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Seattle Jazz Fellowship: How One Week Told the Story of a Jazz Nonprofit's First Year

Seattle Jazz Fellowship: How One Week Told the Story of a Jazz Nonprofit's First Year

Courtesy Lisa Hagen Glynn

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Stay on the path, it’s a lifetime.
—Ernie Watts
When Seattle-based trumpeter Thomas Marriott announced the founding of a new 501(c)3 nonprofit to support the local jazz scene in his hometown, both the enormity of its possibilities and its challenges merged front and center in the collective mind of the Seattle jazz community.

Over the past decade, the city had lost its two main venues that staged jazz featuring musicians from its historically vibrant scene. Both The New Orleans Creole Restaurant in Pioneer Square and Tula's Jazz Club in the Belltown neighborhood of downtown Seattle were conventional businesses that were essentially dinner clubs. The gentrification of downtown Seattle via the tech boom had created an economic reality for these businesses that included high rents, a scarcity of workers and an increasing reliance on the dinner and cocktail crowd to sufficiently support their ever-increasing overhead. For the jazz community at large, the price tag for an evening out on the scene steadily rose to such an extent that weeknight attendance was practically nonexistent. With artist pay tied directly to door receipts, the price of gentrification and its ever present economic model hit resident musicians directly in the wallet. For a city already accustomed to its jazz artists leaving town to make their way in the music business elsewhere, the closing of Tula's in October of 2019 seemed to carry a cryptic message. A jazz scene of historic significance was hastily being pushed into the dustbin of city history, and like the legendary Jackson Street scene of the early-to mid-twentieth century, a vision of the past.

Marriott was smart enough to start small and allow the organization to grow at its own pace, depending on community support. Avoiding being in the restaurant/bar business in order to focus on music and community, he partnered with Vermillion Art Bar in the spirited Capitol Hill neighborhood, and began staging weekly performances featuring the best of the Seattle scene, with out-of-town guests appearing periodically. In April, 2023, the 50th edition of Fellowship Wednesdays took place, marking the completion of its first year. The gig carries a suggested $20 cover, but memberships are offered that cut patron costs to a fraction of that. Fellowship Wednesdays had managed to lower the barriers of access to the music, while paying its performers a living wage. The weekly gathering has become a focal point of community, a common center around which fellowship revolves. The fellowship currently boasts more than 250 members.

The Seattle Jazz Fellowship also carries a component that impacts the mentorship cycle that has sustained jazz music for more than a century. It named trombone legend Julian Priester its resident artist, and began hosting listening sessions, where the assembled audience listens to selections from the litany of jazz recordings on which he has appeared. Through his personal experiences with the likes of Duke Ellington, Max Roach, Herbie Hancock and many others, the assemblage becomes acquainted with jazz history and culture in a very personal way.

Marriott hosts a weekly jam session at The Royal Room in the Columbia City neighborhood, an all-ages session that sees younger, less experienced musicians play with established community jazz artists. A Marriott-formed house band opens with just a few tunes and then opens things up for jammers. The format is a marked difference from late night sessions that have typically taken place historically. In Seattle, the long-termed session at the Owl 'n Thistle is in a bar room that excludes minors from participating. The addition of the Royal Room session gives musicians as young as high school age the opportunity to take part in the music. Recently, a band workshop was added to its offerings, with under-21 artists forming bands to be adjudicated by the likes of Ernie Watts, Julian Priester, Brian Lynch and Dawn Clement.

With all of this being said, as the calendar arrived at the culmination of the first full year of the nonprofit's existence, one single week presented a clear picture of what it is attempting to bring to the Seattle jazz community. Between Monday April 17 and Sunday April 23, 2023, a broad palette of programming occurred that illuminated the stated goals of the organization in no uncertain terms: "Our mission is to build community, provide access to the mentorship cycle, incentivize excellence and to lower the barriers to access for both performers and listeners." states Marriott per the SJF mission statement.

The Monday session on April 17 kicked off with Marriott leading a quartet featuring veteran pianist John Hansen, bassist Kelsey Mines and drummer Stefan Schatz. The two-hour session that followed fulfilled what most sessions of this sort achieve—musical and emotional highs and lows, accented with growth and the broadest sense of community.

Fellowship Wednesday two nights later featured a female-led band reassembling for the first time in many years. Tenor saxophonist Tobi Stone filled the brick-lined, intimate confines of Vermillion with pure tonality and melodicism. She played off a foundation built by the rhythm section of pianist Ann Reynolds, bassist Heather Chriscaden and drummer Eric Eagle. The tiny gallery bar was filled with 50 patrons, speaking to the inevitability of either moving to a larger room, or increasing the frequency of the event. In any case, the weekly performances do attract a capacity audience each Wednesday. In contrast, Tuesday and Wednesday evenings at Tula's were extremely difficult, with very few patrons in attendance. The $15 cover wasn't the issue—it was the perceived obligation to purchase the club's fare that included a price tag that was ever-trending upward. Fellowship Wednesdays has proven that the jazz community will come out if the barriers of access are taken down financially. With musician pay not dependent on the door, but on donations and memberships, musicians are paid reliably. Their overall commitment to creating a performance that bears witness to the excellence of their respective artistry has been the most recognizable thing trending upward.

The audiences on Wednesday have reflected the inclusivity that the event seeks. The crowds are multi-generational and culturally reflect Seattle itself. The vibrant street scene on Capitol Hill pervades the overall vibe of the evening. It bears witness to the fact that this music, born in Black culture and struggle, has embraced the entirety of this city, as it has since the early 20th century. It is a force of fellowship and community.

The following Saturday, the first Fellowship Band Workshop took place at The Royal Room. Arriving at 11 in the morning, a large group of young musicians waited on the sidewalk outside of the South End venue, eagerly awaiting their short, 15-minute set to be adjudicated by jazz masters. Upon entrance, this 15-piece band from Sumner, Washington nervously assembled their instruments. Shortly thereafter, this band dubbed "Froot Salad," received feedback from Watts, Clement and Lynch, with Priester not able to attend. Watts remarked, reacting to the row of trombones seated up front, and consequently right in front of the tenor master, "I like the trombones in the front!" He continued, "You need to fill up your instruments—you need more air so the instruments can sing. Music is always progressive—it's a journey everyday." "Practice makes permanent," added Clement. On the subject of dynamics in music, she offered,"What's the biggest moment? What's the most delicate moment? The difference between the two is the dynamic of the tune." Lynch put the cherry on the sundae by instructing the band to "Listen to yourself with kindness. I hear original sound, but the sound could be more stable." he added, recommending the band listen to music together. One had to wonder where else these young musicians could receive this level of feedback, where else this kind of mentorship existed outside of school environments. This was a community in action, outside and apart from academia.

Nineteen-year-old drummer Avery Clarke was next, leading a trio with veteran bassist Geoff Harper, and 23-year-old tenor saxophonist, Jackson Cotugno. Watts was impressed with the trio and dubbed it a "more professional sound." The trio worked through "Nature Boy" and "Invitation" with relative ease, impressive considering the circumstances. Watts gave Cotugno a dose of confidence by remarking, "A lot of individuality in your sound, Jackson. It has personality, something we don't hear very often." It was remarkable to perceive the value of that statement for the young musician.

And so the afternoon progressed, with a trio led by a 13-year-old pianist and a 10-year-old drummer, and an electric guitar trio that tore apart "Nardis" and put it back together again. Through all of the sage advice given that afternoon, Watts provided the capper. After recommending Bill Evans to pianist Xavier Colon and Philly Joe Jones to drummer Donovan Lewis, he stated boldly, "Stay on the path, it's a lifetime."

Later that evening, Watts took the Royal Room stage by storm, performing for a packed house with a quartet featuring three of Seattle's iconic musicians. Pianist Marc Seales and drummer John Bishop had extensive familiarity with the legendary tenorist, a 25-year stretch of recordings and performances backing him with their band, New Stories. The 1999 session, Speakin' Out (Origin, 1999) is a jazz radio staple. Bassist Steve Rodby settled in Seattle in 2017, and immediately developed a musical partnership with Seales. The longtime bassist of the Pat Metheny Group and Grammy-winning producer added a new dimension to the quartet setting. The quartet performed with remarkable chemistry, with the audience at the fortunate receiving end of Watts' superlatives that have not diminished an iota at the age of 77. The set list was like an homage to the entire bop and post-bop tradition, serving up "Acceptance," John Coltrane's "Crescent," along with the Seales original, "Ascending Truth" among the selections. There was magic between the veteran foursome, something each patron took with them into the cool Seattle night as they departed along Rainier Avenue South.

The week ended on a high note, a special matinee concert for Seattle Jazz Fellowship members, free of charge. Membership has its privileges. Grammy-winning trumpeter Lynch and pianist Clement were joined by two of Seattle's young stars in bassist Trevor Ford and drummer Xavier Lecouturier. Clement is currently based in Denver after many years in Seattle first as a student and then professor at Cornish College of the Arts. In the annals of Seattle jazz history, she occupies a high place as a live performer and recording artist. Lecouturier, who is making marks as a composer and bandleader along with his fluent playing on drums, was a student of hers. The connection between the two was clearly evident from the beginning, working their way through "Sweet and Lovely," and Clement's modern vocal spin of "Someone to Watch Over Me."

Lynch's presence brought with it a unique style of playing that melds his deep understanding of bebop language with his equally adept mastery of the Latin jazz lexicon. Working through his originals "Dance the Way U Want To," and "Cambios," as well as a brilliant interpretation of Wayne Shorter's "Virgo," the quartet bore the masterful marks of veteran artistry, blended with the ascending brilliance of Ford and Lecouturier—artistry born and ascending a generation later. Marriott joined Lynch for a two-trumpet frontline, highlighted by a spirited run through of Charlie Parker's classic take on Rhythm changes, "Steeplechase."

How The Seattle Jazz Fellowship fares in terms of the ultimate goal of having their own space to present jazz music four or five nights a week, to essentially expand what they are doing with Fellowship Wednesdays, has the potential of impacting jazz presentation outside of the Emerald City. It has become obvious that the market-driven business model of the historic jazz club has become obsolete—it has failed in terms of providing a living wage for its jazz artists, and in providing an accessible, affordable way to get the music to the people. Marriott's vision is slowly coming to fruition with the support of the local community on multiple levels. From the volunteers to the members, to the support of local businesses and organizations that seek the betterment of their city and of humanity itself, the pieces are slowly coming together.

As similar models are deployed around the country, the extent to which they point the way to the future of jazz music and culture is what is at stake. The music that used to occupy the multiple clubs along Jackson Street, that used to gather people together in Belltown at Tula's or in Pioneer Square at the New Orleans, Parnell's or Pioneer Banque, occupies a small gallery space on Capitol Hill. Seattle area musicians are arriving on the scene from the city's vaunted school jazz programs, from adult learning spaces and from places abroad. What used to be a remote outpost in the music world, has become an attractive location for those not only seeking a vibrant music scene, but also a vibrant, healthy lifestyle. Between the high Olympic and Cascade peaks, on the deep blue waters of Salish Sea, the city remains a beacon of natural beauty and progressive thought. The location in itself inspires creative conception that becomes brilliant reality.

This has always been, and in whatever form it takes, will always be. It is what brought Jelly Roll Morton and Ray Charles to escape the throes of the Jim Crow South. It is what has produced inspired local heroes Quincy Jones, Ernestine Anderson and many more. Jazz will continue to be the height of artistry in American music, to that, there is no question. The question is, will we value it enough to take steps for not only its survival, but its continued creative success well into the future? The Seattle Jazz Fellowship will provide at least some of the answers.

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