of creating a sacred place for the music, of connecting with the music spiritually.

Of course, it takes dollars to reach the heights of the fellowship's aspirations. In a city such as Seattle, the money is certainly there in the presence of the base economy now fully dominated by tech giants Amazon, Microsoft and the lot. Yet any type of motivation for businesses big and small and individuals to support jazz music, or for that matter, the symphony, ballet and opera, is incentivised by sheer vibrancy—creating something a respective donor has a strong desire to engage with.

"It takes everybody showing up. It takes people getting off the bench and off the sidelines and saying, 'I'm going to show up to this person's gig because it's good for all of us,'" cites Marriott. Vibrancy is seeing a line coming out the front door of the club, and extending down the block. Vibrancy is the local press taking an interest in the cultural viability of the city, and the part jazz plays in that vision. Vibrancy is musicians dedicated to artistry and excellence, and being compensated justly in the process. Vibrancy is simply showing up, and supporting the businesses and entities that support jazz music.

In truth, there is no limit to where this concept, beginning so tenuously in a small space during a pandemic, can lead. It can simply be as impactful as the community wishes. The future could take the form of SJF having its own room, or working in close partnership with an established location. The establishment of something similar to SF Jazz is not beyond the realm of possibility.

"Where people are willing to take it could be on par with Jazz at Lincoln Center. There's enough money in the community to make that happen. Is there enough interest? The answer to that is, 'not yet,'" says Marriott.

No matter where the music happens, and how large the actual venture becomes, the immediate concern of maintaining and augmenting the vibrancy of the city's jazz scene is being engaged by the Seattle Jazz Fellowship. It embraces a jazz culture that reaches across generational lines and welcomes all. It is an inclusive space, a sacred place for the music no matter where or when it occurs. It is a place of celebration of this great music created by Black Americans. It is a big tent that is not jazz adjacent, but jazz focused and grounded. And while the virtuosity of the musicians engaged in the Seattle Jazz Fellowship certainly allows them to play any form of music, the focus is and always will be on the true passion of interpreting jazz. While that commitment to being the next wave of jazz innovation is a prevailing theme to the dozens of musicians who played the first thirteen weeks of SJF, that very dedication is clearly personified by its founder.

"I don't want to be a swiss army knife, I play jazz, I'm a jazz artist," says Marriott.




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