Tacoma Jazz Walk: A conversation with musician Kareem Kandi

Saxophonist Kareem Kandi is arguably the busiest musician in Tacoma.

When he’s not hustling for gigs and performing four to five nights per week throughout the Puget Sound area, he’s teaching private music lessons, as well as the Jazz Improvisation Class at Tacoma School of the Arts (he has taught there for nearly 15 years).

Last year, Kandi launched the Tacoma Jazz Association (see “JazzClubsNW: Education, performance non-profit expands to Tacoma,” Tacoma Daily Index, Aug. 12, 2015), which is part of JazzClubsNW, a non-profit organization dedicated to live jazz performance and educational programs in the Pacific Northwest (the organization has chapters in North Bend and Bellingham).

And he recently completed his first year as a member of the Tacoma Arts Commission (see “4 local residents join Tacoma Arts Commission,” Tacoma Daily Index, Nov. 19, 2014).

“I’m learning a lot from the other side of things—not from the performer’s side, but from the City’s side—and how things are put together,” Kandi, 37, recently told me. “It’s a great education in seeing how things are working behind the scenes for the arts as a whole. I like being more knowledgeable about what’s going on in the city and being more plugged into the arts community. Also, I can tell more people about what’s going on, whether we’re talking about paintings or art exhibitions or stuff that’s happening at the Pantages or the Broadway Center. Now I can be an advocate.”

Kandi’s latest project is Tacoma Jazz Walk (see “Tacoma Jazz Walk: 9 downtown venues host 50 musicians March 5,” Tacoma Daily Index, Feb. 10, 2016). On Sat., March 5, between 6 p.m. and midnight, 13 groups (more than four-dozen musicians) will perform at nine downtown Tacoma venues—Tacoma City Ballet, Tacoma Brewing Co., Serenity Spa, B2 Fine Art Gallery/Studios, Good Karma, B Sharp Coffee House, Sanford and Son Antiques, Abby’s on Broadway, Abby’s on Broadway – Wine Shop—as part of Tacoma Jazz Walk. Adult tickets are $20 in advance ($30 the day of the event). Youth (under 15) tickets are $15 in advance ($20 the day of the event). One ticket will get you into all Tacoma Jazz Walk concerts. More information is available online at tacomajazzwalk.com.

I met Kandi earlier this month at B Sharp Coffee House on Opera Alley in downtown Tacoma. As our interview began, he reminded me that we first met almost 15 years ago. He was a regular performer at the Hopvine Pub in Seattle while completing a Bachelor’s Degree in jazz performance and composition at Cornish College of the Arts. Meanwhile, I was writing for several jazz magazines and often turned to Kandi as a reliable interview source. “I’ve got the articles at home in a file cabinet somewhere,” he told me.

Our interview has been condensed and edited for publication.

Local musician and educator Kareem Kandi will present Tacoma Jazz Walk in March. (PHOTO BY TODD MATTHEWS)
Local musician and educator Kareem Kandi will present Tacoma Jazz Walk in March. (PHOTO BY TODD MATTHEWS)

TACOMA DAILY INDEX: When I got the press release for Tacoma Jazz Walk, I thought, “Fifty musicians in one night at nine downtown Tacoma venues. It’s like some sort of Jazz Thunderdome.”

KAREEM KANDI: Yeah. I don’t know the actual number, but it’s a considerable lineup—I want to say at least nine or ten bands, and the same amount of venues, and they are all local businesses right here in downtown Tacoma. The idea is that you purchase a wristband and you can go from club to club and listen to as much music as you want over the course of an evening.

INDEX: This isn’t a new idea, but it’s a new idea for Tacoma, right?

KANDI: It’s a new idea for Tacoma. Basically, our partners at Boxley’s Jazz Clubs and JazzClubsNW do a similar thing and so we are doing the maiden voyage of that here. We are trying it out and seeing how it goes—with many heart palpitations.

INDEX: Why ‘heart palpitations?’ How so?

KANDI: I’ve lived in Tacoma my whole life and I’ve seen how things go in terms of promoting. For several years I did the booking for a festival that was put on by the City of Tacoma, Tacoma School of the Arts, and Metro Parks. It was called Showcase Tacoma. It was a huge collaboration with all the different facets of art, local music, and vendors—and it was in downtown Tacoma in the summertime, great weather. I booked all the music for that. I had a great budget to book bands, and it was like pulling teeth to get people to come down and attend the event. It was a free event put on by the whole City—lots of press, lots of advertising for it. Still, never got the numbers that they wanted. That was a collaboration with all those different entities and the arts scene as a whole.

That’s in the back of my mind—that we really have get on top of marketing and advertising and really get the word out there to that niche market of the public to let them know so they can get out and take part in it.

I know that there are people that love jazz and love to hear it and want to come out and see it. But if they don’t know about it, it’s going to be a tough one. Hopefully, this will be successful. I think it will. My gut tells me that was a while ago. There’s more people in the city now, there’s more nightlife downtown and people down here. The pulse has changed a little bit. I think it will be successful. That’s the hope. I feel pretty ready. I’ve got a lot of folks helping onboard to volunteer. The partners at JazzClubsNW have been very, very helpful with the infrastructure of things. I think it will be good.

INDEX: Something that has always struck me about you is that you’re more than just a musician. You are a businessperson, too. Where did that come from?

KANDI: It was borne out of necessity. I wanted to work and continue to play. In order to do that, I had to keep the performances successful. In order to do that, you have to deal with the business side of it. You have to. Yes, I want to play. Yes, I want my music to be of a high artistic integrity both to myself and to the audience. But you can’t ignore the fact that you are running a business that is getting people to come out and buy your product, which is listening to your music or selling a CD. You have to treat it as a business. Yes, it’s art. But you still have to make a living, which means you can’t ignore the business aspect of it.

I try to tell musicians—I see it all the time, and I can’t fault them for it because their job is to show up and play. But you can’t just look at it from that perspective. You have to look at it from the club’s perspective, too. If the club is not making money, we’re not going to continue to have places to play. We have to consider it.

INDEX: Who do you have lined up for Tacoma Jazz Walk?

KANDI: Because it’s the Tacoma Jazz Walk, I tried to get some folks here in Tacoma who could get a good draw. Pearl Django—a very well-known Gypsy Jazz Band—one of the members lives here in Tacoma, so there’s the Tacoma connection. [Saxophonist] Tracy Knoop is going to be performing with [saxophonist] Bill Ramsay. Bill was with the Count Basie Band and has been on the jazz scene for forever and a day. Johnaye Kendrick, who is a vocalist who just moved to Tacoma from Seattle. She is originally from San Diego. She was in [trumpeter] Nicholas Payton’s group for awhile, as well as toured with [bassist] Christian McBride. She’s amazing. I’m a huge fan of her music. She’s been with a bunch of folks and did something with the Thelonious Monk Institute. She’s very, very good and very well-known. Cara Francis, a great singer in town. David Joyner’s Trio—he’s a pianist and head of the Jazz Department at Pacific Lutheran University. There’s a young band called the 322 Jazz Collective, which is made up of a bunch of students from Pacific Lutheran University. They are doing quite well for themselves. Velocity, which is kind of a jazz fusion band. Because most of the members are from here in Tacoma, I put them on the docket, even though we are trying to do mostly straight ahead jazz. [Trumpeter] Lance Buller, who has been in Tacoma forever. [Trumpeter] Rich Wetzel—he’s bringing in a small group, not his big band. Gary Schutes, one of the great trombonists in the Pacific Northwest, he lives in University Place. He will be performing.

INDEX: What has it been like to get businesses and venues onboard to participate?

KANDI: Not too bad. A lot of people saw the value in wanting to participate—particularly the businesses around here. I’m sure they know about B Sharp Coffee House and the music they present on a regular basis. Also, the businesses are just open for business as they normally are. We’re paying for all the musicians in the bands, for the most part—I mean, we have some sponsors—but the venues are just opening up some space. They have nothing to lose. Basically, we’re bringing in all these customers and a live band and all they have to do is be open. It’s a win-win for them in that regard. There’s no overhead for them to pay. It’s only a boon to local businesses.

INDEX: I’m guessing some of the venues have not hosted jazz before. Is this a way to maybe create more venue opportunities for musicians beyond the one-night event?

KANDI: I think so. Yes. You can put live music anywhere. The question is whether you can make it financially viable. That’s the thing. The bottom line. Certainly, yes, if some of these venues see that there is music in there and it can work, they might be willing to try it and take a chance on it.

Todd Matthews is editor of the Tacoma Daily Index, an award-winning journalist, and the author of several books. His journalism is collected online at wahmee.com.