Story last updated at 6/5/2013 - 2:10 pm
Tlingit lullabies mingling with top tier jazz music? Most definitely. It's intriguing, poetic and approachable: the second annual Native Jazz Workshop will be held in Sitka the third week in July and there are open spots.
The culturally dynamic embrace between indigenous music and jazz is gaining momentum. At the forefront is a group called the Native Jazz Quartet. The members include co-founders Ed Littlefield on drums and Christian Fabian on bass, with Jason Marsalis playing vibes and Reuel Lubag on the piano.
Littlefield grew up in Sitka. His dad is Tlingit and his mom has spent the last 40 years studying and teaching the language. Littlefield started playing music at an early age, and would attend visits to a local elder, Charlie Joseph, with his mother.
"He was a very important man in the revitalization of music and culture in the Tlingit people," Littlefield said.
He recalls during one visit learning about dleigus, which he described as children's songs. The dleigus struck a chord with him, though it was decades later that he realized and claimed the impression they had made.
"As soon as I left Sitka I chose to peruse American jazz," Littlefield said. "That was good; I focused on one thing and wasn't split between two but I kick myself a little bit (because) I didn't continue to pursue the Native side of my musical background."
At a friend's suggestion, Littlefield starting thinking about adding his cultural heritage into his musical identity.
"I don't usually dream," he said, describing an experience he had in the summer of 2008. "But I dreamt the arrangement of a song in my head. I was playing the drums and singing a song from 20 years ago. It was called 'Hook Song.'"
At this point Littlefield was working at the Sitka Fine Arts Camp with Fabian, who has quite a colorful background.
When reached by phone last week it was late his time, as he lives in New York City, but his earnestness was so powerful it is difficult to give credit adequately.
"I come from a long line of Protestant ministers on my father's side," Fabian said. "There was always music in the house."
His parents had him choose between four instruments they thought to be the most universal: piano, violin, flute or guitar. Fabian went with the guitar.
"My oldest brother picked the violin and it sounded terrible when he was practicing, and my other brother picked the piano and I didn't want to play what he was playing and I didn't like the flute."
After one teacher that was too strict, another that was too lenient, Fabian said he lost interest, until he met the bass teacher of a member in a band his brother was in.
"That's when I was officially really serious about music," Fabian said.
Fabian went on to Holland to study music, where he was both introduced to jazz and met someone familiar with the Berklee College of Music in Boston. After his scholarship application was granted Fabian packed up and moved from Holland to Boston.
Before he graduated, with a dual major in film scoring and performance, Fabian was picked up as the bass player for the Lionel Hampton Big Band. He used a recommendation letter from the jazz icon to get his green card.
After Hampton passed away, Fabian continued to tour with remaining members of the band. In 2007, the trio with whom he'd been playing was invited to perform at the jazz festival in Sitka, which led to the proposition of teaching at the Sitka Fine Arts Camp.
Fabian had met Littlefield during trips to Moscow, Idaho, where Littlefield had attended school and is the home of the annual Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival.
"I didn't know Ed had a history of teaching in (Sitka)," Fabian said. "I really started knowing how capable he was at that camp."
Littlefield likewise recognized Fabian's superior musicianship.
"(Fabian) is a very well known jazz bass player; Lionel's last-chosen bass player," he said.
After their first summer teaching together, the musicians decided to collaborate; Littlefield would play drums on an album for Fabian, Fabian would play the bass on one for Littlefield. Fabian recommended Lubag, a second generation Filipino American to play the piano for the albums, as well as Jason Marsalis, from the New Orleans Marsalis jazz musical family.
After the albums were recorded, Littlefield wanted to tour Alaska.
"He was applying for grants and couldn't get the money to put up the tour," Fabian said. "Once we joined energies, when we helped each other, that's when the band took off."
Fabian said that Sitka resident Roger Hames was willing to help the band out, with one stipulation: they figure out a way that returns the favor to Sitka.
"In my mind, that's where the idea of the workshop started," Fabian said. "We had to think on a larger scale, take melodies from around the world, whatever is Native to them, Native melodies in the long term perspective, and invite people from all over to Sitka to show them how to make jazz songs, how to arrange these Native melodies in the idiom of jazz music."
Fabian said Hames' incentive helped them think beyond just their short term traveling goals.
"What can we do for the town?" Fabian said. "That's where the jazz workshop was born."
Though the music began with a dream linked to Littlefield's Tlingit heritage, it's developed to encompass a larger denotation of what "being Native" is.
"The 'Native' part of that whole thing has evolved into not just being Alaska Native or any kind of indigenous (people) of America," Littlefield said. "That's the essence of the Native Jazz Quartet: Swedish-German, African American and a Filipino. When we use the term 'Native' it means where we came from and what makes us who we are."
The workshop will use Tlingit melodies, and students will write arrangements based on those melodies. There will be group and private instruction. Littlefield said that with four instructors there's plenty of personal attention, and while students don't need to be seriously accomplished musicians, a basic understanding of music, how to read it, how to play one instrument or sing, would be helpful.
"If you want to come and learn about music and you're a novice, if you want to learn about jazz musical theory or composition, this is the place for you," Littlefield said.
"It's an open architecture," Fabian added. "Use anything; put it in a jazz background and put it in a contemporary light. We want to revise these melodies. Jazz is considered the universal language; we can take anything and drop it in a jazz background and the melodies and the music is more or less reborn. The tendencies and ideas have been there for quite awhile; we are basically just connecting the dots. You can only do that by opening up and making the experience accessible to everyone.
For more information on the summer workshop, visit www.nativejazzworkshop.com.
Amanda Compton is the staff writer for Capital City Weekly. She can be reached at Amanda.firstname.lastname@example.org.