On The Corner
Interview w/ Bassist Owen Clapp, Winner of Hut Alumni Award

Interview w/ Bassist Owen Clapp, Winner of Hut Alumni Award

Interview w/ Bassist Owen Clapp, Winner of Hut Alumni Award
High School All-Stars alum Owen Clapp

Each year, SFJAZZ puts out a call for proposals to jazz composers, commissioning an original work to be played by the High School All-Stars Big Band. The talent pool: High School All-Stars alumni, from the program’s birth in 2001 to the very most recent grads. The prize: $1000 awarded by the Hut Foundation and SFJAZZ. This year, 2009 All-Stars alumnus Owen Clapp rose to the challenge, submitting his outline for the piece “Tokyo” just as he had returned from the Japanese metropolis. We caught up with the bassist following his piece’s May 7th world premiere at the SFJAZZ Center to learn more about his composition, his recent social justice work, and his swath of musical projects.

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Congratulations on winning the 2017 Hut Foundation Alumni Commission Award. The title of your piece is "Tokyo"; can you tell us the story behind that?

Thank you! It was an honor and such an exciting project for me. I found out about the application for the commission right before visiting Tokyo to play with my old friend Julian Le, who is an amazing pianist. Julian and everyone that I know who has been to Japan have had incredible experiences, so I knew that I was going to have a special week there. I've always been fascinated by art that draws its inspiration from physical locations - cities, countries, landscapes - so I thought about this as I was getting ready to visit, and wanted to make the piece reflective of my time there. I wish that I'd been a little more creative with the title! But it gets the point across that the music is supposed to paint a portrait of my impressions of the city. It was so much fun joining the band for rehearsals and hearing Paul Contos's metaphors for sections of the piece. I didn't consciously imagine lotus blossoms and gongs when I was writing, but I'm now seeing and hearing that those things influenced the piece in many ways.

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Did your time in the SFJAZZ High School All-Stars kick start your big band composing, or did that come later?

The HSAS band was a very special opportunity that I'm so grateful for. No one else at my high school wanted to play jazz professionally; our big band was focused on Latin Jazz, which was great, but I wanted to play with other people my age who were as into jazz as I was. My first chance to arrange for other musicians was in the All-Stars Combo. When my high school band director saw that I was interested, he suggested I write an arrangement for our school's band. Tokyo was my first original chart for big band, but I don't think I would've gotten into arranging if it hadn't been for the All-Stars Combo in senior year of high school.

You were a member of the Music Action Lab's inaugural residency this past year; tell us about MAL and your time with the group.

Drew Foxman, the founder of the Music Action Lab, created a very cool program that selects musicians from around the world to come together both to write original music and to learn about non-profit/social justice work. At the time that I signed up for the program I was looking for a break from L.A., and to meet and collaborate with new people. I was also splitting my teaching time between a large public school in the Los Angeles Unified School District and a small private school in Culver City. I was seeing firsthand the inequalities in the education system and wanting to take some kind of action to improve things. To me the Action Lab really underscored the power of an individual to make an impact. One day in particular we had a guest speaker who drove home the idea that just the act of creating and performing music is a form of social good. So, in a way, all musicians are activists in some sense. Overall, I had a blast living and working with the other seven musicians last fall. We just released a record this month titled "Foundation" that came out pretty well!

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What other musical projects are you working on right now?

Things have shifted recently - I just moved back to the Bay Area after almost 8 years in Los Angeles. It has been great to connect with the music scene and wonderful musicians here. Pianist Nathan Bickart and I play every first Sunday at the Throckmorton Theater in Mill Valley, and I bring my own groups to Mr. Tipple's in San Francisco. I also have three main projects of my own in addition to playing with three L.A. based bands - the Aditya Prakash Ensemble, the Jonah Levine Collective, and the Le J Trio - all friends from college. All three of these bands will be playing in the Bay Area in the coming months.

Look for Owen’s commission piece, “Tokyo,” on the All-Stars 2017 album, due out this summer.

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