When Seattle high-school jazz bands started winning national competitions eight years ago, Jazz at Lincoln Center's director famously asked...

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When Seattle high-school jazz bands started winning national competitions eight years ago, Jazz at Lincoln Center’s director famously asked, “Is there something in the water out there?”

The remark was facetious, of course, but educators east of the mountains are quick to point out that, if indeed it is the water, the rivers flow down both sides of the Cascades.

One of Seattle’s earliest and most influential jazz educators, John Moawad, taught at Central Washington University in Ellensburg for 28 years. The university honors Moawad with the John Moawad Jazz Scholarship Concert on Sunday on the CWU campus.

It’s the second year the university has paid tribute to this charismatic educator — still called “coach” by his ex-students — whose legacy can be heard in Puget Sound band rooms from Edmonds to Olympia.

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“Over the short four years that I taught at Nathan Hale High School, we developed a positive attitude towards musical excellence and a desire to be in the finals at various jazz festivals and competitions and going for the top prize,” says Moawad (pronounced Mau-id).

That desire clearly took root.

Born in Portland and raised in Kalama, Cowlitz County, Moawad, a drummer, is one of three ’60s Seattle-area jazz-education pioneers (the others were Waldo King and Hal Sherman) whose former students have become pillars of jazz education and highly regarded national players.

Concert preview

John Moawad Jazz Scholarship Concert, 4 p.m. Sunday, Music Building Concert Hall, Central Washington University, Ellensburg; $5-$35 (509-963-1301 or www.cwu.edu/~cah/jmjtickets.html).

Donate to the fund: Donations may be sent to the CWU Foundation, 400 E. University Way, Ellensburg, WA 98926-7508. Or visit the university’s “Ways of Giving” Web site: www.cwu.edu/development/ways_of_giving.html

For several years, Moawad, 69, has been battling cancer. (Because of the side effects of chemotherapy, Moawad asked to be interviewed via e-mail for this article.)

Moawad’s colleagues want to recognize him and hope eventually to name the jazz room of CWU’s music building for him.

“There’s no doubt that he and Waldo [King] set the tone for the way people swing in the Northwest,” says Paul Harshman, Shorewood High School Jazz Band director and a former Moawad student.

Moawad grew up listening to the great swing-era bands, at Jantzen Beach in Portland, including Stan Kenton, Harry James, Count Basie and — a particular favorite — the English Ted Heath Band. By the time he was a teenager, Moawad was gigging professionally, which continued after he graduated from Central Washington University in 1959 and completed a master’s degree in education there in 1963.

After teaching in a small-town school in Stevenson, Skamania County, Moawad was coaxed by King to Seattle, where he started at Nathan Hale in 1966. Two years later, he was leading three jazz big bands, dusting California groups in Reno, Nev., and making now-legendary vinyl recordings of his kids.

“Being in jazz education in the ’60s was a rather lonely experience,” recalls Moawad. “At times, I felt like I was a novelty act.”

Moawad started teaching at CWU in 1970 and still lives in the area. One of his earliest and most influential students there was composer and educator Dave Barduhn, who in turn taught Harshman and his brother Chris, director at South Whidbey High School. Other Moawad students include Jake Bergevin, at Edmonds-Woodway, Matt Eisenhauer, at Bellevue’s Newport High, and Greg Metcalf, at Everett’s Eisenhower Middle School.

Working musicians out of CWU include alto saxophonist Bruce Babad, who plays with the great Los Angeles band leader Bill Holman, and New York players Jon Wikan (drums), Brad Shepik (guitar) and Chris Speed (saxophone).

Moawad is “a fantastic drummer and a fantastic teacher,” says Wikan. “He’s responsible for a lot of where I’m at today.”

One of the high points of Moawad’s tenure was a big win at the Pacific Coast Collegiate Jazz Festival in Berkeley, Calif., in 1981.

Moawad’s teaching style was magnetic — and hip.

“He had that low, rumbling voice that could be intimidating at times, but thoughtful and caring,” recalls Harshman. “Barduhn was about the big bands, but Moawad was, ‘Check out Miles [Davis], man.’ “

“His true gift was he was able to take fairly average players and cause you to believe you could achieve whatever you thought you could do,” says Chris Bruya, who played in the band that won in Berkeley and now serves as CWU’s Director of Jazz Studies. “I don’t really know how he did it.”

Somewhat amused, Moawad recalls people often saying, ” ‘Gee, John, everywhere you teach, you always end up with such great talent to work with.’ … Right!”

Moawad attributes his ideas about hard work and motivation to his parents. His brother, Robert, became an award-winning athlete and founder of the motivational Edge Learning Institute in Tacoma. Tragically, John discovered he had leukemia when he was being tested as a bone-marrow donor for his brother, who died of bone cancer in January.

Retirement has been “rather bittersweet,” reflects the educator, who left the school in 1998 and undergoes a month of chemotherapy every five months. “I got through five years of leukemia, and now I have to deal with lymphoma. I am holding my own and once again in a controlled remission. At least I am still here!”

So is jazz at CWU.

Its new jazz major, inaugurated last fall to stay competitive with the University of Washington and Washington State University, has a dozen students. The music department, with 19 full-time faculty, is at capacity with 300 majors, 45 percent specializing in music education. CWU’s jazz vocal group received high praise at this year’s annual conference of the International Association for Jazz Education , in New York, and the big band tied for first at the Lionel Hampton International Jazz Festival in 2003. A summer jazz festival, Jazz in the Valley, has sprouted up in the jazz-friendly neighborhood.

After two years, the John Moawad Scholarship Fund concerts have raised “about $15,000,” says Bruya, with an ultimate goal of $150,000.

As Bruya says — with a gracious nod to Moawad — “Northwest jazz education doesn’t end at Snoqualmie Pass.”

Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or pdebarros@seattletimes.com

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