FAIRBANKS — For the past century, jazz has expressed the American way of life, from 1920s speakeasies to 1960s avant garde to today’s television and movie soundtracks. Jazz reflects and influences American culture and is a true home-grown musical artform. But Edward Littlefield, drummer for the Native Jazz Quartet, is quick to point out that it’s not the only American musical art form, and it wasn’t the first.
Alaska Natives and American Indians have musical traditions that go back thousands of years, he said.
“There was music in the country all along,” said Littlefield.
Littlefield grew up in Sitka, where he grew up listening to jazz, as well as Tlingit lullabies his mother had learned from an elder. A few years ago, he started to combine the two, fusing the rhythm and harmonies of jazz with the melodies of the lullabies. “The melodies from some of these songs are thousands of years
old,” he noted.
The fusion of the styles was seamless, and Littlefield, along with bassist Christian Fabian, Jason Marsalis on vibraphone and Reuel Lubag on piano formed the Native Jazz Quartet in 2010.
“It’s a very unique project,” Littlefield said. “We take native melodies from around the country, and we arrange them as jazz songs. That’s basically it in a nutshell.”
Native, in this context, simply refers to the homes of the band members: Littlefield is from Alaska, Fabian is European, Marsalis’ family is based in New Orleans and Lubag’s family is from the Philippines.
The quartet is releasing a CD, “NJQ: Stories,” this spring on New York City’s legendary CAP Records label. It’s a fusion of tradition and jazz innovation that band members say could be expanded worldwide.
Each of the band members contributed a couple of songs to the album, which despite their diverse backgrounds, forms a cohesive whole.
“The beauty of jazz is you can put any influences into the form of music and make it sound refreshing or new,” Fabian said.
“We kind of made it into a swing version,” Littlefield said. “Swing tradition, but still contemporary. Really it’s kind of this common thread running through the whole album.”
Fabian said the quartet is giving new life to the old melodies.
“Basically, these melodies are reborn and getting attention that they wouldn’t otherwise get,” he said.
The quartet is on a tour of the Pacific Northwest and will perform in Fairbanks as part of the 25th annual University of Alaska Fairbanks Jazz Festival on April 10-13. Quartet members will be leading workshops throughout the festival and will perform at 3 p.m. Thursday and 7 p.m. Friday in the Davis Concert Hall.
25th annual Fairbanks Jazz Festival
Next week, more than 500 high school students from around the state will converge on the University of Alaska Fairbanks to participate in the 2013 Jazz Fest.
The festival was started 25 years ago by former UAF professor John Harbaugh as a way to bring jazz to youths in Alaska. Harbaugh, an acclaimed trumpet player who now teaches at Eastern Washington University, is planning to attend the 2013 festival, which this year is under the director of James Bicigo.
The students will participate in workshops taught by guest artists Darmon Meader, voice; Jason Marsalis, vibes; Diego Rivera, saxophone; Jennifer Krupa, trombone; Kelly Rossum, trumpet; Nathaniel Smith, cello; Reuel Lubag, piano; Christian Fabian, bass;
Ed Littlefield, drums; and Harbaugh, trumpet.
Guest artists will perform at 3 p.m. Thursday,
April 11, in the UAF Jazz Concert in Davis Concert Hall.
At 7 p.m. Thursday, the Northern Lights String Orchestra and UAF Jazz Band, with guest artists, will perform.
On Friday, April 12, workshop participants will perform between 1 and 4 p.m. in Davis Concert Hall.
At 7 p.m., the Fairbanks Community Band and guest artists will perform at 7 p.m.
Beginning at 1 p.m. Saturday, the FLOT Showcase Singers, Honor Choir, Honor Middle School Jazz Band, Honor High School Jazz Band and the Directors’ Big Band will perform.
All performances are free and open to the public. Workshops are for students only.
For information, contact the UAF Music Department, www.uaf.edu/music
If you go
What: Native Jazz Quartet
When: 3 p.m. Thursday, April 11, and 7 p.m. Friday, April 12
Where: Davis Concert Hall on the UAF campus
Contact staff writer Julie Stricker at 459-7532.