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A lifetime in jazz improvisation

Marc Seales opens the Speakers Forum.

Marc Seales’ tales of jazz hits the right note for the seventh season of the Library Speakers Forum, Sept. 19.

A jazz lumminary who, after playing piano with the greats recently struck out on his own, Seales speaks about the changing role of jazz in American culture. Seales, who teaches at University of Washington, but “came up” playing music at local Seattle venues, has witnessed decades of jazz history and has a nonacademic take on an improvisational form.

“We played the current jazz music of the day, not 20-year-old jazz, not 40-year-old jazz. Jazz has become like classical music, like ‘museum music,’” Seales said, “The whole idea of people claiming this music as ‘art’ is BS.”

Seales recalls with some fondness a time when jazz artists were some of the honest artisans of the music world.

“For Louis Armstrong it was a job, it wasn’t about art,” he said. “Just like for musicians in symphonies – it’s a job. If it was art they were after, they’d play chamber music.”

Seales knows the jazz world first-hand; he learned his trade playing piano in a variety of unglamorous venues, from weddings and bar mitzvahs to cocktail parties and piano bars.

“ I worked,” he said. “I had a job playing piano. That’s what I did. I played everything I could play to make money. It was hard. And I didn’t have a good attitude about it.”

But Seales realized in retrospect he was learning his craft. He refined it in 25 years as a sideman to jazz greats like Benny Carter, Joe Henderson, Eric Alexander, Don Lanphere, Mark Murphy and Slide Hampton.

Knowledge is the place from which one may improvise, Seales believes. Jazz, with its freewheeling image, has to use hard knowledge as the springboard,.

“You can’t just invent stuff,” he said. “You have to have had some kind of contact (with it). It’s very difficult to do something without having done it before.”

Seales’ own jazz roots can be found in a musical family. His mother’s singing as she worked around the house was part of every day and his dad’s tapes of music from around the world were the background noise for Seales’ upbringing in Okinawa. The next stop for the peripatetic family – San Francisco in 1967 – brought Seales into one of the most fertile place and time for popular music.

Still, he left for college to study economics and become a lawyer. It wasn’t until his sophomore year that auditioning and getting into the Western Washington University band in Bellingham infected him with the jazz bug.

It’s only recently, turning 50, that Seales has taken the next step, moving up into the primary role, the leader.

“You make a decision (to step out),” he said. “Circumstances present themselves to make that decision, job opportunities. Over time I just wanted to have more control. I decided to just do it.”

The transition wasn’t impulsive, however. Seales worked at building a repertoire, refining his material with a regular gig at Tula’s in Seattle. His most recent CD, “A Time, a Place, a Journey” (Origin Records), features original tracks in a style dubbed jazz-fusion.

Now a seasoned artist in midlife, Seales has had ample time to observe the contours of the careers of his fellow musicians. He’s had time to see what’s worked what hasn’t, who’s survived by what strategies, and who’s self-destructed.

“To make it work, (the successful artists) had to make compromises,” he said.

For Seales, the compromise was leaving New York City. In 1980, he took a shot at that big-time career, but the sojourn was brief.

“I didn’t like it,” he said. “I learned I could get work with a club date band, but could I make this other stuff happen.”

With opportunity in Seattle, he came home to play the music he loves.

“I just learned it growing up and I’m 50 years old,” he said. “I got to play music with people I like. It just worked out that way.”

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At the podium

The Bainbridge Island library-sponsored Speakers Forum opens a year’s worth of conversation about contemporary issues and ideas. The roster of speakers includes:

• Sept. 19: Marc Seales on “Jazz and Its Historical Place in America.”

• Oct. 10: Edward Miles on “The Future of the Ocean: Prospects for Sustainability.”

• Oct. 24: Jill Jean, “Creating Seattle’s New Library: A Place of Learning, A Place of Drama.”

• Nov. 7: Admiral Bill Center, “Can We Rebuild a Positive Consensus in Support of International Trade?”

• Nov. 14: Anand A. Yang, “India: The Next Superpower?”

• Feb. 6: Bill Holm, “Sundogs and Eagle Down: The Indian Paintings of Bill Holm.”

Series tickets are $45, or $60 for patron tickets. Single event tickets are $10 at the door. Leave payment with order form at the Bainbridge library desk or call 842-4156 for more information.

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