Marina Christopher photo by Lisa Hagen Glynn
BY JONATHAN SHIPLEY
Some houses are built on music. The bass lines—the foundation. The chords—lumber for the floors, the walls. Melodies for the doors, windows, the roof. Some houses are built on such things. Take, for instance, Marina Christopher’s childhood home. The family listened to Tower of Power. They listened to Taj Mahal. Powerful musical structures, indeed, flooded their home. Christopher, a bassist and singer-songwriter (who was nominated as a 2021 Emerging Artist by Earshot Jazz), came from a strong foundation on which to build her ever-growing musical career.
Her father, Kevin Christopher, was known to tickle the keys and, when home, played and listened to a wide range of music—from jazz to classical; rock to new age. “We listened to a lot of Louis Prima and Oscar Peterson,” Christopher recalls, “but, also, things like Yanni, and meditation music with didgeridoo, [and] Tibetan flutes.” And her mother, Sandy Christopher, has been supportive of Marina’s music her whole life, proudly selling her daughter’s CDs at her bustling hair salon.
The threads of Christopher’s musical career began tying together in her youth. She picked up the bass at the age of 11. She dropped the trombone. “I think my dad knew that no matter what I wanted to be as an adult, I could keep playing music in any capacity if I could play bass,” says Christopher. “Everybody needs a bass player.”
In high school, while her friends were fans of boy bands like *NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys, she was deep into listening to members of the Rat Pack. From there, she got interested in big band music. Able to walk her own bass lines around the age of 14, she joined the Mountlake Terrace High School jazz band, playing under the direction of Darin Faul. “That was a really special time for people in the band because so many bandmates are still playing and/or teaching music,” she says. She takes note of, for instance, drummer Morgan Gilkeson, founder of Mo’Jam Mondays at the Nectar Lounge. “She literally dreamed up that jam and manifested it into existence,” marvels Christopher. “And it’s easily one of the best known jams in town. I am honored she calls me her good friend.”
With her high school head aswirl with jazz she earned a BA in Classical Double Bass Performance at Central Washington University, where she studied with Jon Hamar. With a college degree in hand she sailed the high seas for a time as a member of an orchestra for Royal Caribbean. Back on land, she’s performed with, among others, Stone Gossard, Meklit Hadero, Eugenie Jones, and toured nationally with the famed Portland Cello Project.
“Playing bass gives me the amazing privilege of playing a variety of styles with a variety of people, which I absolutely love.” Her musical family grows. “I love being able to find myself outside my comfort zone and developing my playing even further.” Her musical range grows.
She sings, too. Her voice is a smooth bourbon in a sparkling tumbler; a sweet ephemeral cloud of smoke in a downstairs speakeasy. Her albums include a self-titled EP (2015), Must Love Cats (2016), Marina and the Dreamboats (2018), and Coffee and Ukes, Vol. I (2020), that she developed and recorded with Emily McVicker at home during the pandemic lockdowns.
She teaches, too. Best to build a musical family not only among peers, but generationally. Christopher teaches jazz and classical music privately and for schools and organizations including Washington Middle School, Jazz Night School, and Seattle JazzED. “Not many instrumentalists who happen to be women,” she laments, “were mentioned to me during my education.” In her own teaching, she’s making it a point to highlight the women of jazz. Representation matters. She recently led a clinic for high school jazz bands in Great Falls, Montana. “Let me tell you, if high school me would have seen a musician who happens to be a fat woman leading a band playing her own music and commanding a room of 50 high school students, I might have been on the cover of Earshot magazine years ago!” It bears repeating: representation matters.
Christopher’s career has taken her from her immediate family to a musical one. A family of musicians, instructors, inspirations, and audiences. With COVID receding (fingers crossed), she’s cautiously optimistic about moving forward. “Prior to the pandemic, performing with others was, pretty much, my favorite thing to do…Now, I have this looming feeling that by performing I could spread it—that someone could get COVID. This is a very hard part of all this for me,” she says. Christopher, like many gig artists, is faced with this moral dilemma. Should one spread the joy of being human through their art with the knowledge that it comes with a physical risk of COVID? And, yet the “illness” of not creating, sharing, and communing in art lingers on the other side of the door. “People who come,” says Christopher, “are really appreciative of the music and more open to alternative ways of supporting musicians and their work.” The support of others has created another kind of foundation on which to build upon for Christopher.
Her trio, aptly named the Marina Christopher Trio, plays monthly at Hotel Sorrento and Vito’s. The fourth Friday of every month she’s part of The Shrine, featuring Ahamefule J. Oluo and the Shrine All-Star Band at the Crocodile. Christopher has two shows April 21-22 coming up at the new jazz venue, Calluna, that will truly showcase her musicianship. And, the band she fronts, Marina and the Dreamboats, and COLR, a music project featuring Christopher, Oluo, drummer D’Vonne Lewis, and keyboardist Josh Rawlings, are planning records this year. This is all to say: however fearful Christopher may be about the present, art will be woven deep within her future, regardless.
There’s room for everyone, in Christopher’s musical world, that grows by the day. The family grows. The art solidifies the foundation. A house of music is built upon tune by tune, song by song. A regular tower of power.