Heather Chriscaden photo by Daniel Sheehan
BY NATHAN BLUFORD
Bassist and educator Heather Chriscaden’s journey in jazz has taken her all over the Pacific Northwest, out to New York, and around the world. When she moved back to Western Washington shortly before the pandemic began, she didn’t realize until the very last minute that she would likely be moving back for good. After four and a half joyful years back in the region, she now has difficulty seeing herself anywhere else.
Growing up in Lake Stevens, Chriscaden began playing music at the age of five. She experimented with piano and clarinet before settling on playing the electric bass in her school’s stage band. Drawn to the instrument’s deeper tones and subtle but foundational role in the music, she took on the new challenge without telling her parents. They found out in the best possible way when she surprised them from the stage at a concert!
Chriscaden’s first upright bass was a rescue that her dad acquired years later at a bargain price in a Seattle pawn shop. “It had huge cracks in the top and bouts, and gut strings that had been broken and tied into knots so many times that you couldn’t tune it,” she recalls. Hammond Ashley Violins was able to work some magic – they were able to fix the bass up so thoroughly that Chriscaden still plays it today.
These formative years were punctuated by impactful encounters with bass legends at some of the Pacific Northwest’s premier jazz events. John Clayton’s master classes at Jazz Port Townsend influenced Chriscaden’s ability to think outside traditional stylistic boundaries. Enthusiastic attendance at Ray Brown’s clinic at the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival led to an amazing two-hour private lesson. When Chriscaden asked Brown how much she owed him for the instruction, he replied, “Twenty dollars…but if you can’t play these things the next time I see you, then it’s a hundred and twenty.”
After graduating from Washington State University with a degree in double bass performance, Chriscaden went on to become the first recipient of the University of Oregon’s master of music in jazz studies. These accomplishments led to a tenured position at Edmonds Community College, where she spent five years teaching music theory and ear training.
As young jazz musicians often do, Chriscaden soon found herself in New York, where she would spend the next 16 years. Life amidst the Big Apple’s teeming hive of culture, diversity, and art brought her opportunities to hear great music of all styles, meet living jazz legends, and take her talents around the world. Highlights from Chriscaden’s adventures on the road include an outdoor klezmer concert in Kraków, a 4th of July performance at the US ambassador’s residence in Bogotá, and an encounter with Leonard Nimoy while playing at his Synagogue Series in California.
At the end of Chriscaden’s time in New York, it became clear that several important life chapters were coming to a close. She returned to the Northwest in 2019 to care for her ailing father. While the circumstances were tragic, she found herself activated by the experience of reconnecting with the region’s beautiful mountains, trees, and people. “This is home,” she says. “This is where I belong.”
That said, Chriscaden’s reunion with her geographic and cultural roots didn’t initially involve any musical activity. Immersed in a full-time commitment to her dad’s care in Marysville, it would be over two years before Chriscaden returned to performing, or even practicing. However, a stray social media post led saxophonist and long-time friend Brent Jensen to invite her out of informal retirement.
When Jensen reached out, Chriscaden hadn’t touched her instrument in so long that the callouses on her fingers had disappeared. What began as an appearance at one of Jensen’s student jam sessions, however, led to a full-on revitalization of Chriscaden’s musical journey. “It’s been a whirlwind of wonderful musical opportunities since then,” she says. “I can’t believe I ever stopped. I love this music. I love playing the bass. I love making music with others.”
Chriscaden’s performance schedule is now back in full swing. Some of her regular collaborators include pianist Ann Reynolds, saxophonist Tobi Stone, and guitarist Jamie Findlay. Recent on-stage highlights include her first-ever performance at the Earshot Jazz Festival this past October (Celebrating Mary Lou Williams – An Evening of Live Performance and Film, organized by Reynolds and filmmaker Kay D. Ray) and a feature in the Bass Starts Here concert series at The Royal Room. She has also been invited to adjudicate at jazz festivals and contests around the region.
Of particular importance are Chriscaden’s collaborations with her husband, drummer Greg Williamson. They perform together in settings both minimal, such as their Brushes & Bass small combo, and maximal, like the Pony Boy All-Star Big Band. Williamson directs the latter every third Friday at Boxley’s in North Bend. The couple lives together with a delightful set of animal companions and a music studio on a property in Hobart that they call the Jazz Farm.
Some of their upcoming shows include a Thad Jones-centric program with the Pony Boy All-Star Big Band on December 15 and a Brushes & Bass performance with Jensen, Findlay, and trumpeter Steve Alboucq on January 26. Both of these shows will be at Boxley’s. In addition to ongoing performances, Chriscaden is looking to expand her footprint as a private teacher, work on educational materials for beginning bassists, and even finish a young adult novel series that she has been working on (“think The Da Vinci Code meets Harry Potter at a summer music camp, for ages 10 and up”).
Chriscaden’s future, once clouded with uncertainty, now feels bright and clear. “At the end of my time in New York, I had a couple of years where I went through all the major life changes at once – many of them twice,” she recounts of her move back to the Northwest. “It was grueling. It was heartbreaking. I felt like everything that had once given me any sense of stability in my life had been taken away from me. But maybe that’s what it took for me to end up back where I belonged all along.”