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“I didn’t go to jazz school,” says Portland-based pianist George Colligan. “I learned on the bandstand.”

Indeed. When he was playing with Gary Bartz a few years back, the famous alto saxophonist suddenly started playing “Witchcraft” on the stand without announcing it.

“I didn’t know it,” recalls Colligan, “but he played the harmony so well, I just learned it. That sort of thing really drives your nervous system.”

Colligan plays the Ballard Jazz Festival next week, as a leader at several events and as a sideman with Bartz. Hopefully, Colligan won’t have to learn any new tunes on demand.

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But if he does, the 43-year-old veteran will be up to the task, as those who have seen him here before — particularly at his 2007 Triple Door gig with saxophonist Ravi Coltrane — know full well.

The Baltimore-raised pianist plays with sizzling abandon in a driving, polytonal style that owes a lot to Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner without slavishly imitating either.

Colligan is an emblematic choice for the Ballard fest, in that he represents the event’s hyperlocal-with-a-dash-of-flash values. A teacher as well as a working musician with an international reputation, Colligan is ensconced deeply in the Portland scene and understands that passing the music along to young players is as much a part of the tradition as playing it.

Originally a classical trumpet and music education major at Baltimore’s Peabody Institute (he graduated in 1991), Colligan was drawn to jazz piano by happenstance, playing gigs. Moving to New York in 1995, he made his reputation with Bartz, bassist Buster Williams, the Mingus Big Band and others. He is currently a member of drummer Jack DeJohnette’s band, which recently played Jazz Alley.

But the New York jazz life didn’t suit Colligan — particularly after 9/11 — and by 2009 he was teaching in Winnipeg, Canada. Portland State University came next, in 2011.

A lot of professional musicians teach to make ends meet, but with his music-ed background, Colligan sees pedagogy as a crucial part of the picture.

“This is part of my journey, being a teacher and performer and composer,” he says. “It’s all related. The better player I am, the better I teach, it’s all just one big thing.”

Because he did not come up practicing fingering exercises, Colligan is overly modest about his playing.

“I don’t consider myself a really skilled pianist,” he says. “I know that might sound crazy. I almost don’t think of myself as a pianist, because I started so late. I think what I bring to the music is enthusiasm and creativity.”

That’s plenty.

Colligan performs at the festival in several configurations: with festival co-founder and drummer Matt Jorgensen in a trio Thursday at the Brotherhood of the Drum; with New York guitarist Tom Guarna’s quartet at Thursday’s Guitar Summit; again with the trio on the Ballard Jazz Walk, April 19; and with Bartz, April 20.

If you have to choose, pop for the Jazz Walk, a festive celebration of the Seattle scene in a dozen clubs that for one night turns Ballard Ave. into Mardi Gras.

The lineup is great, but word on the street is that Jovino Santos Neto’s band (playing Hilliard’s Tap Room) is on fire. Santos Neto, who teaches at Cornish College, didn’t plan on being a professional pianist, either — he started out as a biologist — so maybe there’s something to this not studying.

Not that anyone would want to talk either of these terrific musicians out of a job!

Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or

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