Editor’s note: This is one in a periodic series called Stepping Up, highlighting moments of compassion, duty and community in uncertain times. Have a story we should tell? Send it via email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject “Stepping Up.”
If 21-year-old twin brothers Santosh and Ravi Sharma ever form a jazz ensemble with their friends, they might call themselves the Front Porch Quintet in reference to a spring in Seattle they’ll never forget.
For now, it’s enough to gather informally with high school buddies in their front yard and jam for an hour or more at their Ravenna home.
“We just got tired of sitting in our house and playing by ourselves,” said Santosh, a promising young saxophonist who is set to graduate this month from the Manhattan School of Music. “So we decided we might as well go outside and play if we can safely do that.”
Santosh returned home to Seattle on March 16 with Ravi, an electric guitarist and a sophomore at The New School of Jazz in New York, when the coronavirus pandemic forced their classes to go online and shut down the city.
“It’s been kind of rough because I used to live in Brooklyn in a house with three other musicians, a bass player and three drummers, and I could always play with people every day and always have sessions at my house,” Ravi said. “After moving out here it’s been a lot harder to play with people.
“We were just trying to figure out a way we could do it without going inside or being in somebody’s house. Plus, any excuse to get out of the house and see people is always good.”
The Sharma brothers, who became interested in music in the fourth grade, have played in bands at Eckstein Middle School and Roosevelt High. So it felt quite natural for them to step out of their house on April 9 for their first front porch performance.
“I kind of knew that people would be interested and would want to see it,” Santosh said. “But it ended up turning out really well and better than I thought it would, actually.
“A lot of people turned out. They were really happy and seemed like they want to keep doing it.”
The next week, Stanley Ruvinov, a 28-year-old bassist, joined the jam session.
And last Thursday, Noah Halpern, a 24-year-old trumpet player, Max Holmberg, a 28-year-old drummer, and 20-year-old soloist Serena Dominguez-Albero sat in to make up an impressive ensemble that delivered a surprisingly dense performance of jazz classics.
The seven-song set began with a bouncy rendition of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Woody ‘N’ You,” followed by “Let’s Cool One” by Thelonious Monk and “Footprints” by Wayne Shorter.
“We usually just call tunes and kind of jam and do what we do best,” said Santosh, who grew up idolizing jazz greats John Coltrane and Charlie Parker. “Noah and Max played at Roosevelt and I’ve played with them for years, so we got a good feel for things.”
As the sunlight faded, a small crowd of roughly 20 neighbors gathered at an appropriate distance last Thursday at 5:30 p.m. under overcast skies. One couple stepped out of their house carrying two lawn chairs and glasses of wine while a family of four strolled down the street with two young kids riding bicycles.
“I like hearing them and how they’ve progressed over the last 4-5 years,” said Alison Davies, who sat on a picnic blanket with her husband. “They’re really easy to listen to. They practice in the park. We’ve heard them there, too.
“It’s really neat. They do it for the whole community. Everybody knows each other, that’s why it’s quite easy.”
George Carroll, who lives across the street from the Sharmas and has heard all three concerts, sat on his front steps enjoying the music.
“The last time they played, I watched from my upstairs window and it was like watching from the cheap seats in the balcony,” he said. “The crowds come and go, but it feels like a good size. We have a good thing going here and people really like it.”
Jazz is a form of music that practically requires playing with others, and the young musicians understand their jam sessions put them in relatively close contact with people outside their household.
“Is this something we should be doing?” Holmberg said. “It’s pushing the barrier a little. But to be honest, I think we’re being relatively safe. We’re trying our best to stay far enough away from each other and what we’re doing is safer than going to the supermarket.
“But we’ll lose our mind if we don’t play music.”
Santosh and Ravi, who also perform sporadically at Ravenna Park and Gas Works Park, plan to keep performing — weather permitting — each Thursday night at their house as long as Washington state’s stay-home order, extended Friday to at least May 31, is in place.
“It feels like the city is craving it,” Dominguez-Albero said. “Every time, we have a great response. And in Seattle we have the privilege where there’s a lot of space so people can be safe and still enjoy music together.
“It’s up to the artists to still make art. And it’s really fun to be play in makeshift venues. We don’t need the traditional venues to make music, and people can still consume the art.”