Antidote to Loneliness


Julian Priester photo by Lisa Hagen Glynn

Community Corner is a series that invites the public to contribute their thoughts, reflections, observations, and more about the world around us, particularly as it relates to jazz and music overall. Earshot Jazz is dedicated to amplifying the voices and stories of artists and community members alike. The thoughts and opinions expressed in this series are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Earshot Jazz. Please email submissions to editor@earshot.org.


In the winter dark, Norah Jones’ voice warmed me as I drove wet Seattle streets. A piano solo drifted, lifting the temperature. The notes pondered, wondering rather than shouting for attention. The song was “Court and Spark” by Joni Mitchell. Had I not stayed with the sound, my mind would have wandered to worry. I loved jazz because it brought me back to the joy of possibilities.

The pandemic had kept me away from live music, both from the stage as a performer and in the seats as part of an audience, but I longed to be back with the sound and scene. A Chicago musician friend had declared October as “Hangtober” to counter his long isolation and each day posted on social media photos of bands he had ventured out to hear in person. I needed to reconsider, reconnect, and rekindle my place in my community. My jazz circle was small but steadfast.

I squeezed into a lone parking spot on a residential street, paid at the kiosk to park until 10pm, and walked three blocks through the chill. My destination, a tall skinny art gallery named Vermillion with a bright white front room. In the back, a brick-lined space with a six-seat bar, eight rows of chairs, two speakers, drum set, and a grand piano. I took a seat in the middle of the chairs, behind the entire audience of four others, a small but devoted following. I had come for the Seattle Jazz Fellowship, a weekly event hosted by award-winning trumpeter Thomas Marriott. Each night featured two bands with “the hang” in between. The hang was for swapping tales and a taste of refreshment, social glue to keep a jazz community from splintering into ego and exclusion.

But a big draw for me was how each Fellowship began – a listening session and storytelling by Julian Priester, an 87-year-old Black bald bard who had played trombone with Herbie Hancock, John Coltrane, Sun Ra, Max Roach, and Duke Ellington. Insiders knew Priester by his apt Swahili name, Pepo Mtoto, or “spirit child.” His spirit was strong. His curiosity was childlike. He retired from teaching at Cornish College of the Arts in 2011 after 31 years, but still performed and recorded with wisdom and vigor.

His debut album as a leader in 1960 was titled Keep Swingin’, a play off of the pun of jazz and boxing. Today, he is the only surviving performer from the recording. Throughout his life, Priester played like a heavyweight, but his lean body appeared closer to welterweight. Tonight, he wore a blue dress shirt, brown checked necktie, red fleece jacket, and black flat cap – old school meets Pacific Northwest. In the dim spotlight, his bespectacled face wore only a few wrinkles circling his mouth. His body moved with patience, poise, and a laser-pointed focus.

Priester sat on a chair next to the piano. Next to him, a table piled with records and compact discs that featured his playing and composing. Marriott picked an album from the pile, unsheathed vinyl onto a turntable, lowered the needle, and slid a volume nob up a few notches. Priester’s trombone resonated in the air – smooth and sonorous. After the song, the intimate assembly clapped and offered affirming “Yeahs.” Silence hugged the space.

Priester leaned into the microphone, his voice rhyming with his trombone sound, deep and quiet with a hint of rasp. “I was a father at 17 in Chicago. We were too young for that responsibility.” A long pause landed the words.

I had admired Julian for years and wrote a tribute to him in our local jazz newsletter on his retirement. The stories he spun were familiar but enjoyable to hear again and again. Sadly, his wife, Nashira, died in 2021. I mustered the courage to speak. “Julian, we’ve lost so many,” I began. Masked heads in the audience turned in the dark to identify the questioner. 

“Among your former colleagues at Cornish, singer Joni Metcalf passed days ago. Bassist Chuck Deardorf left a few weeks ago. A year ago, composer Jim Knapp.” I paused, trying to figure out how to ask about legacy in a respectful way.

“How do you want to be remembered? What do you want us to know about you when you’re gone?”

Without pause, Julian responded, “Well, I’ve left all this music for you.” He trained his gimlet-eyes on mine, “And I want you to know, ‘I love you.’”

Julian loved me, loved the audience, loved the music, and loved sharing the present moment with others. The Seattle Jazz Fellowship lifted my spirit to reunite with my musical family.


Posted on

February 1, 2023