Female bassist upends the jazz tradition at Starbucks’ benefit concert
Story by Bonnie Rochman, videos by Jessey Dearing and Joshua Trujillo
Duke Ellington. Miles Davis. Charlie Parker. Louis Armstrong. Thelonious Monk.
The list of revered male jazz musicians goes on and on, with scarcely a woman among them. Sophie Parsons wants to change that.
Parsons, 17, has been playing the bass for five years, ever since she auditioned in middle school to play piano and alto sax. By her own description, she nailed the audition, so much so that the band teacher said: “You have a good sense of rhythm, and we need a bass player.”
That audition came toward the end of seventh grade. Parsons spent the summer learning how to play the towering bass. “It was probably two feet taller than me,” she said.
She took a lesson or two from a teacher to grasp the fundamentals but learned the rest on her own by watching YouTube videos and practicing, practicing, practicing.
Now in her senior year at Mountlake Terrace High School, Parsons — the only female in her school’s jazz band — participated for the third year in a quintessential Seattle jazz event: Hot Java Cool Jazz, a benefit concert presented by Starbucks on Friday. This is the concert’s 23rd year, which organizers believe makes it the city’s longest-standing youth jazz showcase. The event, which features the top five area high school jazz bands, honors the young musicians’ talent and directs all proceeds back to the schools.
This year’s show at Seattle’s storied, 2,800-seat Paramount Theatre raised about $12,000 per school to help fund jazz programming and trips. Over the years, more than $680,000 has been donated to the participating schools’ music programs through Hot Java Cool Jazz.
The money collected is put to good use: High school jazz bands travel frequently; The best get invited to the Essentially Ellington jazz competition held annually in New York City. Fifteen bands from across the country compete, and this year, three of them hail from the Seattle area. “This just shows the caliber of what we’re getting at Hot Java Cool Jazz,” said June Ashley, manager of Starbucks community partnerships. “It’s a really magical night.”
‘The pressure of playing in a really amazing place’: Paramount Theatre sells out
Inside the elegant Paramount, the energy and excitement is palpable and distinct from competitions, where students are under pressure to perform. Instead, there is “the pressure of playing in a really amazing place,” said Ashley. “They get on stage and are so composed, but backstage they are running around like high school kids.”
Hot Java Cool Jazz launched in 1995, the same year that Starbucks released its first music CD, Blue Note Blend, Vol. 1, in its stores. The CDs were enthusiastically received by coffee-lovers; Starbucks sold more than 75,000 in two weeks.
Inspired by the warm reception — and nudged along by inquiries from parents of jazz musicians wondering how Starbucks might help support local high school jazz efforts — several Starbucks partners decided to create a jazz fundraiser for these programs. On the day of the first show, just 150 tickets had been sold, though nearly 1,000 people ended up coming. Over two decades, Hot Java Cool Jazz has assembled a considerable fan base. This year’s performance sold out more than a week before the event.
Starbucks stopped selling CDs in 2015, in favor of a streaming partnership with Spotify. “Times have changed,” said Holly Hinton, director of music and artist partnerships at Starbucks.
But the company’s commitment to Hot Java Cool Jazz has only strengthened. “Our passion for music and community engagement remains,” said Hinton. “It’s so cool to see those kids get up on that stage and deliver.”
The five bands are selected through a “blind” listening screen in which members of Starbucks entertainment team and the Musicians Partner Network — an internal group of partners who get together to play music — vote on the most talented high school bands, rating them on criteria such as soulfulness and improvisation in addition to technique and musicianship.
“It’s an amazing way to give back to our community,” said Ashley.
Female jazz musicians are a rare breed
For Parsons, it’s an opportunity to show other girls that jazz doesn’t just have to be the purview of men. Young girls regularly come up to Parsons after concerts to compliment her playing; she takes the opportunity to try to inspire them. “I say no matter what your gender is, you can dominate this,” said Parsons, whose musical ability runs in the family. She describes her grandmother, a pianist, as “Beethoven in female form.”
Harkening back to its roots, jazz has been a showplace for men, though female vocalists such as Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone also have left their mark on the genre. But female jazz musicians are a rare breed.
“There’s definitely a scarcity of girls doing jazz, especially in high school,” said Parsons, whose band consists of about 25 musicians. Being the only girl in her jazz band, she says, is like “having a bunch of brothers who tease you.”
All that teasing can serve as motivation to excel.
“I love seeing people’s faces when I say I play the bass,” said Parsons. “I say, ‘Yeah, I play the bass, and I rock it.’ I love showing up the guys.”
Student musicians featured in videos
Videos shown between each school performance at The Paramount highlighted the thoughtful and fun answers students had to a series of questions asked a few weeks before the performances. You can see all the videos below.