Each One to Teach One: Walter Cano on Jazz Mentorship and Building Community

Walter Cano photo by Emazing Photography


Trumpeter and educator Walter Cano is talking about a pivotal moment, one of those life-changing epiphanies which, if we’re lucky, can reveal the path to a lifelong calling. And of course, it’s about music: “I was at Centrum jazz camp, watching Gretchen Parlato’s quartet with Ambrose Akinmusire, and they played the Thelonious Monk song ‘Ugly Beauty,’” recounts Cano. “It was one of the most profound musical experiences of my life. And I remember turning to my friend and saying, ‘Man. I want to do this.’”

A conversation with Cano is a wide-ranging affair, but the focus always circles back to gratitude, mentorship, and sharing in the experience of jazz community. Cano’s musical and professional journey is itself similarly full of detours and lessons of lasting inspiration. A widely experienced trumpeter with serious chops and a deep sense of swing, Cano’s broadly-based aesthetic encompasses everything from Louis Armstrong and Clark Terry to Robert Glasper, as well as the rhythms of his Peruvian heritage. After a stint in New York which saw him popping up at clubs and playing lead trumpet in pit bands on Broadway, the multi-talented Cano is back in Seattle. He recently appeared at the kick-off of this year’s Earshot Festival with Alex Dugdale’s Funk Band and is a driving force at Seattle JazzED, an organization that played a pivotal role in his own formative music development.

Cano attended Henry M. Jackson High School in Mill Creek, where he and his jazz-obsessed friends were lucky enough to have a savvy, committed band director named Lesley Moffat. “She could see that we had this fire, and she did everything she could to help and really get the most out of us.”

JazzED was just getting started when Cano was in high school, and former Garfield High School jazz director Clarence Acox led some of the first sessions for the fledgling organization. “It was just Sunday rehearsals in Garfield’s band room, but the opportunity to work with Clarence pulled me in immediately. He has a profound understanding of the music, so even just once a week, the education was incredible.”

Centrum’s summer program also provided a vital link in the chain of jazz community that inspired Cano, in the form of tutelage from Akinmusire, who has since blossomed into a leading trumpet innovator and jazz conceptualist. “I asked him for a lesson,” said Cano. “And he said, ‘Are you sure you don’t want a lesson with Terell Stafford?’” Cano laughs at the memory. “I was the only kid asking, so we’d meet up before lunch every day.”

With his foundation solidly in place, Cano then moved on to a master’s degree at the esteemed Michigan State University jazz studies program, led by bassist Rodney Whitaker. “It was just a completely different vibe from everywhere else,” recounts Cano. “For me, music is as much about community as anything, and Rodney runs the jazz program like a family. I learned so many life lessons there, things that have defined who I am.” One of the lessons that Cano has taken to heart helped bring him back to Seattle, and back to JazzED. Cano continues, “In terms of education, Rodney says, ‘Each one to teach one.’ That’s become fundamental to who I am.”

JazzED has grown into a vital force in the PNW jazz ecosystem, and its pay-what-you-can model opens access and opportunity to a wide range of students. “We reach so many kids. Come here on a Saturday, and we have classes straight through from 9 to 6. 110 kids all piled up in that room, and they’re getting that community experience of playing together. That’s when I see that what jazz does is really radical, and special.”

JazzED is focused on building lasting connections rooted in community, an ethos perfectly in sync with Cano’s values: focused on empowering families. “These kids are my community. Just seeing a kid open that instrument case for the first time, I’m taken back to 6th grade, where I couldn’t afford a trumpet. These kids don’t have to worry about that. Making it easier for the next, Cano is a great conduit to building that community for the future. “Like we said, ‘each one to teach one.’ I love learning and I love passing on what I’ve learned, and that IS community.”


Posted on

October 28, 2023