Featured Musician - April 2014  

Jonathan Swanson standing at piano
Jonathan Swanson

Name: Jonathan Swanson

Instrument: piano/composer.

Early Years/Education: Grew up in McMinnville until my family moved to Beaverton when I was in junior high, so I went to Sunset High School. That’s where I got into jazz. From the ages of five to thirteen, I studied classical music, practicing four hours a day. When I was a sophomore at Sunset, I remember practicing Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue” at the school, and the jazz band director heard me.

That was Greg Hall. “How would you like the jazz orchestra to back you up on this piece,” he said. That’s how he got me in there, that was the enticement. At that time, I just didn’t understand jazz, I just didn’t get it. I was a classical player. I didn’t understand the chords with these alterations, it didn’t make sense to me. Then, we started practicing other stuff. We did the music of Tadd Dameron, Dizzy Gillespie charts, cool stuff. One day he handed me a recording, to prepare for a state jazz competition, a big band arrangement and asked me to transcribe the Lyle Mays piano solo. I took it very seriously. At the state competition, which was being held at Mt. Hood Community College, our band won for best big band, and I won the outstanding soloist award.

Greg Hall kept saying, “Go to a music conservatory.” But I wanted a real job, like being a doctor. My older brother was already a pre-med student. My parents wanted me to play music for fun. So I went to Seattle Pacific University, majoring in chemistry and completed all the pre-med requirements. I hated it. My brother and I were in the same classes. One day he said, “You’re never going to become a doctor, you’re always in the practice room!”

Seattle Pacific actually had a small jazz band made up of students and people from the outside, so I continued playing in a jazz band while I was there. I also started playing with a bass player who was a cousin of a friend of mine, and we put an act together with a singer. We entered the SPU talent show and won it.

Then we thought we should try and get a gig, so we drove around Seattle looking at places and we saw this upright piano in a cool Italian restaurant on Eastlake called Serafina. We thought,”Why don’t we ask the owner if she’s interested in having music?” She said, “Come in on Friday night.” We get there, and it’s packed. So we played quietly, more like ambient music. We also dressed up so we made a good impression. They fed us a really nice meal as well.

That led to a regular gig for the next eight years, and to other gigs like the Sorrento Hotel in downtown Seattle. I was still studying to take the MCAT (medical college admission test) while gigging around Seattle. One night while playing at Serafina, a group of Swedish businessmen came in and asked me if I was coming to Sweden to play. I told them I was going to be a doctor, and they responded that there’s so many doctors [but] not enough jazz pianists. That left an impression on me. It made me think about that.

Portland: I came back to Portland to get a music degree at Portland State University. There I studied with Darrell Grant and played for the vocal jazz ensemble. He got me to the next level. I then moved to McMinnville for financial reasons. Out there I continued playing music in the restaurants and wineries. I opened my own recording studio called INSTEPMUSIC, which I still operate, and I helped my sister start an internet business. In the process of helping her, I learned computer programming, and now I work on developing websites. After a few years I decided to return to Portland.

Jonathan Swanson at piano

I now have a handmade Yamaha S6 piano, a favorite of jazz players, in my recording studio. Through working with Lynn Darroch on the “Grand Piano Series” segment of his “Bright Moments” show on KMHD, I got to record many of the top Portland piano players in my studio in Portland. I’ve also created the website portlandjazzpianist.com as a resource. At the moment, I have more studio work now than gigs. I also do arranging for musical theater.

One of my gigs is church pianist for the Mission of the Atonement in Beaverton. This church is a mix of Catholic and Lutheran. They wanted a jazz player, someone who could improvise. They received a grant for a jazz liturgy, and they hired me to help them put that together. Most of their music is just a melody line or chant, and you have to harmonize the rest of it. They wanted me to take the traditional Catholic music and “jazzify” it. Vince Guaraldi did the same thing for Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. Jazz pianist Weber Iago helps me, and Andre St. James is our bassist.

Musical Influences: I’d have to go back to the classical composers like Chopin and Rachmaninoff. Then there’s Billy Strayhorn, Hampton Hawes, Erroll Garner, John Lewis. Lewis studied classical music, too, so he plays jazz with a classical tinge to it, which I love. And I‘d include the people I collaborate with, like Weber Iago.

Most Satisfying Experience: There are so many, that’s hard to pin down. Just being able to play in the church on a Christmas Eve with a jazz trio ... how often does that happen? As jazz players, we’re often background music. The nice thing about a church gig is they’re listening and they really appreciate it, you get that affirmation. When people are talking over your music it’s distracting, you almost lose your self-esteem.

Favorite Recordings: Early on, I loved the music of Take 6, the vocal jazz group with incredible harmonies, then Bobby McFerrin’s early stuff, and Harry Connick, Jr.’s first album; then there’s Oscar Peterson “Night Train”; all of Benny Green’s recordings, especially with guitarist Russell Malone. I love Christian McBride’s current stuff. I also like singers like Tony Bennett, in particular, “The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album,” and “Duets.” Love Amy Winehouse’s music and all the standard jazz recordings like Dave Brubeck “Take Five.” Love classic Amad Jamal and Andre Kitaev’s music.

Discography: I’m on a lot of recordings but have not yet put out my own CD. I recorded, produced, arranged and played on (vocalist) MichalAngela’s first record, “Portland Rain,” which also featured David Evans on saxophone, Tim Gilson on bass and Charlie Doggett on drums. I’m also on the latest recording of [Barcelona] guitarist Pere Soto.

Gigs: I’m currently working on two musicals as an arranger. One is a version of Cinderella called “Cinderella Supergirl.” Scott Jackman wrote the melody and the lyrics. Another is called “Second Chances,” which is a musical for Tenley Webb. In addition, I arrange for Seattle Children’s Theater. Every Sunday you can find me behind the keyboard at MOTA in Beaverton.

Future Plans: To continue with my various projects — one of which is improving the electric keyboard. It’ll have eighty-eight keys with weighted action, but [it will be] lightweight and can connect to an iPad. It’s really a hobby for me.

Other: A lot of ideas happen in that state of complete relaxation. For example, Rachmaninoff was hypnotized in order to help him write his Piano Concerto No. 2. His First Symphony was a failure, and he got really depressed and hired a psychiatrist. For me, if I’m half asleep, I can almost visualize all the parts in an arrangement; when I wake up, all this clutter happens and you lose that vivid state.

-- by Rita Rega