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Seattle trumpeter Thomas Marriott grows the jazz community

Thomas Marriott
courtesy of the artist
Thomas Marriott

The award-winning musician Thomas Marriott has formed the Seattle Jazz Fellowship, a not-for-profit organization that brings students, mentors, professional musicians and audiences together to form a sustainable community for jazz in Seattle. He spoke with Robin Lloyd earlier this week.

RL: The Seattle Jazz Fellowship’s first Fellowship Wednesday event was last week at Vermillion Art Gallery and Bar. It started with an album listening session and then live music. How did it go?

TM: It was a great turnout, and everybody was having a good time until the wee small hours. It was just exactly what we hoped it would be — good music, fun time. We raised some money, and it was great. The best part is we're doing it again on Wednesday, this week and next week, and the week after that and the week after that.

RL: What drove you to want to create this Fellowship?

TM: Like most people, I want to live in a city that has a thriving jazz community. I don't think that we have that now. We have some of the seeds, but I think that we need to cultivate those seeds into a roaring crop.

I've been lucky enough to participate in local jazz scenes in other places around the country; Pittsburgh or Chicago or Atlanta, Philadelphia and even New York is a local jazz community in a certain way. And I haven't been able to see what makes a really healthy sort of jazz community or ecosystem or whatever you want to call it. I hate the word “scene” because it seems like it's a spectacle to see it, and I'd rather people participate instead of just look at it, you know? But I think that all of the things that we're trying to achieve in the Seattle Jazz Fellowship are in terms of creating that brass ring for people to strive for, but also to try to incentivize participation and mentorship and just showing up.

I think we live in a community where people are not used to going out to each other's gigs so much. Some people do, but I think that not enough of us do. And they don't really see the benefit in it, supporting each other's gigs and trying to make a gig that's happening already be more vibrant and, therefore, more attractive to an audience. But we also know that when we talk about the jazz community, we're talking about not just the musicians, but the audience too. I think for a lot of people who attend jazz concerts, they get the feeling of fellowship. They know the musicians, but they also see people that they see at other jazz shows and jazz clubs, as an audience member, and they say, “Oh, there's so-and-so, we see them all the time.” That's a beautiful thing about the jazz community everywhere: If you're into jazz music, you can go into a jazz club anywhere in the world and probably see somebody that you could strike up a conversation with, maybe three or four degrees of separation from somebody you actually know, or less.

I could always move away and live in one of those other cities, but I'm from here. This is my hometown, and I have the benefit of a lot of the mentorship that I have received here.

This is something that younger generations are not able to access because it doesn't exist anymore. The sort of older musicians who, when I was coming up, they were in their 70s and 80s. Those people are like Jay Thomas now, and after that, Chuck Deardorf and Mark Seales and Dave Peck and those folks, and that's the generation that we hope to see mentoring young students. And some of them do that, some of them are engaged in that in various ways. But I think that there's a whole generation of musicians who don't even know those older people as musicians. You know what I mean? They never go hear them play. They sort of know their names, and they sort of know them as being connected to jazz education, but not as performers.

RL: So this is an enhancement of what we now think of as jazz education, but it's drawing on history.

TM: I wouldn’t say that it's an enhancement. I would say this is the most traditional form of jazz education. Jazz education can teach the notes, but we know that music is not about the notes. Another way of putting it is that the music is mental, physical and spiritual, or emotional, or whatever word you're comfortable with. Jazz education can teach the mental and physical, but not the spiritual, emotional part of music. But that’s the essential part of the music. We can have the music without jazz education. We don't really need jazz education to have the music, but we need the music to have jazz education, so in other words: what’s supplementing what?

RL: You were talking about having the listeners as participants in this community.

TM: We are trying to create an opportunity for people to serve because I think that most people feel more useful and feel better about themselves when they have a way to participate in community, other than just showing up, that's not just paying the cover charge and sitting there passively listening to music, although we need those people too. We need people to roll up their sleeves and really be committed to the idea of “What can I give?” rather than “What can I take?” You know, I think some of our jazz institutions, and many of our musicians, too, are operating from a mentality of, “What can I get out of it? What can I use jazz to do? What can I get from jazz music?” Or “How can I use jazz music to aggrandize our institution or myself?” And we're trying to take the tack of “How can we serve jazz music?” I think that flipping that script a little bit is an opportunity to give people a feeling of usefulness, which I think what we all would like to have right now.

RL: It's great to have a focus, something you can say, "Oh, I helped make this happen." Looking to the future, what do you want to happen with the Seattle Jazz Fellowship?

TM: Well, to me, it allows for limitless expansion. I see that what we're doing now at Vermillion as a step toward having a five-night-a-week program, somewhere where we can operate our own space and have our own nonprofit nightclub or performing arts space dedicated to jazz. To my mind, we have the symphony, the ballet and the opera and the Mariners and the Seahawks and the Kraken, and all of this stuff. And they all are cultural institutions, with their own dedicated buildings. I believe that jazz needs that in Seattle now. I think maybe there's an argument that that's what Seattle JazzED is trying to do. But again, I sort of draw a distinction between what jazz education is and what the music is. In a way, it's putting the cart before the horse to me.

I think that, in the long-term structure, I would love to see something that's more grandiose, that's much bigger, that encompasses jazz performance, education and just increasing people's awareness and cultivating fans, but also being able to be something that can support the local community, too.

We know that to exist on ticket sales alone, a five-night-a-week venue that really caters to local artists, by definition, has to be small. And with a small number of seats, just do the math: The cover charge can't be $50 a seat and we expect to make our nut. That's just ridiculous. But I think what's important to point out is that, again, the ballet, the symphony, the opera, the Mariners, whatever … they don't operate just on ticket sales. They need corporate sponsorships and donors and all those things. I think that it's high time that we joined the 21st century in terms of our funding models. And I don't think we need to apologize for that. This is America's greatest art form. Those other art forms are great, too, but those are contributions from Europe. You know what I mean? This is homegrown.

So we're going to try to start small. And so far we have Vermillion, which is only 45 seats and it costs us about $2,300 to put on one Fellowship Wednesday. So there's no way, at a $20 cover charge price, that's going to pay for itself. But thankfully, the community has stepped up, and we have plenty of money to operate to the end of the year at this point. So we'll see. I mean, I think it's ultimately scalable to however big anybody likes to think of it. Look at SF Jazz in San Francisco. I can see how this could one day become that.

RL: I think that's a great idea. How do you expect to get the word out and get support for this?

TM: That's a good question. I think we have to rely on our friends and partners in the media like KNKX to help us spread the word. You know, jazz does have a very small audience, so it's going to take time and it's going to take rolling up our sleeves and it's going to take every single person to be involved to help spread the word about it. I think that this is not a time for passivity. If we want a thriving jazz community, we have to show up and do the work. All of us. And if we don't want a thriving local jazz community, that's fine too. But that's what I want, so that's what I'm trying to do. And we'll see.

Seattle is very much a community where people like to "go it alone." They want to do their own thing. They want to do it by themselves. They don't really want to ask for help. And that's sort of the culture here. I think that's why people come here, why people have been coming here for 100 years, to be left alone, you know? But that's not how jazz music works. You know that this is a community kind of music. This is a social kind of music.

So, this is why we don't have such a vibrant jazz community and also, it's very white, you know. With jazz being a product of Black culture, there are not very many Black jazz musicians in our community. That's something we have to address, and it's something we're working on by lowering the barriers to access. Access to perform, but also access to listen to the music.

A lot of work to do. No question.

RL: Who is helping you with all of this?

TM: Well, I have my awesome board members Dawn Clement,Johnaye Kendrick, D’Vonne Lewis and Glenn Nelson, and we have a network of volunteers, too. Paul Rauch is probably one of our primary volunteers. That's it. Pretty much we have the goodwill of our community as well. And like I said, so far, so good.

But it's not a lot, and we're looking to expand. We're always looking to sign up more volunteers. And obviously, we've only been formed on paper since January. So the board structure and all that is evolving. We haven't even completed a one-year cycle with our founding board members. According to our bylaws, we have to expand after the first year anyway.

RL: But the focus is getting programming out there for people to use.

TM: We have a whole bunch of programs in mind that we think will really help jumpstart an increase in attendance. But they sort of rely on us having a five-night-a-week calendar. So, for instance, our mentorship program works by having some of our mentors recruiting mentees from a jam session that we host to play a double-night run at the club down the road. We can't do this one night a week. We would need at least two or if not three nights a week to book in order to make that happen, right? So what we're doing now with Fellowship Wednesdays kind of ticks all the boxes in terms of our goals, which is to build community, increase mentorship, lower barriers to access and to incentivize excellence, to create that brass ring to strive for. I think we will be much, much more effective once we can move to a five-night-a-week schedule.

The other part of that is that jazz music pays such a low wage in the Northwest. You know, it's not like that everywhere. It’s not like other jazz musicians in other locales are getting rich. But the wages are much higher in other places, especially when you think of places where the cost of living is lower. So it should be actually that our wages are even much higher than that. But wages for jazz musicians are low, including what’s paid out by many of our institutions who are well-funded around here. And I think that that has a chilling effect on excellence because, what is the incentive to really get it together and rehearse your band and write that hard piece of music and to go out and play that gig that you're going to lose money on? You had to pay to make copies and you had to pay to rehearse the band and you had to pay and pay; and what they pay you at the end of the night doesn't even cover your expenses. So it's basically a gratuity at the end of the night.

Of course, nobody's going to break their rear end to get into something really, really excellent unless they're super motivated, but we have that ability, if we raise enough money, to be able to incentivize and say, "Hey, look, here's a really good paying gig, and one that the audience will respect. You'll have a great time, do your best, show up and show us some excellence." And then give them the resources to actually do it, where they can actually make money doing it, rather than lose money. We're not there yet. But again, like the Fellowship Wednesday gigs, we're paying the bands well. When I go on the road, I work in local clubs for local pay and I'm making more than I make at home.

RL: Wow. Yeah, that's an eye-opener.

TM: I think also, if you're a listener and the cover charge is $25 and there’s a $30 minimum, if you're a student or a kid who just loves the music, you're not going out to see that show. But that's where our best musicians play. So a lot of things have to change in places where we work. But that work has to get done somewhere, at some point in time, if we want this to really be a good jazz town.

RL: Well, you've made a great start.

TM: It's a start. We'll see what happens. This could fizzle out in a year or this could really ramp up in a year. I don't know.

The Seattle Jazz Fellowship

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Originally from Detroit, Robin Lloyd has been presenting jazz, blues and Latin jazz on public radio for nearly 40 years. She's a member of the Jazz Education Network and the Jazz Journalists Association.