Pianist John Beasley has been in Los Angeles for over 30 years, playing pianos in gin joints, movie studios and everywhere in between. He has been a steadily employed sideman since he was a teenager starting out with Sergio Mendes and has most recently released an LP under the name 3 Brave Souls, alongside funk kingpins Ndugu Chancler and Darryl Jones.
For the last four Wednesdays in January at the Blue Whale, however -- starting tomorrow night -- Beasley will be offering up three completely different ensembles under his own leadership including, for the first time, his own big band.
Beasley will start his residency off in a familiar place, working two sets of duets with incomparable vocalist Dwight Trible. The following week, Beasley will play two trio sets of obscure Brazilian music, sidestepping the bossas and sambas of everyone's cocktail hour. It is the last two Wednesdays where Beasley will debut his most ambitious project, Monk'estra.
"People think I'm crazy for putting a big band together in this day and age," says Beasley in the backyard of his sun-soaked Venice home. "When I was a kid, my dad brought home these Thad Jones/Mel Lewis records and I just went ape over them."
From that point on there was no stopping him. His father, a teacher at North Texas State University and performer with the Dallas/Ft. Worth Symphony, nurtured his son's interest. "Once I got the bug, he showed me how to make a sketch. He would show me how to not make the trombones so muddy and where to put the saxophones." The tutoring paid off when he won a scholarship for a Stan Kenton clinic while still in junior high school.
"I got into playing jazz piano by wanting to be a big band guy. I've had glimpses of it, arranging for singers and of course doing TV work. It wouldn't necessarily be a big band but I've had that feeling of writing something and then hearing it played back by an orchestra. That's a great feeling."
But it is only recently that Beasley got the chance to get back into the big band game. "About four or five years ago, Charles Owens with the Luckman Orchestra asked me to start writing some big band charts. I reconnected and found out that I could still be experimental with it. I didn't feel boxed into things."
He has assembled an all-star 17 piece ensemble for the residency, drawing from young guns and experienced locals including powerhouse drummer Ronald Bruner Jr. and saxophonist Bob Sheppard. "I put a rehearsal band together just to see what would happen and it went well. It was kind of quirky with a certain ugly beauty in there. When the residency came up I thought there's my opportunity. It was important to have a goal and it's about fellowship because there's certainly not a lot of money in it."
With a few arrangements still getting touched up, Beasley is excited for the potential , rattling off new ideas into his iPhone when the inspiration strikes. He's enthusiastic about his opportunity this month to show off his leadership abilities and diverse piano skills but most importantly, he's interested in having a good time. "It's not a formal concert. The Blue Whale has a great bar. You can dance if you want. I would love that. I feel like we have to get the music back to the street in some way. It's gotten too classicified and calcified. We got to let the good times roll. This is fun music."