For decades, Seattle jazz musicians have lamented the lack of a dedicated local venue where they could be paid well to practice their art and pass it on to the next generation. Usually, musicians just grumble about such things, but Seattle jazz trumpeter Thomas Marriott has decided to do something about it.
This past spring, he and a group of other jazz advocates hatched a new arts organization, the Seattle Jazz Fellowship. SJF presents its first monthly show Wednesday, Oct. 20, at Vermillion, an 88-capacity venue on Capitol Hill with a high-ceilinged gallery in front and an intimate bar in back. For now, shows are in the gallery, but the venue’s baby grand piano can serve either space. SJF also has its eye on another, undisclosed venue, where it aims to present programs five or six nights a week by the beginning of next year.
But the Seattle Jazz Fellowship wants to do more than put on shows. According to its website, its mission is to foster community, mentorship and excellence.
“If you look at the history of the music, it’s the mentorship cycle that’s always propelled it forward,” says Marriott, 45, a Garfield High School jazz band alum who played in New York for years but decided to base his career in Seattle. “King Oliver to Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker to Miles Davis, Miles Davis to Herbie Hancock, and on and on and on.”
Today, with jazz’s decline in popularity, clubs where mentorship took place are few and far between. Jazz education has tried to fill the gap, but there’s just no substitute, says Marriott, for playing “on a stage next to somebody who can do it better than you.”
SJF has come up with a unique programming idea to re-create that environment. Each year, they will select and pay a cohort of jazz elders to perform several three-night gigs over a 12-month period. As part of the deal, the veterans will be required to attend a regular jam session of less-experienced players and absorb one of them into their group during the mentors’ run.
“In a functional jazz scene, this is something that would happen naturally,” says Marriott. “But we don’t really do that here. Older people play with older people and younger people play with younger people.”
Young bassist Ben Feldman, who also attended Garfield and now lives in New York, describes the idea as “a great opportunity,” noting that some of his greatest learning experiences happened with older musicians on stage.
Seattle drummer Matt Jorgensen, whose advocacy has manifested itself for decades as a partner in the local company Origin Records, agrees.
“It’s an important piece of the puzzle,” he says. “If this can create a space where the community can form a deeper connection, it’s a wonderful thing.”
The opening SJF Fellowship Wednesday program features jazz veteran and former longtime Cornish instructor Julian Priester, a trombonist and composer whose résumé includes stints with Duke Ellington, Max Roach and Herbie Hancock. The program begins at 4 p.m., with Priester playing records he’s appeared on, talking about the experience, and fielding questions. At 7 p.m. comes a social hour, followed by an 8 p.m. show by two Seattle bands — a quartet led by young drummer Xavier Lecouturier and a quintet fronted by veteran pianist Marc Seales. The 4 p.m. listening session is free; the show costs $20. Events are all ages. Proof of vaccination and masks are required.
The Seattle Jazz Fellowship recalls, in significant respects, the loft scene that arose in New York some 45 years ago, in that it presents jazz in an artist-centered environment less dependent on drawing a huge crowd or selling tons of food and alcohol. An audience of 30 or 40 people will work just fine, says Marriott, who is nevertheless committed to paying musicians a decent wage — $200 for side players, $300 for leaders — about double the usual stipend. The Fellowship can do this, he says, because it’s already raised $25,000 in individual donations, and as a nonprofit will continue to offer paid memberships and apply for grants.
SJF is also committed to equity and accessibility. Its diverse, four-member board includes drummer D’Vonne Lewis, outdoors/sports writer Glenn Nelson, pianist Dawn Clement and vocalist Johnaye Kendrick. The organization is committed to finding a venue on Capitol Hill or the South End accessible to people of all backgrounds and incomes and will offer free admission to students from high schools where there is no jazz program.
At the moment, Marriott is not being paid, but he seems to understand that burnout — the bane of idealistic projects like this — could be a problem. It’s not as if he doesn’t have enough to do already. He heads the new Monday night jam at the Royal Room, in Columbia City, which reopened last month, and has a full-time career as a musician.
“I would love to draw a salary at some point,” he says. “Or we might hire a manager when we go to five or six nights a week.”
Only time will tell. But in a refreshing twist on a familiar phrase, the optimistic trumpeter wisely observes, “The grass is always greener where you water it.”