BY TANNER HEWITT
On a crisp and weightless Sunday afternoon this past spring I rounded a long pathway toward the east side of the Walter Pyramid. My mind was in a musical place and I heard a rhythm when every so often my footfalls aligned with the ringing of baseballs off bats from the fields to my right. I climbed the slight grassy slope to the Daniel Recital hall, a small theater adorned with interesting wooden architecture snuggled into the hillside there above some classrooms.
I was there to see the last studio jazz band and concert jazz orchestra performances of the semester. For the past few years jazz seemed to be beckoning me. I was delighted by films like Whiplash and La La Land, and have been steadily following the career of the now quartet BADBADNOTGOOD (who hit festival dates like FYF and Bonaroo this summer), as well as the burgeoning legend who is 14 year old pianist Joey Alexander. Wildly talented pianist Austin Peralta's (LA beat-scene label Brainfeeder act and son of skateboard legend Stacy Peralta) tragic death at just 22 still makes me ache for what could have been.
Descending deeper into the recital hall I quietly smiled to myself. I knew I was going to see something special. Until earlier this year KJAZZ (whose broadcasting rights are still owned by the school) was run out of an office right on campus. The president of the California Alliance for Jazz is our own Director of Jazz Studies, well renowned trumpeter Jeff Jarvis. As the lights dimmed in the hall I relished my spot in the front row, behind the piano.
To stage right behind the curtain I could hear the air was rife with the wetting of reeds and anxious laughter. The band took the stage and as they started to play, the air in the room got warmer with their collective breath. My peripheral vision began to evaporate as my eyes dug into each individual player – the longer I focused my eyes the more clearly I could hear what sound each different player was making.
The music drew me in. I was lulled long enough by one measure to be rocked and my head sent bobbing at the next. I started to inhabit the attitude of the notes, and found myself mimicking the facial expressions of the players, and one in particular. A tenor saxophonist named Wes Perry had caught my attention with the easy tread of fingers along his sax and he seemed as wholly absorbed in the music as I was becoming. His two different colored socks poked out from under dress pants and I knew the man obviously cared more about his performance that evening than his outfit. I knew I needed to speak to him, but I didn't know how to get to him.
I decided to track down Jeff Jarvis, Director of Jazz Studies, to pick his brain about jazz and see if he could put me in front of the intriguing Wes Perry. Jeff took me to his back office in the Bob Cole Conservatory of Music at the extreme lower end of campus near the Carpenter Center. I was determined to find out if there was something special about Long Beach that draws in such great talent like Wes'. Jarvis' own trumpeting talents had him work with musicians like Michael Jackson and Dizzy Gillespie, and his years as an educator and adjudicator helped bring him into the fold here at Long Beach. He moved here all the way from upstate New York just for the job.
“It was the best decision I ever made, I mean, I love it here,” he told me. “(When he moved to Long Beach) I noticed the pace of life slowed down for me. . . it's a little bit more chill out here and I think that has an impact on our personalities.” East coast jazz can be fast paced and aggressive – at times competitive. In other parts of the country there tends to be a sort of “caste” system among jazz musicians in big bands. Jarvis recanted a story in which he was asked to go to lunch with one of a band's top groups. When he invited another student from a less accomplished group the top players sort of reeled back and informed him of the other player's rank.
“When I came here I said we were gonna build a culture that would not allow that. But when I got here I figured out it was already like that,” Jarvis said laughing.
The students at Long Beach mingle – they learn from each other. They're all friends, that's what sets our school apart. I saw nothing but smiles at the performance I went to, save for one especially furrowed brow on that of trumpeter Ryan DeWeese, who played his horn the loudest I've ever heard. Early in the show the studio band played a song called “Home” written by another one of our educators, Selma, California native Jimmy Emerzian, which had a distinctly west coast relaxation in it. I had to find how this was influencing Wes Perry and if this is what made him such a special player.
Lucky for me Jarvis took me from his office and introduced me to Perry and some other musicians at the conservatory. Perry and I met up a few days later in the shade near the Daniel Recital Hall where I first saw him play. He was quiet, a little reserved. He spoke with a calculated speech that seemed to clash with the overall improvisational vibe of jazz. “He's very quiet, but he's one of these people that he's taking it all in,” Jarvis had told me of Perry.
Perry, 24, hails from the decidedly more frigid Columbus, Ohio. At the age of ten he picked up his first saxophone. “It was at the instrument petting zoo,” Perry said and laughed. “By the 10th grade I was listening to jazz almost exclusively, trying to figure it out, as it were.” Always tall, Perry has sprouted now to over six feet and the long body of the tenor sax “fits my build,” he said. In Columbus he graduated with a Bachelor's Degree in jazz studies from Ohio State, and played in professional bands there like Vaughn Wiester's Famous Jazz Orchestra. In 2014 Perry played for the Disney College Band at Disneyland where he said, “I fell in love with the weather and really everything about California.”
After he auditioned at a few other schools for his graduate program in jazz, Perry chose Long Beach. “People were very accepting. After I got accepted I was just like, 'I'll go here.'” The blaring sounds of planes interrupted our interview a few times, as I'm sure it interrupts a number of sessions there at the conservatory.
Perry also echoed Jarvis' thoughts about the caste-system-like divisions between groups out east, and smiled when talking about the difference here at Long Beach. “That's kind of the thing here in the conservatory, we're all friends in the jazz department. Everybody's trying to help each other out, we're all trying to get better,” Perry said. Since Perry first picked up the sax he has seen music as his path in life. He was lucky enough to have the same kind of support at home as he's had at CSULB.
“I'm super fortunate to have my parents and my brothers, they're all really supportive,” he said. They're all home in Columbus but his middle brother Joshua happens to be a linebacker for the LA Chargers. The surrogate family he has here at the conservatory have no doubt helped his success. When I first saw Perry play I knew he special and my thoughts were validated that night when he was awarded a scholarship for his playing ability and his leadership in the jazz department. I asked him tentatively how someone who seemed as shy as he did wins an award like that. He was immeasurably modest.
“I guess I play a lot of solos. But I try to be there for my friends and stuff musically, and I get asked for help all the time with some of the course work and I try to offer that when I can. I like to show up to as many of the performances here at the (Daniel Recital Hall) as I can,” he said softly.
“I guess as a person I'm kind of more reserved. But once I have the horn, a whole different thing happens. I don't know where it comes from or anything, it's a sense of confidence I guess.” He gestured in the air with his hands before, “there is kind of this thing here, like a barrier if you will with the saxophone, between me and...I don't know how to describe it.”
Unfortunately for us still here, Perry got his graduate degree in jazz this spring and is no longer with us at Long Beach. His plan then was to spend his summer working on some recordings he did last winter break with a friend in Columbus. They went into a studio and recorded “eight tunes in a day, we just knocked 'em out,” he said. The project doesn't have a name yet, but be on the lookout for the name Wes Perry and know our school helped nourish his abilities.
“Man I've heard burnin' players in Iowa, in Australia, in Norway, it doesn't matter where. What matters is how much you immerse yourself in the music. How much you listen to it, how far you want to analyze and learn,” Jeff Jarvis told me in his office. Wherever Wes Perry goes, he'll be burnin' too.