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Seattle Jazz Fellowship Presents: Orrin Evans & the Captain Black Big Band

Seattle Jazz Fellowship Presents: Orrin Evans & the Captain Black Big Band

Courtesy Lisa Hagen Glynn

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While the nonprofit has been acknowledged for providing a place for the resident Seattle jazz to thrive, it is equally important to note the Fellowship's work in caring for the music itself.
The Seattle Jazz Fellowship, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit founded by trumpeter Thomas Marriott, was created in response to the loss of viable jazz stages showcasing the vibrant resident jazz scene in Seattle. While local jazz musicians and fans alike mourned the downfall of longtime resident haunts such as the New Orleans club and Tula's Jazz Club, Marriott and a supportive group of like-minded community members sought an alternative to the traditional jazz supper club personified by the aforementioned institutions. Gentrification of the downtown core of the city had driven rents to such a level that sustaining a club that could also serve as a community hub had become difficult at best. Food and liquor sales became the life blood of these attempts, driving up the price of access to jazz fans, while wages for musicians hung at early 1980's levels. Worse yet, musicians had to rely on the door or ticket receipts to be paid at all. Like many jazz scenes around the country not based in New York City, the best musicians had to leave town to have any hope of earning a living as a professional jazz musician. The story of the Seattle Jazz Fellowship (SJF) and its guiding principles first appeared in All About Jazz in February, 2022, in the article Seattle Jazz Fellowship: A New Beginning For Live Resident Jazz .

The main objective of the Seattle Jazz Fellowship has been achieved through its "Fellowship Wednesdays" program at Vermillion Art Gallery & Bar in the city's Arts District on Capitol Hill. The nonprofit stages four, six-week runs per year at Vermillion, each evening staging two one-hour sets featuring the best the city's historically rich jazz scene has to offer. With mentorship riding at the forefront of Marriott's objectives, legendary trombonist Julian Priester was installed as the Fellowship's artist-in-residence, hosting a listening and discussion group to set each Wednesday installment in motion. The free event allows the jazz community to have access to the 87—year-old jazz legend, and gain perceptive depth into the music and its culture. The following two sets carry a $20 suggested donation. Memberships are available for $50 and $300, each carrying a set of benefits to the recipients. Through memberships and donations, Marriott has been able to pay musicians a respectable wage, without reliance on door receipts. The aim is to increase the frequency of these performances, eventually settling into a permanent venue site of its own. Marriott hosts a jam session each Monday night as well, welcoming all to participate at The Royal Room in the Columbia City neighborhood. The session attracts both young and veteran players, creating an organic environment for mentorship, fellowship and community. The all-ages session provides opportunity for younger players not able to take advantage of the longtime Tuesday night session at the Owl 'n Thistle in Pioneer Square. It acquaints less experienced musicians with established professionals, setting the bar high for aspirants in terms of artistry and mastery of one's instrument.

The Seattle Jazz Fellowship began serving its community as a promoter of accessible events on March 26 with a matinee performance featuring iconic pianist George Cables in trio with bassist Chuck Deardorf and drummer Jerome Jennings. With sunlight replacing street lights streaming through the open draped windows of the Royal Room, Cables' undiminished and ultra-refined elegance as both a musician and human served as inspiration for the Seattle jazz community, now stepping out of the social fog provided by the COVID-19 pandemic.

On June 7 and 8 Marriott brought the twice Grammy nominated Captain Black Big Band to the Columbia City nightspot, featuring pianist and leader, Orrin Evans. The two-night run featured a members only performance the first night, with a public event following for the second performance. The nationally renowned Garfield High School Jazz Band, of which Marriott is an alum, opened the evening, with CBBB providing the fireworks for the featured set.

The Garfield band, along with its neighbor to the north, the Roosevelt High School jazz band, receives an abundance of accolades in the city, and considering their performances over the years at the renowned Essentially Ellington competition, rightfully so. That being said, there were many factors that graphically demonstrated the disconnect between the current program, and any kind of understanding of jazz music as a Black American art form. The Garfield band's iconic founder, Clarence Acox emphasized teaching the band how to swing as well as the music's origin in Black culture and struggle in America. Furthermore, the behavior of the band's parent-based support group, lacked the awareness of the band's actual role as an opening act at a jazz club for jazz artists who have attained their status in the jazz community guided by respect, humility, dedication to craft and understanding of the status of the music as America's only truly original art form—an art form created by Black Americans. This disconnect was unfortunately perpetuated by Garfield band director, Jared Sessink, whose onstage manner was more appropriate for a school event, including endless chatter that turned an agreed-upon forty-minute set into an hourlong engagement. The majority portion of the audience not connected with the high school band grew weary of this visibly. From the outset of the CBBB performance, Sessink engaged his support group in unabashed, voluminous conversation, treating the set as an after party for his band's performance. Event staff had to remind Sessink of his place during the performance. The band's parent—dominated support group seemed unaware of their surroundings, lacking respect for the artists on stage, and the band's status as guests of the Seattle Jazz Fellowship. It was something that was difficult to see and hear considering this iteration of the band does not feature any Black students. It illuminated the need and the principle of the Seattle Jazz Fellowship to bring jazz music to Black students in the city, and to engage young Black prospective artists. Ironically, Garfield High School is located in the Central District of Seattle, a traditional African American neighborhood with a rich history in jazz music.

With a sold-out house on hand, the Captain Black Big Band offered a stunning, energetic 90-minute set that electrified the audience, including the young aspirants from the Garfield band. The band featured trombonists Reggie Watkins and David Gibson, saxophonists Caleb Wheeler Curtis and Troy Roberts, trumpeters Charlie Porter and Thomas Marriott, and a rhythm section featuring Evans, bassist Luques Curtis and drummer Mark Whitfield Jr..

Opening with "Flip the Script," Wheeler, Curtis and Roberts provided stunning solo work, setting expectations high for the remainder of the show. With the piece operating in strange, shifting meters, the two saxophonists exchanged fire at will. Evans conducted the band from behind the piano reactively and stunningly in the moment. While the arrangements are tight and precise, the overall energy of the band is loose and tension free, with the fun factor elevated to its highest level. "That Too" featured trombonists Watkins and Gibson, performing over the two days in front of SJF Artist-In-Residence Priester, much to his delight. Watkins and Gibson differ in terms of sound, each uniquely dynamic, making the blending of the two sublime.

Marriott and Porter were featured on "Him," beginning as a duet and progressing into a full-band explosion. Dynamically, the band was relentless throughout the set, with Whitfield setting the tone behind the kit and Curtis filling the void between him and Evans, whose spontaneous insertions created a ripple effect throughout the band.

The set ended with "I'm So Glad I Got to Know You," a piece written by Evans in remembrance of Lawrence Leathers, a drummer with a large presence in modern jazz and a close friend of Evans.' The vocal chant of the title extended a warmth and humility that embraced the evening's event with love and respect.

The set performed by this powerful band was certainly emblematic of the mission statement of the Seattle Jazz Fellowship—to build community, provide access to the mentorship cycle, incentivize excellence and lower barriers to access for both performers and listeners of jazz, an art form that is a creation of Black American culture and struggle. Judging by the vibrant and enthusiastic response of the overwhelming majority of the audience, the mission for two evenings was accomplished. The music was thrilling, the musicians prodigiously skilled and inspired. As expected, the hang provided fellowship and a rich sense of community. When one comes upon the realization that the people making the music are as open-hearted as the music itself, it opens yet another door to the music's impactful entrance into the soul of its audience. Meaning and life-affirming properties are taken from the music and projected into the firmament of one's total life experience. The evening also witnessed the vacuity of many attendant souls, whose interaction with the music ended upon exiting the club, perhaps blinded by their own love. There was also reason to be concerned about the future of a successful high school jazz program that appeared to be dangling on the precipice of white privilege. It revealed that the Seattle Jazz Fellowship is perhaps more important than anticipated. While the nonprofit has been acknowledged for providing a place for the resident Seattle jazz to thrive, it is equally important to note the Fellowship's work in caring for the music itself, and assuring that it is introduced to the community in a sacred way. The understanding of what happened historically on Jackson Street, and how that history has flowed downstream to the 21st Century is integral in contributing to the soul of what is happening with jazz music now in Seattle and where the jazz community at large takes it in the near and distant future.

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