by Emily Gilbert
In a room full of jazz musicians ranging in age from their 20s to 60s, everyone is looking at one man, Erik Hanson, the leader of Big Band Blue and Executive Director of Jazz Night School.
The school, based out of its new location on Rainier Avenue South in Columbia City since January 2017, welcomes musicians of all ages to learn jazz.
Hanson started what would later become Jazz Night School (JNS) out of his house in 2008 after friends told him they were struggling to find places to learn music.
“I had friends in the neighborhood who told me about how difficult it was for them to learn jazz – just not many opportunities. There was this real void,” Hanson said.
Hanson, a graduate of the Berklee College of Music in Boston and a musician with experience in the recording industry, thought that he could fill that void. Hanson saw the program grow, and the group later became a non-profit.
The school offers a variety of classes, ensembles, and big bands in 10-week sessions that meet once a week with an instructor for 90 minutes with a performance at the end. Some music styles that JNS offers are Brazilian, gypsy jazz, traditional jazz, and salsa, and the ensembles perform at public jazz clubs such as The Royal Room.
Participation in a small ensemble of about three people costs $375. For those who qualify, JNS provides tuition assistance in part or in full.
“I started this because I loved the music and I felt like anyone who wants to be able to learn this should be able to learn this. Why keep info from people?” Hanson asked. “People should be able to get good, good teaching.”
JNS is open to all ages of musicians, but most of the students are older adults.
“You send an adult home feeling good about themselves and it’s immediate payoff. What they take back to their world — the people they touch — it’s right now. It’s instantly gratifying. Investing education in kids is important but it’s a long-term investment. But the people who come here they go out and it’s making a difference in their circles,” Hanson said.
Many of the students had some musical background before going to play in an ensemble or big band at JNS for the first time. Although JNS says it is open to everyone, it takes a certain level of technical skill to be able to play with other musicians. Early beginners can take private lessons with JNS instructors.
For example, Tony Cook, a guitarist in an ensemble led by instructor Jared Hall, said he played in his high school’s jazz stage band but stopped playing regularly when he joined the Navy. He couldn’t take the instrument on board.
“Maybe after my third year in Navy I was on shore duty, so I was able to pick up with the guitar again. Then I would go back to the ship and have to stop for four years for a four-year tour,” he said.
He’s over 50 now. One might think that learning to play guitar again would be difficult but Cook had a different experience. He’s played with the same ensemble at JNS for two years and they play gigs beyond the end-of-session performances.
Marianne Gonterman, a pianist in the same ensemble as Cook and a member of the school’s board of directors, also had a long break in her music. She learned to play classical music when she was a kid, but stepped away from the instrument for 30 years while she raised her own kids.
Gonterman has enjoyed getting back into music, especially jazz. She’s developed skills that can transfer to non-music areas of life, too.
“A big part of playing music in a group is to listen to each other to be aware of each other’s ideas,” she said, “and so I think to have an open mind is really something you can use throughout life. I also feel it gives you the confidence to getting into new places where you’re not comfortable where you can push your limits a little bit.”
Most people may think that the only time to learn music is at a young age, but Hanson said he doesn’t think so.
“The hurdle is the fear. It is ‘I’m too old, it’s too late, I don’t have enough time, I can’t learn new things, I never understood fill in the blank,’” Hanson said, “and honestly there are certain things that are hard. But if you’re patient enough about them and you’re taking it step by step and you have somebody guiding you through it who is also going to be patient and understanding, most of the time it can be accomplished.”
Big Band Blue will be performing at The Royal Room on April 25 with Trace Generations, an ensemble put together by a former JNS instructor, Stuart MacDonald.