7 Mile JAM Stars: Andrew Speight
Whoever's calling whatever discordant tunes in Washington, D.C., we have the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History to thank for designating April as Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM), and 7 Mile honcha Vanessa Garcia to thank for helping us celebrate with her continuing jazz calendar and special events throughout April. On my Blog, I'll feature bios of some of the leaders of the legendary weekly sessions, starting with Andrew Speight, co-leader (with Vince Lateano) of Sunday's 5 pm Doghouse Jams, as well as (with Michael Zisman) the Master/Student Night, coming this month on April 11.
“I like trying to communicate, and to get across to new people,” he declares, though that may not be the verb best fitting his modest tenor voice, inflected with an Australian accent.
Andrew Speight is getting across, smiling at customers in a Starbucks near his girlfriend’s apartment. Not that he’s any the less successful at communicating to those who’ve known him longer, like this interviewer, who became a Speightfan after hearing the alto saxophonist in a Sunday jam at the Dogpatch Saloon, several years ago. Or like the Starbucks barrista, who is revealed to be one of Andrew’s adoring jazz students at San Francisco State University. Anyone who can educate, inspire, and coordinate a college jazz ensemble is truly a master of the music, and the results are in evidence on the second Tuesday of every month on the 7 Mile House’s Master/Student Nights, hosted by Andrew and fellow SFSU faculty member Michael Zisman.
The jazz life for Andrew started well before college, back home in Sydney where his father, John Speight, was a club pianist, and his mom, Niddrie, a singer. Young Andrew was taken to see visiting American jazzmen like Johnny Griffin, and the boy began on guitar and clarinet before fixing on the sax. Andrew studied classical music but preferred jazz, with side trips into his peers’ pop preferences: Stevie Wonder, Elton John, and Billy Joel. “I played in pickup bands, garage bands, played for dances,” Andrew recalls. “It was an in-road” to attention from the fair sex. In jazz, the kid was exposed to big band repertoire and gigged with his father’s quartet, finding himself favoring an earlier era than his old man’s. “He favored more of the cool, introspective post-bop, but I favored more bebop. It was actually a progression from the swing I’d been playing, growing up.”
This trend, and his growing reputation in representing it, got the teenaged Andrew a gig with the touring American trumpeter and cornetist Nat Adderley. “The promoter recommended me, because he knew I was familiar with Nat’s music, and Nat thought I was a great up-and-coming young player. We talked a lot about Cannonball [Nat’s saxophonist older brother], who was one of my idols. I loved that he came from the bebop tradition, but was very soulful, and very expressive, almost talkative, conversational. He communicated so well.”
Few of his current fans know that the young Andrew almost tacked into a sailing career, also with the encouragement of his father and the mentorship of former America’s Cup skipper Iain Murray. Andrew both built boats and sailed them towards trophies, but the youngster, prompted by a growing number of American career jazzmen, ultimately left the boats behind and hopped a plane to New York, to hone his jazz craft. “I stayed in New York for a number of years, played the scene at small clubs like Smalls, Augie’s, and the St. Mark’s bar. Then my reputation went up when I made the finals in the Monk Competition, in 1991.” His competitors included the likes of Eric Alexander, Tim Warfield, Chris Potter, and the Bay Area’s own Joshua Redman, who won it. “But I became a kind of property for the education scene, and I was recruited by Michigan State, which was building a program. Branford Marsalis became my artist-in-residence, and I was close to Detroit, so I also got to play Motown stuff, along with hard bebop, with people like Marcus Belgrave, Donald Walden, Johnny Griffith, and Louis Smith.
Marsalis recommended Andrew on to San Francisco State University, which was also nurturing jazz within its music department. Andrew had visited San Francisco on tour, and found “it was very similar to Sydney: on a bay, very cosmopolitan. Though Sydney was warmer year-round.” He opted to shift campus jobs, and to seek out the night life in his new city. “There was Pearl’s, at Columbus & Broadway, and I used to do Saturday Night Specials there, with Vince Lateano, Sonny Buxton ran the club. When Pearl’s closed, we took the basic band to Dogpatch, around 2004. That was Vince, Michael Zisman, Matt Clark, and myself. The Sunday session would start with a set and then open to a jam, and it became very successful, until it was sold..” Al Molina, who’d often joined in the jam, had already established himself on Tuesdays at the 7 Mile House, and urged owner Vanessa Garcia and her former manager, Dennis Cummings, to adopt the orphaned Dogpatch Sunday sessions, renaming them the Doghouse Jazz Jam.
“They welcomed us with open arms, because we brought a crowd with us,” offers Andrew. The welcome included many bennies. “The staff looked after us, they fed us and gave us drinks, and everything was on the up-and-up. We didn’t have a cover charge, but we were paid and made good tips.” And new friends. “Some of the regular bar stuff and the locals who’d been coming in on Sunday warmed up to the jazz rather quickly.” Andrew, who was living nearby in Brisbane, found himself bringing his horn in also on Al’s Tuesdays, as well as on the Monday sessions piloted by trumpeter Dave Bendigkeit.
In the meantime, the jazz program at San Francisco State “built into a pretty strong program, in terms of its syllabus.” Andrew carries a heavy teaching load across the music department’s curriculum, which includes instrument performance, theory, history, improv, and ensemble classes. Both he and his students were thrilled when the 7 Mile initiated its monthly Master/Student Nights, which have introduced many younger players to both the venue and the challenge of live audiences.
Occasionally, Andrew’s two kids — Colin, 12, and Avery, 8 — also get to experience their Dad at the Doghouse jams. They’re in the Burlingame Public School System, and they also get to fly with him back to Australia for the Manly Jazz Festival, which takes place in Andrew’s old Sydney neighborhood and is managed by his sister, who took over after their father passed. Andrew feels that he’s continuing to mature as a player, and he has plans to record a second album, possibly with New York players such as Kenny Barron, Jimmy Cobb, and Ray Drummond. It would be nice to have something new to sell during the breaks at the 7 Mile.