Jonathan Parker is a hidden gem of the DC jazz scene. He’s an original voice on the saxophone as well as a talented composer and arranger. I’ve been lucky enough to play with his octet now on several occasions, and it’s always a great time— for both the musicians and the audience.
I actually got hooked up with Jonathan through one of his former teachers, Bill Mulligan, who is another great saxophonist (and woodwind doubler) here in town. Jonathan has played all over the place, so I was excited to pick his brain about his time in China, New York, and now DC. We also got into his compositional process and how he ended up playing the types of venues he plays.
JB: When did you start playing?
JP: I guess I started playing in fourth or fifth grade. I had a friend who was already playing saxophone and that was sort of my first memory. I remember going over to his parents’ house and he opened up the case— you know, everyone at that age knows what a drum kit or a guitar looks like, but the saxophone looked like all of the internal parts that you would imagine would be concealed were on the outside instead: the springs and the pads and the gears. It looked like a very otherworldly device and I remember wanting to mess around with it. It had nothing to do with the sound— I just thought it looked really cool. I did that, but then I wasn’t really serious about it until the end of high school.
JB: Did you have private lessons before high school?
JP: Yeah, my friend took from Connie Frigo. She was in the Navy concert band for maybe three years or so around the time I was first starting. Then she got a grant to study with a sax player named Arno Bornkamp, who was a very contemporary classical player, sort of avant-garde. Then she was overseas for a while and eventually moved back and I think she taught at University of Maryland for a couple of years. Now she’s a faculty member at the University of Georgia.
I studied with her for the first three years or so (starting around fifth grade), and when she left the area she recommended Bill Mulligan. Throughout high school I studied with Bill, and around midway through junior year I thought, “Well maybe I will go study this.”
JP: In high school, I never really felt like there was some weird inner urge to pursue this. It was more just like I identified with playing music and then everyone else identified me as that saxophone guy. I figured, oh, well it seems like a good thing to do, and I wasn’t really interested in anything else.
So I went to Oberlin [Conservatory of Music] and it was very jarring, because I had always been one of the better players in high school. Suddenly I was surrounded with guys who were the cream of the crop.
JB: Did you start checking out jazz before you started studying with Bill? Was it playing around your house growing up?
JP: No, Bill was definitely the guy who got me into playing jazz. I want to say it was one of our first lessons and Bill said, “You understand I’m more of a jazz saxophone player?” I told him I’d work on whatever he wanted.
I don’t know if he remembers this, but one of the first assignments he ever gave me was to go home and learn the melody of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. I remember thinking, Bill’s a jazz guy so I need to make this sound jazzy. I came back to the lesson next week and I said, “I hope it’s all right with you, but I put a jazzy kind of spin on it.” I don’t remember if it even sounded good, but I just wanted to impress him.
I think he also gave me the Porgy and Bess soundtrack. I think around Christmas one year my mom asked him what kind of jazz CDs she should get me and I got one of those Verve Best of Charlie Parker albums or something. That compilation had a lot of stuff on it that was pretty hard to listen to as an eighth grader, but I think one of the tracks was the definitive version of “Confirmation” and it definitely clicked. That planted the seed in my head I think.
JB: I know your parents are pretty into music and even play a little. Did they have music playing around the house when you were growing up, or do you remember hearing them play?
JP: Yeah. My dad went to graphic design school, so he’s artistic, but in a medium other than music. But my mom was in a folk music trio with two other girls she attended college with, at Skidmore up in Saratoga Springs, NY. Their whole concept was doing three-part harmony. My mom played accordion, another would play piano, and I think the third just sang. They would do versions of old Renaissance music and things like that. They did two albums back in the day.
I also have memories of being ten or twelve and being dragged over to rehearsals with a band that my parents were in. So inadvertently I was definitely being exposed to music.
JB: So after high school, you went to Oberlin— who did you study with there?
JP: Gary Bartz was my saxophone teacher; Billy Hart [drums] was there as well. Marcus Belgrave [trumpet], who just passed away.
JB: I just saw that— what a shame. He was just great.
JP: I remember when I was at Oberlin, Marcus was having health issues back then. He was using oxygen but then he would play and you wouldn’t even know that he had any sort of issues.
JB: There was a big band in Philly that I used to play with and there was a Clifford Brown celebration. Marcus was one of the guest artists, along with John Fedchock. He was such a great guy and sounded absolutely wonderful. I had never really heard of him before that though.
JP: One of my classmates at Oberlin was trying to get into Juilliard originally, but got wait-listed or something. He was talking to Wynton Marsalis who asked what his other choices were. My friend said, “Well Oberlin gave me a lot of money.”
Wynton said, “Oberlin?! Marcus Belgrave teaches there! Just go and study with Marcus.”
All of those Detroit players, like Geri Allen and Kenny Garrett, came out from under Marcus’ mentoring.
It was one of those things where it’s like, if you care about this music, come into lessons and have things that you want to work on.
JB: When you were at Oberlin, studying with Gary [Bartz], what did he have you working on?
JP: He was the kind of teacher that I would have preferred to study with now, as opposed to fresh out of high school. He is one of those teachers who says, “So what do you want to work on?”
It was one of those things where it’s like, if you care about this music, come into lessons and have things that you want to work on. But at the same time, I feel like my generation came of age during this internet information explosion. I always felt like, in college, that was the hardest thing: Go to the music library and you can check out 30 different books on improvisation techniques and there are thousands of solos you can listen to.
Then you have these older musicians who can’t understand why you suck because you have so much information at your fingertips. But for them coming up, they had to learn by either transcribing from recordings or going out to hear live music. At least then there was only one way to do it.
I just felt like I was always bombarded with stuff and I didn’t really know how to spend my time. Should I work on my technique, should I work on transcribing, should I work on my sound?
Something he [Gary] would always talk about (it was almost like a running joke or something) was, “You sound good but you need to work on your triads a little more.” I thought, well I know how to play triads. But that was his thing: we’d be playing tunes and he’d say, play 1-3-5, 2-4-6, 3-5-7, over every chord change.
JB: Did he ever have you transcribe specific solos or players?
JP: No, not really. He would always say, “Your ear is god.” He said that you can know all the theory in the world but at the end of the day, play what you hear. That was interesting because you can be playing and then say, “Yeah I heard that Gary.” And he’d say, “No, that sounds horrible,” or something like that. In retrospect I was probably just screwing around.
There were a couple times my senior year when I felt like the stuff he had been talking about started to seep in, especially some of the triadic things.
What really helped me develop at Oberlin was being around certain players.
JB: Do you mean the other students? Being motivated and inspired by them?
JP: Yeah. The person I learned the most from was a saxophone player also in my year. He lives in New Haven, CT now; we still play together somewhat frequently. His name is Will Cleary. He was one of those guys who, when I met him as a freshman, he would give me suggestions. Being maybe a little insecure I would think to myself, “Who is this guy? Lecture me on what I’m doing?” But as I got to know him, he was just obsessed in trying to play as well as possible. He was very supportive of other players.
JB: But also very matter-of-fact about the music?
JB: I remember a tenor player in Philly like that. I was starting to feel pretty confident about my playing but obviously still had a lot to learn (not that I don’t still). I was playing at a jam session and we were playing “It Could Happen to You.” After the tune finished he came up to me and said, “Yeah man, sounds great, but I have a question. What chord change are you thinking of in the sixth bar of the tune?”
I said, “Well that’s the minor four chord.”
He was like, “No,” and then proceeded to tell me the correct changes.
My ear was still pretty underdeveloped at that time and I didn’t really believe him until I went back later and looked at a leadsheet of the tune. He was one of those guys who wasn’t being mean, but he was very matter-of-fact about the music. He wanted to help other players, and really cared about the music.
At the time I remember being a bit put off by it, but I should have thought, “Wow, this guy was actually listening to me and cared enough to know that I was not making the changes.”
JP: Yeah there’s so much of that ego that we have sometimes.
JB: So after Oberlin, did you go to Eastman next or China?
JB: Can you tell me about that trip and how it came about?
JP: Yeah, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of a trombone player named Andy Hunter—
JB: —I have actually. He was at Rutgers I think.
JP: He was. He was like Conrad Herwig’s right-hand man.
JB: I never actually met him but I had a friend who went to Rutgers and was always talking about him.
JP: He was one of those freaks of nature who’s probably good at everything. He graduated from Oberlin before I got there but he was a dual major: jazz studies and east Asian studies. He was fluent in Mandarin, so after college he went to Shanghai on a whim. He found a small but strong jazz scene there and when I was a junior at Oberlin, Andy came back and did a masterclass on jazz opportunities in Shanghai. The people who attended that masterclass were me, a trumpet player Theo Croker, and a classical dude. We got it in our heads that we should move out to Shanghai.
I had never been abroad and I really wanted to go out of the country and experience something new. Andy had all of these contacts out there too. Theo graduated a year before me and went out there first with a drummer from Oberlin named Charlie Foldesh. After I graduated I had kept in touch with them and moved out there. A bass player named Curtis Ostle joined me. Then another drummer friend of mine, Alex Ritz, and eventually another bass player named Mike Brownell moved out there as well. So we had this sort of weird Oberlin contingency in Shanghai.
None of us spoke fluent Mandarin but I could kind of get by a little. I certainly couldn’t carry on a serious conversation, but Shanghai is such an international city now that you can actually get by without knowing Mandarin. I was living in an old style apartment and paid about $500 per month in rent. I could just go to a hole in the wall noodle joint and pay a dollar for a meal. On the other hand, you could spend just as much money as you would in New York [City] for a luxury apartment and eat out at fancy, expensive restaurants.
There were your bread and butter gigs: corporate stuff, cocktail parties. There was so much industry in Shanghai and they would pay to have live bands at their events. I played parties for companies like BMW and Louis Vuitton. You do about two of those gigs per week and that pays your rent. Then you do a few more per month and it’s all money you can just save. The scene [number of players] was pretty small so there was a good amount of work to go around.
There is a big jazz scene in Shanghai but it’s not like the public is craving jazz. There’s this kind of new-found upper class and people are looking for ways to spend their money. Western culture is seen as high class and people want to show that they are well-to-do and will hire a jazz band to play for their event.
Everyone on the scene was making a fair living playing corporate gigs, but then there was the Cotton Club and the JZ Club which would have jazz a few nights a week. There would be a straight-ahead quintet playing every Friday night and a big band playing every Saturday night. There was a German composer named Rolf Becker who led his own big band. There was also the JZ Big Band which was like the house big band at the JZ Club.
It was really crazy to know that you could be in Shanghai and be playing some corporate gig, but then come like 10 pm on a Thursday night, you could go to the JZ Club and hear a group of Oberlin students playing “Stablemates” or something. It’s really weird that that existed there and still does.
JB: What was the clientele like at those clubs? Mostly native Chinese?
JP: It was a healthy mix of ex-pats, whether say Australian, or French, or British. I’d say it was maybe half ex-pats and half upper-class Shanghainese. But again, it wasn’t like you’re playing in the club and people are sitting in rapture.
JB: It’s kind of the same thing here at a lot of clubs.
JP: Right, or like if you go into a Starbucks, they’ll be selling a Chet Baker album or something. People aren’t buying it because they think he’s a great jazz musician, but because Starbucks has aligned themselves with that image. I don’t know. I think it’s more of an image thing than people necessarily enjoying the music for its face value. It was kind of the same thing at the jazz clubs- there would be drunk businessmen hanging out at the bar throwing their money around.
JB: So you spent two years there, and then what prompted you to return to the States?
JP: I was dating a girl at the time who was teaching English at an international school in Shanghai. I had been there for a year when I met her and then a year later she was ready to go stateside again, so I figured I had been there for two years and had kind of had enough. We moved to New York City and that’s how I ended up in Astoria for a year.
JB: How was your New York experience?
JP: It was definitely a giant kick in the ass. I’m sure everyone says that though. After being in Shanghai for two years, which is a small scene where everyone is pretty complimentary, then you go to New York and— I’m not positive, but over the entire year I was there I might have been called for only one or two gigs. All of the rest of the gigs I played were ones that I hustled.
In Shanghai it was easy to put yourself in a bubble, but everywhere else it feels like a struggle to make ends meet. Even in DC, it feels like a struggle.
JB: So did you go to Eastman [School of Music] after New York?
JP: Yes, I went for a master’s.
JB: Performance or composition?
JP: Master’s in performance. I took a lot of composition classes with Bill Dobbins— I’m so terrified of him. For all of the brutal things that he did to my ego, he definitely exposed me to different things that I wouldn’t have otherwise checked out. I took a three horn writing class and then a five horn writing class and I really enjoyed everything I learned. That was kind of what made me get into octet writing.
JB: Was that the first time you wrote for larger groups?
JP: Right. At Oberlin, maybe the most I wrote for was a quintet.
JB: When did you get into composing?
JP: I did at little at Oberlin but I don’t know if I have a codified method of doing it. I’ll just sit down at the piano and try to bang something out.
JB: Is there usually a melodic idea that comes to you, or is it more like you’ll sit at the piano and try to come up with something?
JP: Sometimes I’ll be walking home from work or something, and I’ll hear something and keep humming it to myself until I get home to write it out. But usually I’ll sit down at the piano with a blank slate and screw around with stuff— play a couple chords and see what happens.
JB: Correct me if I’m wrong, but you were telling me one time that a lot of your tunes are harmony first.
JP: Sort of hand in hand. Melody and harmony seem to come at the same time. I remember before I got to Eastman, I felt more confident in what I wrote. Then I got there and had private lessons with Bill Dobbins in composition.
He was one of those guys who if you didn’t agree with him, you were wrong. Lesson after lesson it would happen where I’d bring in an idea and he’d say something like, “Well, this doesn’t make any sense harmonically.”
I’d say, “What do you mean?”
“You started in this key and then the melody implies another key and you transitioned to it.”
It was like if you were going to do something, there was a “correct” way to do it. We’d be looking at a tune like “Dolphin Dance” and he’d say that was a good study in non-functional harmony, which yeah, it is.
JB: There are functional parts to that tune too.
JP: Yeah so I would bring in a tune that I thought was more modal…
JB: So what was his argument for non-functional harmony that doesn’t work?
JP: He’d say you’re in this one key and you got to another key but you didn’t set it up properly.
JB: Did he not think that non-functional harmony tunes work?
JP: It was very confusing to me. I was listening the other day to this Walt Weiskopf cd called Man of Many Colors, with John Patitucci, Brad Mehldau, and Clarence Penn. A lot of his tunes on that are kind of like four bars of this chord, then four bars of another chord, then four bars of another chord, and none of them have anything to do with each other, but it works.
JB: Sort of like some of Wayne Shorter’s tunes for example?
JP: But even Bill would say that those work. He’d say things like, “‘Infant Eyes’… Yes.”
JB: Isn’t it sort of arbitrary? With non-functional harmony I feel like if it sounds good to your ear, it’s fine. A lot of it’s subjective. There are jazz musicians out there who might say they don’t like Wayne Shorter tunes because of that.
JP: I left Eastman feeling really insecure about composition, although I did feel much better about my playing. I had saxophone lessons with Ray Ricker, who is one of those teachers I wish I had studied with right out of high school, whereas Gary Bartz was one of those teachers I wish I had studied with now.
He would say, “Okay, what do you know about pentatonics.”
“Okay, let’s do pentatonics for a year.”
Next year: “What do you know about scales that are not major, minor, or one of those modes? Let’s do diminished scale, or augmented scale, or whole tone.”
And so he was a lot more regimented in everything we did and I got a lot out of him in those two years that I was there.
I think one of the positive things I got out of studying with Bill Dobbins was I now have a very very high level of self-critique when I’m writing something.
When I’m sitting down at the piano, I don’t even write anything out at first. I might be there for a half an hour before I come up with a solid four bars. If something sounds like it has potential, I’ll write it out. I’m much more selective about what I spend time focusing on. In a way, studying with Bill helped me eliminate a lot of the b.s. from my writing.
JB: At least a little bit—
JB: I didn’t mean it in that way though!
JB: I’m interested in your writing process along those lines. You said you won’t write anything down until you have four bars of something solid. Do you have a form in mind for a tune or is it more through-composed, where the form develops as you’re writing?
JP: Definitely not form-based, although everything ends up being some sort of form. It’s the same thing with guys who will write and they’ll say, “I want to write something with an odd number of bars.” I feel like when you set out to do something like that, it can sound just as contrived as writing something in a standard form.
Right now, I’m still trying to get a little more material together. Outside of the octet, I have a project which, for lack of a better name, is called Panel Counsel. It’s this drummer Abinnet [Berhanu], Eliot Seppa on bass, and then two guitar players: John Lee and Max Light. I play saxophones with effects pedals.
JB: Is it jazz based?
JP: Yeah, it’s still in its infancy right now but we do a couple of 1960’s era standards. Like “Black Narcissus” and “Tell Me a Bedtime Story.”
JB: I love that tune!
JP: I transcribed the original Herbie [Hancock] recording— I want to do it with the octet. All of the stuff for Panel Counsel could actually work well with the octet as well.
JB: Where did you come up with that name, Panel Counsel?
JP: I work at a law firm right now and it’s a term that refers to a group of attorneys outside of our firm who are used when a conflict of interest might arise. I just liked the term.
JB: When you’re writing music, do you ever write with a conceptual element in mind? For example, a work of visual art or maybe an event? Or is it more purely music for music’s sake?
Sometimes you just want to write a tune, but more often than not you want to be drawing from some sort of reservoir of emotion.
JP: Well, that song “Lament” that you recorded with me was a weird thing where I had been having an on again, off again relationship with this girl, and then one day it was completely over. I remember going back to my place and feeling terrible. I sat down and was just channelling all of that, and that is kind of just what came out.
It’s kind of like 50/50 though. Sometimes you just want to write a tune, but more often than not you want to be drawing from some sort of reservoir of emotion. I think that sometimes when you listen to jazz music now it seems very detached from emotion, and it can sound like an etude or an exercise. Then you listen to a really good rock song or something and it it’s like, wow this feels like it’s about something real.
JB: How do you balance your time between practicing saxophone and writing?
JP: I wish I didn’t have a day job because then it would be a lot easier to balance these things! I try to keep up a steady schedule of practicing saxophone regardless, and then composition always takes a back seat.
It’s the worst feeling when you decide not to practice all day because you want to write a song, and then nothing happens. Then you feel like you’ve wasted a whole day and have nothing to show for it.
JB: How do you go about finding venues to perform your music?
JP: I hate asking my friends to come out to a jazz club and pay 15 bucks to hear music in a very stiff, rigid environment. That’s kind of why I like playing at the Wonderland Ballroom: donate 5 bucks if you want and have a good time. I could care less if people are talking during the show or taking videos or whatever. I feel like performing music that way, you are reaching an audience that wouldn’t normally listen to this music.
The best kind of compliment I can get is when, after a show, someone comes up and says, “I had no idea this was going on and I don’t even consider myself to be someone who likes jazz. This was really good and I had no idea that jazz sounds like this.”
I feel like I’ve always been at a distance from the hardcore DC jazz scene, because I like to play at more non-traditional venues.
JB: How do you go about selling yourself to those venues, since they don’t typically have jazz groups performing?
JP: A friend I went to college with, her name is Leah, she’s lived in DC ever since we graduated. She plays drums in a punk rock band called BRNDA. I’ve met all of these rock musicians through her, and I feel like I’ve been more involved in the rock scene during my time in DC. I play with this one rock group called the North Country. I respect those musicians’ eagerness to get their music played. I got hooked up with the Wonderland through another rock group that couldn’t do it at that time and they asked if I’d take their spot.
I think you might have even played one of those shows at The Dunes a while back. Crazy comedians, then we’d play a set, then a rock band afterwards.
JB: I actually remember that audience being pretty attentive!
JP: Yeah, that’s the thing. A lot of people in DC are interested in checking out new things. I really like bringing all of these worlds together who wouldn’t necessarily hang out otherwise and seeing what happens.
Editor’s Note: You can check out Jonathan Parker and his Octet the third Wednesday of every month at the Wonderland Ballroom in Columbia Heights. You can visit his website, Jonathan-Parker.com, for more information on recordings and performances.
July 2, 2015 @9pm: The North Country at DC9
July 15, 2015 @9pm: The Jonathan Parker Octet at Wonderland Ballroom