Saxophonist Jonathan Parker has returned to D.C. with a new swing jazz album.
By Kirsten Obadal
Nerdy, yet uber-cool; a classically trained musician who likes to perform in a beer hall: Jazz saxophonist Jonathan Parker, 29, is a study in contrasts.
He arrives for his interview with a latte in hand from Misha’s Coffeehouse in his native Alexandria to discuss his new swing jazz album, Interloper. He has just returned to Old Town after a two-year tour of Shanghai, China, where he played scores of gigs.
The melodies on his new album sometimes sway like a third martini, sometimes linger like a kiss, and sometimes rollick like a fast drive in a convertible. One feels as if they’re at a WWII dance in a modern time warp. Parker’s sax and flute are backed up by trombone, trumpet, piano, guitar and percussion.
He was ten years old when he made friends with a classmate who was taking saxophone lessons. Parker dabbled until high school, when he says it suddenly began to define his identity: “There were the jocks, the math-letes, and I guess I fit in to the band and music set.”
By junior year he was getting serious and applied and matriculated at Oberlin College.
“In high school, there were maybe one or two serious musicians,” Parker recalls. “But at Oberlin, it was a shock to arrive and discover that all of the one or two from many different high schools were there, and I was nothing special. For a good while I thought I wouldn’t make it, but something clicked in junior year. That was when I really started believing I could be a musician.”
Parker attended a seminar by a jazz performer who was working in Shanghai, who set him up with contacts for performance venues and, with four others, Parker was off to the Orient for a two-year stint.
“Western music venues are viewed as prestigious in China,” Parker says. “People are not there so much as music aficionados but for that Western atmosphere. We did a lot of corporate gigs for Western companies that have opened branches in China.”
Parker notes that the Chinese value live entertainment, whereas Americans see it as an unnecessary luxury. “It’s a shame that school arts programs in the U.S. are always getting cut,” he laments.
Parker returned stateside to complete a Master’s Degree at The Eastman Kodak school. Returning to Washington, Parker used school contacts to form an octet and later began meeting the “talented and professional” moonlighters from military bands to begin making recordings and performing at local DC area venues.
In 2010, he composed his first album, and performs regularly at the Wonderland Ballroom downtown. He maintains a day job and teaches as well, but with his level of talent that won’t seem to be a necessity for long.
Parker moonlights himself with a spiritual music group, the Theodosy Jazz Collective, which has performed in Canterbury, England and is slated to appear at a Christian convention in Salt Lake City next month. Unconventional venues are a preference for Parker, who eschews the fancy for the raw.
“I prefer the less musically educated clientele at Wonderland,” he says. “You can come as you are and drink Pabst Blue Ribbon and carry on a conversation. Multiple generations mingle together there. This is not the case at the serious venues such as Blues Alley, which has expensive cover charges and drink minimums. My target demographic is not a serious jazz music aficionado, but someone who wants it for the atmosphere, or is just discovering swing jazz.”
He says that he composes over breakfast, goes to work at a law firm, and then in the evening heads out to perform. Parker notes the level of professionalism of the musicians in his current live venue octet, and notes his gratitude for having encountered them.
“Bill Mulligan plays with the Navy Commodores. He and the others can see a completely new score and bring it to life almost immediately.”
Parker notes that he may have maxed out the DC music scene and sets his sights on New York City in order to collaborate with yet more other artists. “But I really prefer living in DC,” he muses, “because New York is a little too dirty and crowded.”
Parker’s new album “Wonderland” is available at Jonathan-Parker.com.