Renaissance Man in Our Midst: A Portrait of John Seman

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Seattle Jazz resident artist ensemble Non Grata

John Seman (bass) and Mark Ostrowski of Monktail. Photo by Cat Stulik.

By Paul r. Harding

There’s this kid from a suburb of Philadelphia, who walked to piano lessons with the ghost of Albert Ay­ler. Soon after those elementary years he’d spend a good deal of time in his room practicing and recording music. Learning to play the bass after rela­tionships with a trumpet, tuba, and drums spelled creative freedom for this kid. Soon this kid took what cannot be taught or bought—his imagina­tion—from childhood in North Jersey to Southeast Pennsylvania to DC. The Music led him further west to take on a few brims in the hat store of cultural roles here in the Northwest, specially, Seattle. His name is John Seman.

It’s time to stop and check out this kid’s trek, socially and aurally. This is the mapless track that renaissance creative pioneers take; not settlers but visionaries. Oh, not the covered wagon kind circling what were new racist def­initions/images of words like “Savage” and “Noble Indian” while truly vital trails in melody and rhythm between New Orleans, Memphis, Houston, St. Louis, and all the way to Chicago and all the way to New York City, and later places like Muscle Shoals would be like Gold Rush claims, if music pre­cious stone. Unpaved paths not of a wagon master but a scout of Renais­sance Ear. Fearless ears. That kid had such ears and no covered wagon. That kid is a man who has greatly contrib­uted to Seattle’s communities of The Music.

For two decades plus John Seman has waved a kaleidoscope of brave, original banners across the crowds of Seattle’s music scenes. Music outfits/bands and individual players have sprung up from the likes of which no city of Seattle’s size and racial makeup can compare—Black music in a city with so small a population of Black Folks. Seattle has about 750,000 folks living within its city borders; maybe 8% be Black Folks. Including Seattle there are only three cities in the 700,000 to 750,000 population range—Wash­ington, DC 40% Black residents. And Denver—maybe 10% Black folks. So, what makes Seattle so different? The Music from Hendrix to Cobain, something in the water, indelibly close yet distant as snowcapped mountains. John rides in the posse of Sun Ra and Charles Mingus with his steady (co-founder) sidekick, drummer, poet, and visual artist, Mark Ostrowski. Some­where around high school they were introduced to freedom in The Music where their saddle and spurs came by way of Stravinsky and Black Sabbath.

Along the trail John was nurtured in technique by the likes of Bootsy Col­lins to Paul Laurence Dunbar Cham­bers, Ron Carter to Mike Watt, Cliff Burton to Jimmy Garrison. Today that renaissance kid is both sheriff and outlaw. A Bob Dylan meets Miles Da­vis kind of renegade on the new (old) frontier Then suddenly there was an open bass chair in the high school Jazz band. Soon the body and character of the bass led his soul and intellect to becoming an ensemble direction lead­er through an understanding of the function of the bass in harmony.

Mark Ostrowski joined John in the great northwest around the late-90s. Between the club/coffeeshop and Cornish Community they bonded with (mostly under 30) “collective mind frames and they took hold” and evolved into becoming an organizer. John had that rare willpower to take on creating a community within the larger framework, from film to mu­sic festivals; orchestrating, writing, rehearsing, booking; transportation, press, and this little thing called pay­ing the artists. Monktail Creative Mu­sic Concern was born—that title alone should inform you about the elements and images mixed between the likes of bands named Non Grata (big band based on AACM model), Deal’s Num­ber, and Special O.P.S.

John gives compassionate gratitude for those who have come within his scope since his ethnomusicology grad­uate work; from Smithsonian to cata­loging and digitizing every audio arti­fact and discovery of history (includ­ing unreleased Hendrix—like with the Isley brothers) for the EMP museum (now known as MoPOP). Modest— an understatement. John emphasizes those who he gives credit to for his development, like Stuart Dempster and Ask the Ages! Zachary Watkins with Floss! Lil Coop Sextet! Beth Flee­nor! Wally Shoup, Dennis Rea, Paul Hoskin, and Jeffery Taylor!

This leads us to the “urgency and beauty” of the making. This leads up to right now and the effects of Wil­liam Parker to Melvin Gibbs, (the late) Henry Grimes to Pascal Niggenkemper. “Anything, anywhere, anytime for no reason at all”–Frank Zappa. After so much has happened in the diversity of listening to what comes down to sound in the language of The Music that race and politics shrinks into wonder—like the heavenly view from a spaceship ascending from earth. The land and sea, sound and si- lence, miracles in rhythm in a celestial groove, like John says about his play- ing: “the groove…I like something in the groove” Something in the Peter Brötzmann and Derek Bailey groove. The cliché-free groove. The Hound Dog Taylor’s Hand tracks that liberate us within the groove. Experience listening to their “Look Up and Let Go” and “Hostile Architecture” and all the productions that lead/led up to this city’s soundscape in harmony. Events that somehow that kid between New Jersey and Pennsylvania had no way of knowing would enrich a whole city. Arts & Nature, Folklife, Olympia Experimental Music festival, Sounds Outside, and, of course, Earshot Festivals only a Renaissance Man could conceive (without knowing he would). Between “composition performance ritual” and “broader global cultural context” that kid’s route to Oberlin

Conservatory and onto University of Maryland brought him out of the ridiculous wilderness of civilization to arrive to archive The Music while creating and producing it at the same time! Yes, through Heavy Metal, Rap, and Kronos, Schoenberg to Bartok, and Count Basie to Miles, those early chords in the left hand he found so alluring until he heard “the key centers” and those “lines Mingus wrote like Stravinsky, I thought about dots on paper and how good it would sound if I did it. I did it and am still doing it… in a hundred years of Avant Garde!”

Paul r. Harding

Published works: Hot Mustard & Lay Me Down (En Theos Press, 2003); Excerpts of Lamentation & Evidence of Starlite (Aurius Unlimited, 1993); excerpt of completed novel manuscript in Black Renaissance Noire; selected verse in Black Renaissance Noire, Transition 112, Obsidian: Literature & Arts in the African Diaspora, Konch, Coon Bidness, Berkeley Poetry Review, and various anthologies. Unpublished man­uscripts in both the Gwendolyn Brooks Papers at the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, and the Derek Walcott Collection at the Alma Jordan Library, University of West Indies. Awarded Philip Whalen Memorial Grant for poetry and Edith K. Draham Scholarship for fiction. ‘Spoken Music’ performed with legendary Charles Gayle, Ravi Coltrane, Joe Ford, Michael Bisio, and other renowned musi­cians. Former Earshot Jazz Board of Directors President, former Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle Education Director and founder of ULMS Children’s University. Currently teaches critical thinking, reading and writing in the Bronx.

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July 30, 2020