Hot Java Cool Jazz: Joy of playing live music again is center stage at fundraising show

Collage of young musicians smiling and holding their instruments, two girls with saxaphones and a boy with guitar, with line-art illustration of trumpet player

For many established high school jazz bands in the Seattle area, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the usual motivators and outlets that help drive the countless hours of practice – no more public gigs, no more high-profile concerts, no more opportunities to hang out and play with friends.

“We’re a highly competitive jazz program,” says Jared Sessink, a teacher and music director at Garfield High School in Seattle, which regularly plays and places in top national jazz music competitions. “In the past, it’s been very driven by this idea of, it’s about competitions, it’s about winning whatever festival is next. But that got totally dismantled, and it was gone.

“What we dealt with in the pandemic was: did you eat breakfast, are you still in your pajamas, maybe you should go for walk.”

Which is why Sessink feels especially hopeful for the opportunity to play at Starbucks 25th Annual Hot Java Cool Jazz on March 18 at the Paramount Theatre in Seattle. The benefit concert, which returns after a two-year hiatus due to COVID, brings together five of the top high school jazz bands in the state in a non-competitive format in a premier venue. Hot Java has raised more than $1 million for local school jazz music programs since its inception.

Starbucks interviewed over 40 student musicians and all five band directors from the featured high schools, then created five films to be shown between bands during the performance. The other films can be found at the bottom of this story.

“In some ways, I’m actually grateful that there’s been this disruption, because we’ve lost touch with why we play music,” Sessink says. “Hopefully, we’re coming back with a fresh lens. It’s not just about getting into this event; it’s about caring for your mental health and playing because you love to play and it brings you joy.”

The high schools scheduled to perform this year include Edmonds-Woodway, Garfield, Mount Si, Mountlake Terrace and Roosevelt.

“Since 1995, Starbucks has been proud to celebrate young artists in our hometown,” says June Ashley, manager of Starbucks Community Partnerships. “This concert is a great way to support the young talent in our community, along with Seattle’s rich musical heritage. It truly is a magical night.”

Many students who’ll play at Hot Java expressed sentiments similar to Sessink’s, the Garfield director, about looking inward during the pandemic, or adjusting their focus, or rethinking their relationship with music.

Illustration by Jasmin Nguyen

Clio Vos, a senior at Garfield who plays the alto saxophone, took advantage of newfound time to expand her skills, arranging and composing music and working on digital music projects. Ryan Acheson, a junior at Mountlake Terrace who also plays the alto saxophone, searched for new sounds to inspire him, diving into more modern jazz musicians like Kneebody and Kenny Garrett. Gabriel Espitia, Acheson’s bandmate who plays the drums, used the pandemic to “reset my thinking, and focus on the important things and not waste time.”

Mariel Nolan, a junior at Mount Si who plays the tenor saxophone, has been coming to Hot Java concerts with her father since middle school. During the pandemic, she says, “there wasn’t the gratification of performing and playing with other people. Jazz was so frustrating. We’d have to sit in our rooms, play our parts by ourselves, with a little backing part in your ear.

“Now, we do have these big opportunities, and it’s so great to have that to look forward to, and to be able to perform again, to have something to look forward to together and to push forward together,” she says. “Now, we have a goal in mind of how we want to sound like and where we want to go as a band. I love that, there’s more adrenaline and more push to the music and more that we’re fighting for.”

One student with a unique story is Taiyo Fuwa, a sophomore who plays the saxophone and arrived in the U.S. last summer, specifically to play jazz with the nationally renowned Roosevelt program. He’d grown up near Nagoya, Japan, inspired to choose his instrument after listening to Sonny Rollins and his seminal work, “Saxophone Colossus.” But the nearest jazz program was a 90-minute drive away, a trip he made once a week for two years. His saxophone teacher in Japan was connected to Roosevelt and helped him get placed with a host family in Seattle.

“My dream is to be a musician; I came to Seattle to be a great player,” he says. “I’m usually not so talkative, but when I play jazz, I can show my real feelings. I was a nervous kid, I couldn’t say my feelings to people because I was very shy, but when I grab my instrument, I can show my real feelings and my sound to everybody.”

For his band director at Roosevelt, Scott Brown, who has taught for 38 years and was recently inducted into the Washington Music Educators Hall of Fame, the key word coming out of the pandemic is “joy.”

“Being able to get together at the beginning of this school year, being in the same room, making music together, it’s a joy, it’s a total joy,” he says. “I think you’ll hear a similar thing from most music educators: there’s a renewed sense of joy in making music and being together. The pandemic has reminded us how precious it is, and how fleeting those moments are, and how quickly they can be taken away.”

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Artist Damon Brown celebrates Black culture and community in Starbucks latest drinkware collection