Editor’s Note: Every jazz musician seems to have a defining moment that led to a lifelong love of the music. KPLU jazz reporter Jason Parker will explore these moments in a three-part series titled How I Came To Jazz.
“I grew up with Cambodian music…Cambodian karaoke,” said Monique Khim, with a giggle that belies her years.
Monique, a senior at Lynnwood High School, traded her karaoke mic for an alto saxophone years ago. Her love of jazz and saxophone runs deep, and she credits her dad’s fondness for the karaoke machine for her passion for music: “He’s the one that actually spurred on my love for music.”
Her story about the “defining moment” that brought her to jazz gave me chills. It involves her trusty alto, the classic tune “Georgia On My Mind” and a stage. But the story actually begins years before that magical moment.
From The Clarinet To The Sax
Monique picked up the clarinet in the sixth grade.
“It reminded me of the recorder we played in fourth grade,” she said. “I got moved into the symphonic band right away, and I was intimidated by all these eighth-grade students. They were big, they were scary and I didn’t know exactly what to do.”
When Monique hit eighth grade herself, her band teacher introduced her to jazz.
“Mr. Madden, he encouraged me to play the saxophone. So I took a month of lessons. He actually ended up putting me as the first alto,” she said. This girl must’ve been good!
Discovering The Freedom Of Jazz
The first jazz tunes Monique remembers playing are “Blues Walk” and “Take The ‘A’ Train.”
“That was totally new territory for me,” she said. “I was probably ‘swing-challenged.’ We started learning how to do the basic swing styles and I started getting used to it and I really started enjoying it.
“I started learning about all the different jazz players: Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie, even Charlie Parker. I remember going on YouTube almost every night and looking up all these new people.”
This led to an epiphany for Monique that proves her to be musically mature beyond her years.
“Wow,” she remembered thinking, “jazz is not limited to ‘you have to swing.’ You can do ballads, you can do Latin style. You can even take it to a punk rock-feel, and that’s still considered part of jazz!”
Under The Spotlight, A Defining Moment
Monique’s defining moment, however, came on stage during her sophomore year.
“I was lead alto. But there was always another saxophone player that was better than me, so I never felt as though I should take any solos or ballads. One day, my jazz director, Patrick West, he gave me this piece, and he said, ‘I want you to play it.’ I had this freshman come up and he totally just blew it out of the water. I didn’t want to play! So I told him, ‘Patrick, I don’t want to do this anymore. Give the solo to him. He sat me down and he told me, ‘You can actually do it.’ I was scared to play it,” she said.
Monique was terrified, but she was not willing to give up.
“I kept on working at it. Every day after school, I’d play over the recording, and I’d improvise over it and everything,” she said.
Her hard work paid off at the Spring Concert.
“I walked up onto the stage and there was only one spotlight. You kind of get this tingling feeling in your stomach, like ‘I’m actually here!’” she said. “I started playing and I actually squeaked a couple of times. But I started feeling it. I closed my eyes, and I remember playing all these random notes, hoping all of them would work. I finally hit the last note and it rang across the mic. [West] cut everyone off and all I heard was applause.
“I opened my eyes, finally, and I saw people in a standing ovation, people cheering me on, people calling my name. I turned around and my jazz band friends were clapping. And I'd never felt like that before in my life. I think that that was the one moment where I felt like jazz really made me a person.”
‘There’s This Euphoria’
As she recounted the story I could hear the excitement in her voice, and it gave me chills.
“Jazz was there when I needed a hand, needed something to hold on to. There was just something about it. There was just me and my saxophone, and the music. And there’s no one else around me. There’s this euphoria.”
These are the moments that all musicians are chasing on a daily basis, and let me tell you, they don’t come around all that often. The moments when everything comes together, when the music, the band, the audience and the player are all connected, are very special and very fleeting.
It’s wonderful that Monique had the opportunity to experience this at an early age, and I can tell you she’ll be chasing after these moments for the rest of her life.
This series is a part of KPLU's celebration of the 10th year of School of Jazz. On Wednesday, the final installment of the series will feature the story of jazz pianist Overton Berry.
Jason Parker is a Seattle-based jazz trumpet player, educator and writer. His band, The Jason Parker Quartet, was hailed by Earshot Jazz as "the next generation of Seattle jazz." Find out more about Jason and his music at jasonparkermusic.com.