Song of Ourselves

Jazz Night School puts down roots.

I’ve only been talking with Erik Hanson for an hour, but I’m already feeling confident that I can become a passable jazz musician in the next five years. The founder and artistic director of Jazz Night School is very convincing.

“Anybody can do this,” Hanson says. “How many things are you really knowledgeable about now, maybe even expert at, that you’ve collected from your job, things you maybe have no interest in but you really know? Now you take something that you’re interested in doing and plug away at it for five years and guess what, it’s gonna work. You’re gonna be able to play.”

Hanson has been making this pitch, a direct appeal to skeptical adults out of the habit of learning new things, since he started Jazz Night School in his South Seattle home in 2008. The community-centric, all-ages and all-levels music education organization has been housed there ever since—until now. On a sunny, frigid December morning, we’re chatting in the middle of a construction zone, as four separate construction teams—framing, plumbing, electrical and HVAC—work to get Jazz Night School’s new permanent home ready for a January opening. It has to be; the next 10-week class session starts on Jan. 7.

The 1,600-square-foot, vaguely pentagonal building sits on an otherwise dilapidated elbow of Rainier Ave. S, a stretch of connective tissue between Columbia City and Hillman City. Hanson and JNS board president Dave Montoure take me on the grand tour of the space-in-progress, weaving through the steel framing that divides the building’s interior like metallic ribs. It’s a short tour; the space is small but efficient—two ADA accessible bathrooms, a kitchenette, four small ensemble rooms and one larger area, with windows onto Rainier, that will double as rehearsal space for larger groups (like big bands) and a performance area. With the school’s crammed schedule, sound containment is a top priority so that every room can be in use at once. This way a small jazz combo will be uninterrupted by the beats of the Latin jazz group next door, and vice versa.

When Hanson launched JNS, he had no idea that some nine years later he’d be opening his home up to so many students—Night School regularly has an enrollment of around 150 students per session (thankfully the big bands have been rehearsing at Rainier Arts Center of late). In the wake of the 2008 economic crash, Hanson—a jazz pianist, composer and arranger who studied at Berklee College of Music—was looking around Seattle for a place people could learn to play and was coming up empty. So he and his wife launched it themselves.

The model was simple: a jazz school open to players with all levels of experience and all ages. They started with just a few students; at first Hanson taught everyone himself. “But people just kept coming,” he says, “and we just kept growing one or two people at a time.” As demand increased, Hanson built out rehearsal rooms in his home to accommodate the enthusiastic students, but even early on he saw the end of line for that approach.

“After a few years of being a for-profit, I realized that you can’t price tuition at what it costs to provide the experiences,” Hanson says. “You just can’t. If everybody did that, nobody would get education.” JNS become a nonprofit five years ago; the organization now offers relatively affordable tuition, as well as a generous tuition waiver program for those with demonstrated need.

The move to a permanent space is a long time coming. JNS started the search three years ago and at one point considered a building in SoDo. “That would’ve been a big change because we’re part of the fabric down here,” Hanson says. “We’re nested.” After asking for input from their student community, they decided to stay and be part of the arts and jazz boom happening down South. Not only will they be near jazz haven and frequent partner the Royal Room, where students do their end-of-session performances, they can be part of the effort by Columbia and Hillman City to become one of Seattle’s official arts and cultural districts.

Since signing the lease on their building in July, progress on the new building has been fast and furious, fueled in part by a 4Culture grant and an ongoing capital campaign. An architect who studied at Jazz Night School for years donated his time drawing up plans. The speedy build-out is being managed by general contractor/Kultur Shock bassist Guy M. Davis and GMD Custom, which also worked on the Royal Room and other art-forward projects. I’m told that everything seems to be on pace for their expected opening (that’s a first). Once open, JNS will offer classes like vocal jazz and jazz melody and harmony, as well as jazz ensembles small and large, at all levels, in styles ranging from traditional jazz to gypsy jazz, Brazilian forró to steel pan ensemble.

“Music is really a rewarding experience, especially making music with other people,” Hanson says. “You’re really listening to what they’re doing. There’s this mutual respect and that’s why it’s so empowering for people. With jazz, it’s like conversation. It’s like real life.”