Kassa Overall still has his 206 phone number. Musicians of all stripes have always been drawn toward industry hubs like New York, Los Angeles and Nashville, Tennessee, and the call to jazz mecca NYC is especially strong for young jazz players like Overall, who split for the Big Apple shortly after graduating from Oberlin College and Conservatory in 2005.

Through connections forged in New York’s fabled jazz scene, the progressive-minded drummer, producer and rapper has collaborated with some of the most electrifying artists working, earned a Grammy nomination and logged a stint in buddy Jon Batiste’s band on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”

“When I moved to New York, especially in my professionally formative years, it was such a competitive space and an international space,” the Garfield High School alum says. “Going to New York was like a way to get to the whole world.”

In a bit of small-jazz-world kismet, that Grammy nom stemmed from his work in Terri Lyne Carrington’s band alongside another homegrown talent, pianist Aaron Parks.

As the new-wave boundary pusher’s solo career has taken off with his own critically acclaimed works, Overall has strengthened his connections with his hometown music scene. Most recently, Overall is collaborating with revered Seattle producer Vitamin D — an influential figure in Seattle hip-hop whom Overall considered a mentor growing up — in the Drum Orbit project. For Drum Orbit, which performs Oct. 15 at the Chapel Performance Space as part of the 34th annual Earshot Jazz Festival, Vitamin assembled an A-list Seattle band centered around his beatcraft as the “DJ/harmonic instigator.” Overall’s also throwing an all-star jam after-party at Rumba Notes Lounge in Columbia City.

Overall’s hardly the only Seattle jazz expat to chart a course from the local youth circuit to impact player on the national scene. Among outsiders, Seattle might not be considered a jazz hotbed, though the small but mighty community’s tentacles have an impressively vast reach into all corners of the broader jazz world, earning Grammy nominations and working side by side with some of the most accomplished artists in the game. An eye-popping number of musicians with Washington ties — many of whom are in town this fall for Earshot’s monthlong festival (Oct. 8 through Nov. 6) or other gigs — have put themselves on the national jazz map, even if their hometown collectively flies under the radar.


Splitting for the East Coast

Chris Speed has seen New York-based avant jazz trio The Bad Plus perform more times than almost any other band, save for the Paul Motian Trio, featuring jazz guitar great Bill Frisell — a longtime Seattleite who recently returned to New York after nearly 30 years. Though the Issaquah-reared sax and clarinet player’s history with The Bad Plus’ rhythm section traces back to the early ’90s, Speed teamed up with the renegade ensemble’s core in Broken Shadows, a project reinterpreting Ornette Coleman’s music.

So when The Bad Plus opted to reconfigure its lineup following the departure of pianist Orrin Evans, Speed seemed like a natural fit (Oct. 18-19, Jazz Alley), even if he didn’t think so himself. “When they did finally ask me, it was kind of a shock, actually,” says Speed, who joined the band last year along with guitarist Ben Monder. “I never imagined myself really playing with them, which is funny, because they’re a piano trio.”

With an established rapport, Speed sounds more than comfortable on the retooled group’s new self-titled album, released last month, injecting himself into The Bad Plus’ prog-rocking approach. It’s arguably the highest profile gig of Speed’s adventurous career since the former classical student, who also took lessons with late Seattle bebop great Hadley Caliman, headed east. Back then, his parents encouraged him to also get a teaching degree, fearing their aspiring-artist son would leave the nest without more marketable job skills.

“It’s funny, my folks they live in Black Diamond now, and I still send them, like, the cover of ‘Jazz Times,’ like ‘Look, I’m OK!’” Speed jokes.

Though he’s now based in L.A., Speed split for the East Coast after high school in the late ’80s, around the same time as a number of other young Seattle players like Jim Black and Andrew D’Angelo. Rounded out by heralded guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel (Oct. 12, Triple Door, Earshot Jazz Festival), their Human Feel group eventually settled in New York. His friends would joke about the number of Seattleites in their small circle of the avant-garde downtown scene — the same experimental pool where composer, pianist and Royal Room owner Wayne Horvitz made his name. (Though their paths didn’t cross in New York, Horvitz later caught Human Feel at the Crocodile and produced their third album, “Welcome to Malpesta.”)

“I mean, it wasn’t much of a scene in Seattle. That’s why everybody left,” Speed recalls. “I’m not disparaging Seattle — Seattle has so much to offer quality of lifewise. But I think for people like me … looking for other things, Seattle was [and] maybe still is kind of tough.”


Local jazz education system

Miles Okazaki arrived in New York a few years after Speed. With in-person chemistry building, networking and gig availability being especially crucial in the jazz world, that NYC address has helped the versatile guitarist maintain a high volume of projects, including his longstanding duo with drummer Dan Weiss, which hits the Royal Room Oct. 15 during Earshot.

Growing up the son of a painter in the remote artist community of Port Townsend, Okazaki says “music and creativity for me was burned into the mind” at an early age. “There’s a certain type of eccentric thing that’s in the air out there [in the Northwest] people bring with them,” he says. “I don’t know what it is. The Port Townsend thing, the motto was, ‘We’re all here because we’re not all there.’ That was the bumper sticker you saw in the ’80s.”

Though the two-hour drive kept Seattle’s club scene at an arm’s length, Okazaki — whose latest album as a bandleader, “Thisness,” drew praise from The New York Times — stoked his jazz interests scouring through LPs at Quimper Sound Records and attending Centrum‘s Jazz Port Townsend festival and youth workshop. The nonprofit arts organization’s long-running summer sessions enabled the curious eighth grader, intrigued by improvisation, to learn directly from accomplished musicians and teachers like George Cables, Marc Seales and Chuck Deardorf.

“That was a big deal, because they were pros and I was just trying to figure out what all that was about,” Okazaki says. “I would soak up a lot of information in the summer and work on that throughout the year.”

Plus, those workshops that draw students from around the state, helped him make Seattle jazz friends who could provide a place to crash after catching a show.

Centrum is one component of the local jazz education system anchored by decorated Seattle-area high school programs, led by Seattle’s Roosevelt and Garfield high schools. Overall went through the same Garfield system as Roxy Coss, who was named a rising soprano sax star in DownBeat magazine’s annual critics poll this year. Still, he credits lessons learned even earlier at Washington Middle School (like Garfield, halls once walked by Quincy Jones and Jimi Hendrix) under longtime teacher Robert Knatt with having an even more profound impact at an early age.


Beyond the “competitive” education system and the inspirational presence of local heroes like Caliman and trombonist Julian Priester — who graces recordings by John Coltrane and other jazz legends — Overall points to Seattle’s oft-cited rainy weather (easier to stay inside and practice) and geographic isolation as helping nurture artistic pursuits.

“There was a lot of active belief in the music, so to speak,” Overall says. “But then it was coupled with, the hub is across the country in New York City. It was almost like it was so far away that you really had to work hard because you knew you wanted to get over there.”

“Why did they leave?”

For all the high school accolades and locals-made-good, Seattle trumpeter Thomas Marriott, who spent five formative years in New York, isn’t sure Seattle’s a particularly fertile place for jazz artists, relative to other cities.

“It’s one way to look at it that we see a lot of jazz folks from Seattle working in other places, going on to do other things,” says Marriott, an active community rallier. “I think that’s good, but we have to ask ourselves why did they leave in the first place? The reason why they left is because there’s not such a great jazz community here. I think if it was robust and wages were high and things were good, we would retain some of those people.”

Marriott’s Seattle jazz cred is as deep as it comes. Another Garfield alum, his mother helped found the jazz band’s first booster club back in 1990. Last year, Marriott launched the Seattle Jazz Fellowship — a nonprofit aimed at creating mentorship opportunities and reducing access barriers for artists and fans alike. Accompanied by Grammy-nominated vocalist and Cornish College of the Arts professor Johnaye Kendrick, Marriott’s Fellowship ‘Ceptet band, pairing local vets with younger players, performs during this year’s Earshot (Oct. 13, Town Hall).

Despite his devotion to the local scene, he cites a number of hindrances, including the lack of a dedicated jazz club solely for local musicians, the city’s white demographics and economic realities forcing musicians to prioritize teaching and corporate gigs over their own art.


“You feel a little bit cut off sometimes from the greater jazz community, because we do have a very small jazz community here,” says Marriott, though he’s been able to make connections beyond the Northwest, recruiting first-rate players and longtime friends Orrin Evans and bassist Eric Revis for his latest album, “Live From the Heat Dome.” The out-of-town heavy hitters play alongside Seattle all-stars Marriott, Ted Poor (currently touring with Marcus Mumford) and a cameo from avant sax rascal Skerik, whose renowned fusion trio Garage a Trois hits Nectar Lounge Oct. 7-8. “We’ve kind of stretched the definition of the music to include more people here and I think that’s what we have to do for survival. We have to be more inclusive. I’m not saying it’s good or bad, it’s just how it is.”

“I kept being persistent”

Jazz singer Eugenie Jones launched her career later in life, as a way of carrying on her mother’s memory after her death in 2010. The Port Orchard resident started going to vocal jams in Seattle and her first album received three-and-a-half out of four stars in DownBeat magazine (not to mention winning Earshot Jazz’s recording of the year award).

But beyond feeling that initial embrace, Jones, the executive producer of the Jackson Street Jazz Walk, says she’s encountered barriers as a woman, an African American and a noninstrumentalist.

“I kept being persistent and kept finding work around,” Jones says. “When I felt like I wasn’t getting opportunities in Seattle to perform, I started going to Portland and started traveling as much as I could. … At one point, I drove four hours to a gig in Portland, performed in 3- or 4-inch heels for four hours, and then drove four hours back to get back home at night. I did that for a couple years before I moved on to other things. It was good experience for me.

“I guess that’s the long way of saying, in some regards, this is a nurturing environment, in some regards it’s the same 10 people [performing] over and over again with not a lot of room given to the people who fall outside that immediate sphere.”

Like Marriott, Jones — who performs Oct. 15 amid Within/Earshot, a satellite series hosted by the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art in conjunction with the festival — has been able to make connections inside Seattle and beyond. For this spring’s expansive “Players” album, Jones assembled various bands in New York, Chicago, Dallas and Seattle, working with nearly three dozen musicians, including daring new-school trumpeter Marquis Hill (Oct. 18, Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute, Earshot Jazz Festival) and this year’s Earshot artist-in-residence Alex Dugdale, a Seattle staple.


Through her travels, Jones says in her experience the environments and struggles for musicians are largely similar, with a “certain degree” of cliques, biases and racism in every city that can make it difficult to get gigs, even for proven vets. These challenges are less severe in cities with higher levels of Black ownership in businesses and clubs than Seattle, she says.

“It’s like Italian food, for instance,” Jones says. “Would you find it odd to go to an Italian restaurant and find that the restaurateur was Chinese or Ethiopian? You kind of think that because it’s an Italian restaurant there’s going to be some Italian influence in the food and the presentation because it’s a cultural thing. Jazz’s legacy is with African American people and you’d think that there should be that consideration when people are talking about jazz.”

A more varied audience

On a positive note, there are signs of fresh blood venturing into the Seattle jazz scene. Marriott and recent fan-turned-promoter Peter Graham say they’ve seen younger and more diverse audiences at certain local shows: Marriott at the Seattle Jazz Fellowship gigs and Graham with more genre-blending artists that come through the Royal Room or local rock clubs. Graham’s particularly excited by modern progressives like Seattle fusion troupe High Pulp (Oct. 6, Chop Suey), which released its stellar first full-length through hip indie label Anti- Records this spring, and electro-fusion bop master Louis Cole (Oct. 22, Town Hall, Earshot Jazz Festival), who came up amid L.A.’s fusion renaissance of the last decade.

Inspired by the community that grew around renowned L.A. club the Blue Whale and its between-set hangs, Graham recently started throwing fusion shows at Queen Anne’s Bad Bar under the name The Goodbye Look. An Oct. 28 date features Battery and Button Masher, two artists blending jazz and video game music. The 31-year-old “nerdy jazz head” hopes to tap into the same crowd who came out to a recent Earshot show with young vibraphone star Joel Ross.

“The audience was more varied,” Graham recalls. “I’m seeing young, hip-looking people at the show and I know for a fact that five, six years ago, those people were not really attending, other than maybe a couple of musicians. There’s something that has changed.”

New faces in the crowd would certainly be music to Marriott’s ears. He says recent closures of Tula’s, the short-lived Calluna and Vito’s have had an “incredibly chilling effect” on the scene’s collective skill set, with fewer stages for locals to cut their chops.

“When there’s a jazz gig, the people who are interested in this music persisting in Seattle need to show up, whether it’s music they like or their friends or not,” Marriott says. “The fact of the matter is we can make that vibrancy around the music if we choose to, just by showing up.”

2022 Earshot Jazz Festival

Oct. 8-Nov. 6; venues vary; Gold Card festival pass $450 ($400 for Earshot Jazz members); tickets for individual concerts sold separately — prices vary; some shows livestreamed; earshot.org