In his 2000 book, “Bowling Alone,” political scientist Robert D. Putnam argued the decline of American participation in community activities like the PTA, churches and even bowling leagues was unhealthy for democracy. Though it might not change Putnam’s mind, a visit to a vital, 12-year-old nonprofit arts organization in Seattle’s Rainier Valley might convince him that there are still pockets of hope. Every week at Jazz Night School, 250 people, mostly adults, come together to make music — not to become professional musicians, but just to feel good in a community setting.
“This is the best night of my week,” says Mary Muncey, a 59-year-old information-technology manager who had been trying to learn clarinet by watching YouTube videos. “You can’t play jazz online. Jazz is meant to be collaborative.”
One of perhaps a half-dozen schools in the country that offer professional jazz instruction to adults, Jazz Night School (which is open to all ages) is on a healthy growth curve at its recently adopted home in the Hillman City neighborhood (just south of Columbia City), where syncopated music and an atmosphere of almost-religious enthusiasm bounces off the walls. Enrollment is up. The school’s executive director and founder, pianist Erik Hanson, and its faculty command community respect. And while Jazz Night School is not as racially diverse as it could be, the board is working to bolster diversity.
At the school’s winter showcase, March 11-13 at the nearby Royal Room, you can gauge the excitement being generated at the school when you hear the program, which includes not only aspiring amateurs but also Big Band Blue, which includes professionals and advanced learners from the school.
On a recent Wednesday night, Big Band Blue was rehearsing a punchy arrangement of Chicago’s “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” in the large front room that looks out to the sidewalk from the old storefront building that now houses the school. Evocative black-and-white photos by the late photographer Ron Hudson adorned the bright, blond wood-paneled walls. A steady stream of musicians walked in, making their way to four small, thickly soundproofed rehearsal rooms in back.
Hanson was rehearsing with the band from his seat at a grand piano, but an hour earlier, he had been setting up the mics and amps for vocal instructor Rochelle House’s class, then copying horn parts for the big band in a small office hidden by a black stage curtain. Jazz Night School is that kind of hands-on place. But if you had walked into the building in late 2016, you would have seen Hanson, fellow instructor Charles Williams and board president Steve Davies sanding the walls.
Erik Hanson and his wife, Debra Hanson, started the school as a for-profit business in 2008 in their Columbia City home, but realized after a couple of years that going nonprofit would be more practical, allowing access to tax-deductible contributions and grants. Since then, the school has thrived. Its operating budget for 2020 is $430,000, up more than $100,000 from last year. The school is in the black, and 50% of its income is earned, better than average for an arts nonprofit. Donors and grants have funded two more staff positions, plus money for the move, including a complete remodel of the 1500-square-foot former pharmacy that the school relocated to in January 2017, signing a 10-year lease.
All are welcome
Growing up in Parkland, south of Tacoma, Erik Hanson had no idea he would ever be the executive director of a school. He played in jazz band under Williams’ baton at Franklin Pierce High School, earned a degree in jazz composition and arranging at Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music, then worked in Los Angeles as a high-level synthesizer tech, taking on projects with Quincy Jones, Wayne Shorter and Burt Bacharach, among others. But in 1998, fed up with LA, he and Debra Hanson, who grew up in Seattle, moved back to the Northwest.
At Berklee, Erik Hanson developed severe tendinitis, so for a decade, he ran his own Seattle graphic-design business. When the recession hit in 2008, though he hadn’t played keyboard full time since school, he decided it was time to get back to what he loved. Realizing there was a niche for a jazz school catering to adults, Erik Hanson entered a long-term physical-therapy program that freed him from pain — and he launched the school. He says his experience of learning how to play all over again was an ideal prelude to starting an institution that welcomes beginners.
All are welcome at Jazz Night School, regardless of skill, and Erik Hanson auditions every student personally, though some have to wait for an appropriate opening at their level (four were wait-listed this term). The school’s 90-minute classes meet once a week for 10 weeks in fall, winter and spring quarters; there are also two summer sessions. Private instrumental instruction is offered, as are classes in music theory, improvising and a host of other subjects. Fees vary, but the modern-jazz ensemble taught by Williams on Wednesday nights costs $375.
“You just jump in and feel free to make mistakes,” says Mike Blome, a 63-year-old retired tech writer who was playing drums Wednesday in Williams’ ensemble and also serves on the Jazz Night School board.
Indeed, the title on the spine of a method book by ex-Seattle pianist Barney McClure that peeked out from a bookshelf by the door — “There Is No Such Thing As A Mistake” — might stand as a mantra for the school’s supportive philosophy.
Of all jazz hopefuls, singers need the most support, since they put their whole selves out on display. In a room she shares with a piano, a drum kit, an upright bass, a bass amp, a monitor and five vocal students, seated in a circle like a group therapy session, House counseled 31-year-old Roxanne Laiño, “Just imagine you’re not singing, you’re shooting baskets.” Laiño relaxed, then wrapped her voice around “When I Fall in Love.” When she finished, everyone applauded.
But longtime Cornish College of the Arts jazz instructor Chuck Deardorf says, “Students are getting the real deal over there.” He should know. Some of his colleagues, including the much-admired keyboardist Jovino Santos Neto, also teach at JNS.
Room for improvement
Still, there is room for improvement. Though women and girls are well represented — how many other big bands can boast of a mother-daughter team like Big Band Blue’s Kate Atwater, on bass trombone, and her mom, baritone saxophonist Deb Schaaf? — people of color are not. In fact, 80% of the student body is white, as are 83% of the instructors and all but one of the school’s 11 board members. One mission the board has set for the organization’s new marketing manager is to recruit more students of color. Two of the school’s newest board members have a background in community outreach and diversity recruitment. And a tuition assistance program put in place last year may increase economic diversity in the student body.
Still, says Erik Hanson, “That’s not good enough, especially for us. We’re in the South End — 98118 — and we really have the ability to do better.”
In the meantime, the school continues to attract a fascinating array of students, including Bettina Judd, a University of Washington assistant professor researching a book on Black feminist thought and creativity.
Says Judd: “The relaxed atmosphere and community of this kind of space allows people who come from different backgrounds in music to come and feel free to learn.”
For Erik Hanson, the hope is that Jazz Night School’s influence extends even beyond the classroom.
“Students tell me time and again that coming here once a week is making a huge difference for them,” he says. “Then they go back out into their world and that feeling ripples out to others. That has to be a really good thing.”
Jazz Night School winter performances, 6 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, March 11-13; The Royal Room, 5000 Rainier Ave. S., Seattle; donation requested; 206-906-9920 or theroyalroomseattle.com.