Seattle-born jazz singer Sara Gazarek comes home to give back

SEATTLE -- Singer Sara Gazarek didn't grow up with a lot of exposure to jazz -- after all, Seattle is really known more for grunge (and, recently, hip-hop) than for crooning voices and downtown piano bars. But when she joined the jazz choir in high school, she fell in love with the genre. Now, she's an award-winning performer with a new album, who's using her star power to inspire future generations of musicians -- or at least help students understand a genre that often feels elusive.

"I think that, like most kids, my parents were aware of jazz peripherally, and we had maybe one or two jazz records in the house, but that was not the predominant music on the record player. And so my first exposure to jazz was in high school, when I auditioned for the jazz choir," explains Gazarek, a graduate of Roosevelt High School and Eckstein Middle School, where she's conducting music clinics this week.

But Gazarek didn't join jazz choir for the love of the genre -- a disciple of musical theater, she was mostly interested in "another extra-curricular activity."

"When I showed up, in all sincerity, my understanding of jazz was Kenny G," she admits.

"And then, from day one, our teacher really debunked that...He had us transcribing Miles Davis solos and writing lyrics to them. I walked away feeling like a had a really genuine education in the art-form."

Now, Gazerak spends her time educating students of all levels on the genre that she's come to love, in between touring, recording, and working as a faculty member at the University of Southern California.

"Music education is really, really key," says Gazerak, "and I think most jazz musicians, and especially young jazz musicians, understand the importance of spreading the word and making it more accessible."

Because, says the 31-year-old, it does more than just teach kids how to make melodies.

"I think on a really global level, there have been a number of studies that have proven that kids who have access to music education are trained from a really early age how to think outside of the box and problem solve in a way that is just more critical."

Jazz, though, can seem like a genre that's beyond the grasp of most young people -- something Gazarek is keenly aware of, and something that she approaches both in her recorded music and her education.

"Because everyone in my band is around the age of 30, we have other influences. Because jazz is such a personal genre, we do, like, a Ben Folds tune. We do some Joni Mitchell tunes. We do Leonard Cohen. So that's a pretty easy bridge...we're giving them jazz without them knowing it. There's kind of a sleight of hand thing that happens."

Between camps, classes, clinics, and the occasion private lesson, says Gazarek, she has plenty of opportunities to introduce a younger generation to the foundations of jazz and all the ways it can look. And, she says, it's as much a pleasure for her to teach as it is for them to learn.

"For me, when I became aware of jazz, I fell in love with it. And if there are other kids that, once they become aware of the beauty of it, or the freedom in it, or the sophistication of it...if I can be a part of that is honestly one of the more beautiful experiences to witness."

Sara Gazarek plays the Triple Door on Wednesday, May 29. See the venue for ticketing information.