On Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, Jaz Sawyer holds court in a tiny second-floor classroom at Oakland School of the Arts, where five students share a small arsenal of percussion instruments: a trap set, two djembes, a conga, and a vibraphone. At 31, Sawyer looks almost young enough to be a high school student in his own right — albeit one with a dapper wardrobe. Sawyer is small and lithe in his dress shoes and V-neck sweaters. He uses the same slang and listens to the same hip-hop as his students. Several years of living on the East Coast left him with the hint of a New York accent. He responds either to “Mr. Sawyer” or “Mr. Jaz,” and introduces every adult who enters the room as “Mr.” or “Ms.” So-and-So. He characterizes himself as an antidote to the “ponytail, Birkenstocks approach to teaching.” He’s not getting high-schoolers to experience music in some abstract way. Rather, he’s showing them how to be working artists. He’s also trying to perpetuate a dynasty.
Which is a little tougher than it sounds. Last Tuesday, Sawyer’s drum section practiced an arrangement of Miles Davis’ “Freddie Freeloader” that Sawyer mapped out on the white board: eight-bar intro, twelve-bar head; trade solos. With only one melodic instrument set against four drums, it’s easy to get lost in the form — as did Sawyer’s class, when they paused between the intro and the actual tune. Sawyer waved his hand to cut everyone off. “We got the fake-out, right? We got the intro for eight bars, then we count off.” The students started again. This time, they barely got through the first head when the chair of OSA’s music department came in and tried to shanghai part of the class to play in a dance department production of The Wiz. It seemed urgent. Not to mention he needed a few drummers to back the vocal class at next week’s OSA recruitment night, where they’ll perform Leonard’s Bernstein’s “I Like to Be in America.”
Sawyer maintains his equanimity through all the interruptions — even welcomes them. “So now the percussionists just scored a gig of their own,” he says, as the students drop their mallets and walk out of the room.
It’s one thing to teach high school students when you’re able to devote yourself full time to writing arrangements of “Freddie Freeloader.” It’s quite another when you’re out hustling gigs of your own. Sawyer works round the clock, sometimes starting as early as 4:30 a.m. to run a radio show with his dad on KPFA. (Called “The Lewis Sawyer Experience,” it airs every Tuesday at 5 a.m.) On Mondays, Thursdays, and Fridays, he teaches from 7:15 to 9:15 a.m. at KIPP San Francisco Bay Academy in the Fillmore. During the afternoon he rehearses with one of several bands, including his hard-bop combo Horace-Scope, the swing group 8 Legged Monster, and the Bay Area Youth All-Stars. At night he gigs.
Part of his work ethic came from living and working in New York, where the music scene is a lot more cutthroat. But Sawyer had his goals set out pretty early in life. Born in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, he came up playing a battery of instruments (pots and pans, a Muppet drum set, baroque recorder, trumpet, and upright bass). He taught himself drums by playing along with old Buddy Rich records took a few lessons with local drummer Eddie Marshall, and went on to study at San Francisco School of the Performing Arts. By the end of high school Sawyer was playing in Latin clubs throughout the city, sneaking in early so he wouldn’t get carded. He became a consummate workaholic. He later wound up in New York, touring with A-list acts while earning a BFA at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. At age 21, he formed an indie record label called Pursuance, and managed to turn himself into a cottage industry.
Pursuance Records is a hodge-podge of genre: be-bop groups Horace-Scope and 8 Legged Monster; a hip-hop act called Brothaz For Life; soul artist Lady Osofly; a new down-tempo compilation called The Lounge Vol. 1. Such variety owes to Sawyer’s omnivorous tastes. Or his financial acumen: Two years of business classes at Metropolitan College of New York apparently taught him that “diversity” is the way to really optimize your revenue steam. But Sawyer says he mostly learned by watching hip-hop producers. “They do mix tapes,” he said. “They can’t wait for a major label, they gotta do something to keep fresh.” He says it’s not that hard to parlay the mix-tape methodology to a label with preservationist impulses, so long as you always have something in the can.
The jazz scene is full of guys like Sawyer who apply a hip-hop sense of hustle to a genre that’s largely beholden to tradition. (Not for nothing did Sawyer’s parents — both music lovers themselves — name him for the now-defunct San Francisco radio station KJAZ.) They came up by way of apprenticeship, starting out in school bands and gigging throughout high school. A handful of them went off to New York, toured for a few years, got burnt out, and eventually repatriated to California. Sawyer’s story more or less follows the playbook. When he was nineteen years old, the drummer got his first big break: A phone call from Wynton Marsalis, inviting him to play a benefit in Chicago. “When we got there we played one on one basketball,” Sawyer recalled. “His crew and others warned me not to play him, but I wanted to show him I wasn’t scared of a challenge. But he whipped that jumper on me and that was that.”
Sawyer played with Marsalis for two years, then went on to other high-profile gigs. (“After you play with Wynton, everybody knows,” he said). Over time, the drummer earned his reputation as a gun for hire. In jazz parlance he has what’s called “a good pocket” — a phrase that usually applies to a drummer’s groove or timing. In Sawyer’s case, it’s pretty all-encompassing. Onstage, he’s known for taking the band by the horns. (“He gets bored so easily … he turns that into bringing everybody up,” said 8 Legged guitarist Mike Irwin Johnson). Offstage, he’s polite but aggressive — in a real business-y way. Not surprisingly, Sawyer cites hip-hop mogul P. Diddy as a source of inspiration.
Evidently, Sawyer subscribes to the idea that natural talent will only get you so far — the rest is all nose to the grindstone. He pointed to the movie Drumline as an example: At a certain point, he said, the lead character (a young drummer played by Nick Cannon) “gets stuck in his head, and has to go back to Basic 1 Class.” Sawyer says he applies that notion to his teaching job. “There has to be an emphasis on being self-reliant, on being ‘beyond prepared,'” he said. “I want these kids to learn rehearsal etiquette. I want them to learn how to perform. There are some artists that are great but nobody wants to work with them.” The idea, ultimately, is to create a new generation of artists who can navigate in both the hip-hop and the jazz worlds. Like Jaz Sawyer, they’d never drop a beat — on the bandstand, or in real life.