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August 22-28, 2007

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Fall Arts:
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The Vision Thing

Mel Graves' new jazz opus a highlight of Performance Sonoma

By Gabe Meline

At 10am on a recent morning, jazz bassist and composer Mel Graves reclines on his patio, grooming his large black dog and chomping on a cigar as the morning sun splashes down. The sound of Thelonious Monk pours out of the living room of his new Petaluma home, perched on a hill with a breathtaking view of beautiful Victorians, old grain mills and Sonoma Mountain. Once a decaying schoolhouse, the structure has recently been turned into residences, and Graves is clearly taken with his new digs. "It has that New York loft kind of feel," he beams.

Mel Graves has every reason to celebrate the good life. He is an undeniable local treasure, having promoted and cultivated jazz for over 25 years as a music professor at Sonoma State University who continually breathes new life into the genre. On this day, he's preparing rehearsals for what he calls a "culmination of my work in jazz composition," a two-hour jazz suite for a 10-piece ensemble entitled From the Past—Into the New. A year and a half in the making, it premieres Oct. 27 at Healdsburg's Raven Theater as part of Performance Sonoma.

Graves' composition is a highlight of Performance Sonoma, an unprecedented 10-week festival with 12 different arts organizations participating in a celebration of theater, music, dance, film, sculpture and multimedia. At the helm is Jennifer Sloan, executive director of the Arts Council of Sonoma County, who says that the festival, an outgrowth of 2005's Sculpture Sonoma, is "an opportunity to broaden and deepen and diversify—raising the bar, if you will, for the arts at large in Sonoma County" (see Sidebar).

Performance Sonoma's theme, "Crossing Borders," has inspired different interpretations of geographical, economic, cultural and generational perimeters. Graves, approaching retirement age, is tweaking that most impenetrable border of all: time.

At 60, Graves appears much younger, dressed in a plaid short-sleeve shirt, casual pants and New Balance sneakers. A slim gold chain hangs around his neck, and he speaks in a rich, confident baritone, occasionally punctuating sentences with self-effacing phrases like "What are you gonna do?" while giving the impression of knowing exactly what to do. From the Past—Into the New is his third large jazz project; Graves defines its concept as multilayered.

"It's not only all the things I've experienced in the past musically, and all the things I'm trying to put in to evolve my music," he explains, "but I also really like the mix of experiences, the mix of ages in the group itself. It's going to be very exciting."

Made up of friends, colleagues and both former and current students, the band will have just two rehearsals before the piece's public unveiling—a testament to the talent that Graves' clout can assemble, especially since the challenging work contains all sorts of curveballs for its players. "It includes everything historically, from stride piano up to the most modern of freer improvisation, all sorts of odd time-signature things in there," he says. "Something they're not going to see on a jazz standard, something different; they've got to dig in and do some creation of their own."

It might be tempting to evaluate a composition that's titled From the Past—Into the New as an encompassing statement on the cycle of life in an ever-changing world, but Graves dismisses this notion. "It's not that academic of a piece," he says, ashing his stogie into the ventilation holes of his barbecue lid. "It's just music. You know what I mean?"

Graves was born in West Virginia and grew up in Ohio, where even as a first-grader he remembers drawing a line on his classroom atlas from Cleveland to San Francisco. He played clarinet and tuba until his high school teacher handed him a string bass and told him to learn it. The instrument stuck. "Six weeks later," Graves says, "I was working professionally."

A the same time, about age 15, jazz entered Graves' life through his first album purchases: the famous Jazz at Massey Hall LP with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Max Roach and Bud Powell. "The other one was a West Coast thing that had Milt Hinton on it with Al Cohn and Zoot Sims." By the time he was 18, Graves was working six nights a week.

In 1967, he followed his first-grade inclination and moved out to San Francisco to study composition at the Conservatory of Music. Around the same time, he joined the Jerry Hahn Brotherhood, one of the earliest progenitors of jazz-rock fusion, recording an album for Columbia Records and playing both the Fillmore West and East with bands like Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears. So why isn't he a household name?

"That's a long story—crooked manager, scammed for a quarter million dollars—it's got all the elements," he says with achuckle. A run of handsomely paying studio work followed, but academia beckoned. "It was one of those vision things, you know," he says of returning to college. "I've always had these things, like the vision to come to San Francisco, or the vision to go back and get my masters, to leave this lucrative thing which was great money-wise but just turned me off musically."

Since 1982, Graves has been at SSU, watching his students scatter all over the globe. One is Adam Theis, fresh from a string of sold-out shows with his Shotgun Wedding Quintet, who chimes in about his three years studying with Graves. "Mel is one of those folks who is known among students for telling it like it is," he says. "That took its toll on my ego sometimes, but in the long run made me a much harder worker." Theis remembers receiving cassettes from Graves chock-full of hand-selected music, an indicator that ultimately jazz is very personal and unique to each individual.

"Mel actually encouraged many musicians," Theis says, "by not giving a fixed answer to questions like 'Which note sounds best over this chord?'"

The answer, of course, is whichever note one chooses. From the Past—Into the New has improvised solos, duos and even a massive free blowing segment with 10 instruments playing 12-tone rows in different tempos. There's humor, of course; at the beginning of the fifth movement, Graves splices together quotes from 30 different blues numbers ("I was thinking it would be good to have a contest," he laughs, "to see if anybody could name them all") and elsewhere, drum solos and exotic rhythms crop up.

But probably most amazing of all is that Graves, without a piano at the time of writing, composed the entire two-hour piece from memory, without any instrument to work out the arrangements. "I'm really old-school, for one thing," he says, noting that he keeps his charts in an old icebox, never writing on the computer. "I like hand-written parts."

The mind reels at the achievement of writing an entire two-hour, five-movement suite for 10 instruments off the top of one's head, but Graves shrugs it off.

"I didn't have a piano," he says. "What are you gonna do?"

Live, from Sonoma County

Performance Sonoma aims for inclusion

While there are several unique, one-of-a-kind events folded into the Performance Sonoma rubric, many of the participating theater companies and even the Santa Rosa Symphony would be hosting work during the fall season anyway. The Arts Council's Jennifer Sloan explains what makes this different than an ordinary fall. "Because of the 'Crossing Borders' idea," she says, "it gives us the opportunity to show the breadth and depth of the performing arts in Sonoma County by having a theme that runs through all the performances; it allows us to expand and cross-pollinate audiences.

"We're encouraging people who haven't been to the more progressive theater to dip their toes in."

Of note in the following slate of live art opps are the several that make a distinct effort to entice the underserved Latino community. Rabble-Fish Theater is projecting Spanish supertitles with its work; the American Philharmonic presents the first performance of its La Pasión Latina in Roseland before another gig at the more usual Wells Fargo Center. "That's one of the opportunities," Sloan says. "We're encouraging participants to really break ground of their efforts and to serve all members of the community."

As for what she's personally going to be attending, Sloan hedges, as anyone would when faced with such stellar choices. "I'm looking forward to participating in as many of these events as I can. There's so much fun and energy. It's tough to pick or select which ones are 'sticky' for me, if you will," she laughs.

Performance Sonoma officially kicks off on Friday, Sept. 7, during the First Friday Art Walk in downtown Santa Rosa, with free performances by the American Philharmonic Brass Quintet and the Santa Rosa Symphony Jazz Quartet from 7pm to 9pm in Courthouse Square. Other highlights include Pegasus Theater Company's run with The Sugarbean Sisters starting Aug. 25; the Sebastopol Center for the Arts' "Crossing Cultures" slate of world music, drama and dance running each Friday evening Sept. 7-Oct. 26; Conversations with Elders at the Spreckels Performing Arts Center, Sept. 13-16; Sonoma County Repertory Theater's Tuesdays with Morrie, Sept. 21-Oct. 28; Rabble-Fish Theater's original interdisciplinary look at the perimeters of self, Crossing Point (supertitled in Spanish), Sept. 27 and 29; Sixth Street Playhouse's Grapes of Wrath, Oct. 5-20; the Sonoma Community Center's original one-woman show by Tia Madison, Brand New Shoes, Oct. 5-14; the American Philharmonic's performance of La Pasión Latina, Oct. 6-7 (first performance in Roseland); Cinnabar Theater's production of Gian Carlo Menotti's Cold War opera The Consul, Oct. 12-Nov. 10; and the Santa Rosa Symphony's Music of the Spheres, Oct. 13-15.

For complete details or to purchase tickets, go to or call the arts council at 707.579.ARTS.

—Gretchen Giles

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