Welcome back to Free Spirit Friday, a weekly segment where I interview local artists and creatives of all kinds. Every Friday a different artist will be featured until I run out of people to interview. If you would like to be featured on Free Spirit Friday, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
This week I’ve interviewed John Sievers who is a local musician, teacher, and writer for the Post Bulletin. I don’t know him terribly well on a personal level, but learning about him through this interview has been a great privilege. John has an interesting background and a lot of fabulous ideas and insight. Jazz club in Rochester? Perhaps a bohemian, open-all-night coffee house featuring local music? Yes please! Read on to be delighted, informed and inspired!
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I’m married to my high school sweetheart, Beth (who I met in band), and we have two wonderful daughters, Eleanor (8) and Abigail (6). When I’m not making music, I teach English at Rochester Community and Technical College, I do freelance writing for the Rochester Post Bulletin, and I enjoy making up-cycled art. I have a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Minnesota and my dissertation is centered on how English Renaissance authors use the siren myth as a way to mediate their insecurities about being authors while also addressing the uncertainties of their patron’s New World Ventures and investments. Put another way, this means I spent about eight years studying mermaids and writing a several-hundred page book about them that will be read by fewer people than read my Rochester Post Bulletin Articles on any given Saturday. I’m also passionate about promoting the arts in Rochester and do my best to support local artists and small business owners.
What kind of music do you make?
I make a variety of music ranging from ska to classical, but my primary interest is jazz. I perform with a variety of local groups including a seventeen-piece big band (Swing Street), a brass quintet (Brass Etc.), and an eight-piece rock cover band (After School Special). I also sit in frequently with other area groups like the reggae band Push and Turn, the funk-pop band Suite, the Americana band Jagged Ease, and even a string band called the Lost Vikings. I’m most exciting about the small jazz group I front called The D’Sievers. We range in size from a duo to a sextet depending on the venue and play at places like the Redwood Room, The Doggery, and The Half Barrel. I’m a huge fan of improvisatory music, and any music that’s performed live is something I’ll enjoy.
What draws you to it?
I’m drawn to jazz mainly because of the freedom it gives to create improvised solos against the controlled backdrop of a fixed harmonic frame. I love the thrill of creating something unique every time I play a song, and I appreciate the interplay that can occur between musicians who are meeting for the first time or who have been playing together for years. With jazz, the possibility to build new musical ideas seem almost endless. Most of the playing I do is somehow informed by the spirit of jazz improvisation even if I’m reading notes on a piece of classical music intended for my brass quintet during an Easter service. Though my playing certainly owes a lot to my affinity with jazz, I’m really drawn to any musical situation that requires musicians to listen to each other and respond as a group in a way that conveys an emotional concept to an audience. I’m also drawn to music because of its ability to bring very different people together. Its always a thrill to play alongside other musicians who might be code writers, mechanics, and physicians in their day jobs for an audience that is probably even more diverse.
What has been your favorite experience as a musician?
It is hard to pin down my favorite experience as a musician, but one of the musical experiences I’ve truly loved has been the Jazz Jam that The D’Sievers and I have hosted over the past several years at the Rochester Civic Theatre. The event occurs about once a month and it is a jazz open mic where musicians and singers join the D’Sievers performing jazz standards. The Rochester Civic Theatre and its staff have worked hard to make this a wonderful community event welcoming to all ages and skill levels. There is nothing sweeter than seeing a seasoned veteran of jazz like Les Fields play alongside a young student just beginning to dip her toes into the jazz pool. One of my favorite occurrences at the jazz jam is when my daughters Eleanor and Abigail sing their favorite standards with the band. It is an incredible experience to share music with them and hear them sing standards like “Frim Fram Sauce” and “Bye Bye Blackbird.”
What is your dream gig?
My dream gig is any gig that allows me to make live music! My motto is that every band needs a trombone player, and I’m hoping that I’ll be that trombone player. I love playing at open mics and being part of Rochester’s expanding music scene. There are a lot of business owners in Rochester that have gone out of their way to embrace live music. We really have many venues for music in Rochester, and every one of them is doing a service to Rochester’s arts community by showcasing live music. Playing live music at a local establishment is my dream gig, so I’m lucky to have dream gigs fairly frequently.
Who or what has influenced you most?
My influences have been wide and varied. I’ve played with many bands and musician over the years and each of them has left a mark on me. I started playing in jazz and rock bands in junior high and have never really stopped. I still remember playing with an eight-piece horn driven rock band as a Junior in high school called Ryan and the Tonsilsnails. We played at school dances and eventually at local clubs on our “Streptococcus Can’t Stop Us” world tour. To this day, my trombone case has stickers on it that members of that band put on it. Besides all of the great bands and musicians I’ve played with, I’ve also been lucky to have some formal training with awesome band teachers in junior high (Mr. Gus who used to teach music for a prison system) and high school. I also studied music at the University of Northern Iowa and received a minor in music education there. All my teachers have had a hand in molding my musical sensibilities, though I won’t blame them for all my bad habits. I was blessed to have a musical family too. My mother Celeste is a pianist and my father Dennis is a guitarist. Growing up, our house was always filled with instruments. My parents seemed to collect instruments whether or not anyone would ever play them. We had everything from autoharps and a Bodhran to a saxophone and a French horn. Being around my family’s music certainly had a big impact on me, and I especially owe a debt to my dad who used to take me out to the bars and clubs to listen to jazz even when I was in junior high. We had a list of places that would let me in despite my age, and we learned by trial and error.
What kind of community-driven projects would you like to be part of?
One community-driven project I’d really like to be part of is establishing a Rochester jazz festival. I think it would be spectacular for our town to host its own jazz festival featuring local bands as well as regional and even national acts. It would be an incredible experience to help our community come to a deeper love of jazz by highlighting it at a local festival! I’m also interested in creating more opportunities for collaboration between different artistic pursuits. For instance, I’d like to help create more opportunities for visual artists and musicians to interact with one another. I’d love to see a project that pairs visual artists and composers together to inspire each others works. In other words I’d like to create a platform on which local musicians could write songs inspired by local visual artists and local visual artists could create works inspired by the same musicians’ songs. Of course, I can’t take credit for this idea, but it is a really lovely concept that I’d like to pursue.
What would you like to see happen in the Rochester music scene?
I’d really like the Rochester music scene to keep expanding as it has been in the ten or so years I’ve lived here. I feel like there have been more and more venues opening to musicians here, and there is a real sense of camaraderie among many local musicians. The open mic scene in town is really a lot of fun, and I continually meet new musicians that amaze me. I hope I can keep being a part of this expanding group of musicians and music lovers. It would also be wonderful to see the community develop more of an appreciation for original local music. For me, having a jazz club open in Rochester would be exhilarating! The addition of more venues that were designed specifically for live music performance would be another beneficial advance for the local music scene.