Earlier in the year, we were very excited to hear about the Low-Income Housing Institute’s Department of Neighborhood’s grant to bring live music to Jackson Street every month. They’re now on to their fourth show, in a variety of styles, and we finally had a chance to sit down with this month’s featured artist, jazz pianist, Sumi Tonooka.
Sumi Tonooka has been in the business of composing inventive and compelling music for over 30 years and has been called a “fierce and fascinating composer and pianist” (Jazz Times), “provocative and compelling” (New York Times), and “continually inventive, original, surprising, and a total delight,” (Cuadranos de Jazz, Madrid).
A mentee of legends Mary Lou Williams and Kenny Barron, she is at home with nearly every style of jazz: bebop, swing, hard-bop and modern. Her impressive portfolio includes accolades and awards from the New York Times, Jazz Times, American Composers Orchestra and The Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University. She will be joined by Max Wood (drums) and Michael Glynn (bass) on November 22nd to delight the crowd with a full set of her own compositions as well as works by John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk.
Is there something special for you in playing on Jackson Street?
Performing on Jackson Street in the Central District is special because there is a lot of jazz history here and it is on Jackson where so much great jazz took place. At one time, there were so many clubs and various venues where people like Quincy Jones, Ernestine Anderson, and Ray Charles performed. Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington and many such jazz greats also performed here as well.
In my hometown of Philadelphia PA, we have a street similar to Jackson Street. Over in West Philly, 52nd Street had many clubs and venues during the fifties and sixties. My parents took me to see Thelonius Monk at the Aqua Lounge when I was thirteen years old for my birthday so I got a chance to experience some of that amazing renaissance.
These streets hold a lot of those vibrations and maybe making music and holding concerts in the same areas can help to bring back some of that vitality and energize the community.
You’ve played lots of great gigs in jazz venues across the world, so what makes playing a community concert in a venue like Ernestine Anderson Place, something that’s interesting to you?
Yes, I have performed in venues such as The Kennedy Center and Lincoln Center but I have also performed in unusual venues such as prisons, correction centers for troubled youth and schools for kids orphaned by AID’s in Africa and even on a dirt road in a neighborhood street in Ethiopia. What makes those concerts special is that you get to witness and be a part of the healing power of music, and bring the music into new territory and share with people, some of whom may never have heard jazz before.
Ernestine Anderson Place was built by the Low Income Housing Institute which is an amazing non profit. My friend Sharon Lee is the founder and director now for over twenty years. We have been friends going all the way back to third grade in Philadelphia. Sharon is one of my heroes, she is a champion for this cause with LIHI having built something like 40 thousand+ units of housing in Seattle for homeless and low income people. Performing at Ernestine Anderson Place is exciting to me because it provides an experience that brings this community together around music which is a beautiful thing to be a part of. I am very proud and happy to be a part of this concert series. And I applaud Sharon for getting this music series off the ground!
You’ve talked about about being mentored by Mary Lou Williams and Kenny Barron— that must have been amazing!, who are you mentoring now and what’s the vibe happening today with younger players?
Having a teacher like Mary Lou Williams was amazing and Kenny Barron is my friend and mentor. These days I get to mentor younger musicians when I am teaching master classes. There is a group in Philadelphia at The Kimmel Center where I teach every year for the past four years or so called the Creative Music Program that houses some of the most talented up and coming young players in the Philly area. I have been really blown away by some of the talent and determination of these young musicians.
I have taught compositions and improvisation and bring in some of my arrangements and work hands on with these kids and it is always gratifying to be around them and share my experience with them. I also have chosen to work with a rather young rhythm section here in Seattle, my drummer Max Wood and Michael Glynn, they are both very talented and while I get a lot from them musically, I also think that they are getting something that broadens their range of experience by working with me as a leader.
What’s something you’d like to see develop in the Seattle Jazz scene?
More venues! More comraderie and community between the straight ahead scene and the experimental jazz scene— it seems somewhat divided. There is a lot of creativity and a LOT of wonderful musicians here, lots of adventurous stuff going on and I have found it to be a “incubating” phase of my creative life.
Sumi Tonooka plays in the Living Room of Ernestine Anderson House for FREE on Saturday, November 22 at 7:30. Doors open at 7:00 PM. Open is M9, a high-engery Balkan Brass Band. See more at www.upbeatonJackson.org.
Hear a bit of her playing, right here: https://soundcloud.com/sumi-tonooka/06-track-06