“Keeping the jazz art alive” was how Jazz in the Neighborhood’s Mario Guarneri augured a performance last month at the Dresher Ensemble Rehearsal Studio in Oakland, and what happened looked and sounded like a prognosis of good health.
The Jawn-tet, a multiethnic Bay Area quintet in their late teens and early twenties, certified the value of JITN’s Emerging Artists program by serving up vitalizations of standards alongside a couple of worthy originals. As drummer Genius Wesley and pianist Luis Peralta double-teamed a fascinating lead-in to Juan Tizol’s “Perdido,” smiles spread across the small, socially distanced audience. Solos on John Coltrane’s “Naima,” shared with saxophonist Tommy Noble, guitarist Jed Holtman, and bassist Isaac Coyle, showed imagination and technique unabridged by the youth of the players. Peralta, throughout the evening, tickled and tricked out expectations with a touch of Thelonious Monk, and Wesley, aside from eliciting the tonal range of his drum set with powerfully sequenced polyrhythms, emerged as the ensemble’s trusted pilot, timing and undergirding each one’s effort.
A few weeks later, Wesley and Peralta talked over lunch about their own perspectives on the state of the art, how they’d come to it, and where they sit with it now. The pair, both now 19, first met around four years ago in the Young Musicians Choral Orchestra, a no-cost program for underprivileged East Bay youth providing cross-genre musical training, along with academic reinforcement and personal development. “We’d start at 8 a.m. and go till 4 or 5 p.m.,” says Wesley. “We had theory classes, piano classes, and we all had to sing.” “The director, [trumpeter] Geechi Taylor, brought me into the program so I could meet Genius,” adds Peralta, “because he wanted the jazz portion of the program to become stronger. He also thought it would be good for me to play with other musicians of my own age.”
Prior to entering the YMCO, Wesley, at age 10, had started private drum lessons with Sly Randolph, in Richmond. Formerly from New York City, where he’d played for Broadway shows and with the funk/soul band Mystic Merlin, Randolph relocated to the Bay Area in 1981, where he worked with Lavay Smith, Marcus Shelby, and others. More recently, he started teaching with the Oaktown Jazz Workshops, founded in Oakland in 1994 by the late trumpeter Khalil Shaheed and, like the YMCO, targeting children from low-income families.
Wesley began weekly beginner classes at Oaktown when he was nine, and he’s maintained his connection with the organization ever since. He began private lessons with Randolph at 10, the same age the teacher had begun studying with neighbor drummer Bill English in 1950s Harlem. “I could see that he loved the drums,” Randolph, in a phone conversation, remembers about the young Wesley. “And it wasn’t that hard for me to get my pedagogy across to him. There were just a few things to be cleaned up, so he could focus a little bit better.”
Randolph encouraged his pupil to gig with working artists. “At an early age, he was playing with people like [singer] Faye Carol, and I said, ‘you have to stick with her as long as you can, because you will learn a lot.’ Like with a lot of the drummers coming up in New York, whose way of getting into the business was through [jazz vocalist] Betty Carter. One of the challenges is, you have to be able to play what I call ‘quiet fire’. . . it’s not about your ego and playing fancy licks.” This writer first encountered Wesley in his early teens, accompanying singer Kalil Wilson at the Club Deluxe, in the Haight-Ashbury. “He’s very empathetic,” Randolph says about Wesley’s role as accompanist. “He’s able to supplant his ego around his talent and address the music as paramount.”
Wesley performed with Wilson for several years and joined the singer on his 2018 album of originals, Time Stops, recorded for the Oakland-based double0one label. “Everyone just said I sounded good for my age, that I sounded like an old man, but I didn’t know where to place certain things,” Wesley recalls. “And I wanted to find people of my own age who could also play, where I’d feel like I’m more comfortable, because we all kind of experience the same things. I’m not gonna necessarily relate to somebody who’s married and has to pay a mortgage and take care of babies.” Peralta helped connect him with saxophonist Noble and bass player Coyle, whom he’d played with in the SFJAZZ High School All-Stars ensemble and who in turn recruited guitarist schoolmate Holtman, to form up the Jawn-tet.
About the band name, “I discovered that a lot of people from Philly use the word ‘jawn’ to mean a person, a place, or a thing,” explains Peralta. “So we just thought it was a really funny word. “It just kind of came about,” says Wesley, referencing drummer Art Blakey’s formation of his post-bop Jazz Messengers in the 1950s. “I feel like Blakey just got together his favorite people to play with and said, let’s do a thing.”
Peralta attended the Oakland School for the Arts, where he found himself “more invested in music than a lot of people there.” He started private lessons with John McCarthy, on the piano faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music since the mid-1970s. “I’m by no means a good classical pianist, but he’s a great teacher,” testifies Peralta. “Especially over these last couple of years, he’s taught me how to listen deeper, and also timing and form.”
“Daisy Newman [founder of the YMCO, who passed early this year] asked if I would take on kids who she felt were talented and really wanted to be pushed, and that’s how Luis came to me,” McCarthy recounts by phone. “He wasn’t remedial, but his way of playing the piano was getting in his way, so I talked about things I consider healthy, in terms of technique. He doesn’t want to have formulas per se, or to be told what to play, so we also talked a great deal about composers’ intentions, and channeling that through our own psyches. There was a moment, about a year after our lessons began when his coach in the All-Star band, Rebeca Mauleon, said to him, ‘What’s going on? There’s something different. And better.’ And I think I was the difference.” He laughs. “I think she was hearing a more resonant tone, and more lyricism, because he was learning to play legato, and with color. Luis actually plays Bach well, and his playing of Albeniz’s Evocación is poetic and sublime.”
These qualities are handsomely showcased in the setting of the Jawn-tet, where the fountaining of youth combines quality with mutual surprise and challenge. “I’d found that you can get really, really intellectual and deep in the music, and then be scared to play a note,” says Peralta. “What I wished I saw more was a more collaborative experience, not just a head, a solo, and the head out, when it can be funny, joking around. If you listen to Art Tatum, he played all sorts of funny things, and even Mozart had pieces like that.”
“We’re trying not to be too serious about it,” says Wesley about the Jawn-tet. “I send them a set list, but then we end up playing maybe 25 percent of it. And I like to push people in the band to play things they would never usually play. [Guitarist] Jed just kind of plays whatever he wants, so then I like to make Jed look at me, and when he looks up, I know I did something! I love moments like that.”
“I can play things that will make Genius laugh,” responds Peralta, “but he’s very clear about what’s going on. The time is never wavering, it never feels scared or timid, it’s always right there where it needs to be. I know it’s strong enough where if I try new things, it won’t sacrifice the music, I’ll be supported.”
Both young players bear a conflicted child-parent relationship to the region they were raised in. The local music scene “isn’t very big, and there’s people moving, because they need the money,” Peralta points out. “It’s difficult to be a musician because you don’t have really strong autonomy for the music. People get complacent, it becomes people playing for cash, and all the good people leave.”
“Everyone’s kind of chilling, kind of stagnating here,” Wesley laments. “I’ve been gigging around here since I was 12, and I’ve been bored [at times], but I didn’t have anything to do about it.”
Peralta was given a scholarship to the New School in New York, but has completed only one semester, and “right now I’m deciding whether or not I want to go back, whether I want that music degree. I would appreciate being in New York, of course, but having to deal with music classes that don’t make me more creative, don’t inspire me, after a certain level, it becomes arbitrary. When you tell people there are requirements to fill, I think you’re putting music in a box, and I think that’s why a lot of the music sounds the same now. And then, when you spend four years of your life and a whole bunch of money to get a degree, you’re in debt, and you have to do whatever you can to live.”
“I used to think New York was the place, but I think it might be too congested, so many people there trying to do the same thing,” says Wesley. “I just want to do my own thing and be as free as I can be.” In that regard, he admits, “I think the Bay Area is a good place to shed and to get better.” He’s still living with his family in a West Oakland home built in 1917, when his great-grandmother was born.
“It’s a good balance between city and being able to get away,” agrees Peralta, who lives in East Oakland. “I can be home and practice. If it was New York, I’d be feeling that I have to get out every day. Here there’s enough people that like and mentor me, so I’m not all on my own.” A couple of years ago, he and Wesley were invited to gig with stellar trumpeter and composer Ambrose Akinmusire, who was then living in Oakland. “He messaged me on Instagram, saying, ‘We need to play,’” Wesley marvels. “We went to his spot at 10 p.m. and played for a couple of hours, and that went well.”
Akinmusire recommended Wesley to the University of Applied Sciences and Arts in Basel, Switzerland, where the trumpeter is on the jazz faculty, along with American drummer Jeff Ballard and percussionist José Rossy. Wesley secured a scholarship for the three-year program, which he describes as “more modern” than those of many American colleges. Peralta, while continuing his studies with McCarthy, is “exploring other options, which might be getting a degree in something else, maybe STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics].”
In the meantime, Wesley and Peralta stay on local call. They no longer feel they need to prove themselves to older artists. “If they call me for a gig, then I’ve already done that,” Wesley remarks. He recently joined veteran poet Avotcja for her streamed birthday celebration from the Bird & Beckett bookstore. “I like the sound in there, I think the books help it,” says the drummer. “And Avotcja always talks about things that need to be talked about. I think poetry and jazz go hand-in-hand.” He has also enjoyed performing at the Sound Room, “because it’s pretty intimate, and you gotta listen. As long as people you love are there, then I’m gonna play as best I can.”
Their teachers are admiring how their students have come to shine where they were raised. “Even at that young age, they’re listening to one another,” testifies Randolph. “And Genius is expanding on the traditions of swing music, bebop, hard bop, and mainstream jazz, and his voice is still in development.” “I think I learn as much from Luis as he does from me,” says McCarthy, who was inspired by Peralta to begin his own mornings with exercises in jazz improvisation and to start lessons with veteran jazz pianist Larry Dunlap. “Luis has gone to a world where classical musicians don’t go, he’s not trapped by being literal about notation, and his whole wiring is so comfortable.”
Peralta and Wesley will appear with bassist Giulio Xavier at The Mellow in the Haight-Ashbury on Sept. 25, and Wesley will drum with Xavier’s group at the Black Cat on Aug. 29.