Hangin’ with Mr. Birkey

The Jazz Man Returns

by Stanley Naftaly

In 1985, trumpeter Nate Birkey came to Santa Barbara, intending to stay only for a minute. But during the next 20 years, he became a pillar of our town’s jazz community. His is the classic story of a young jazz musician honing his chops, developing his approach and philosophy, and finding his own voice. Almost two years ago, after much soul searching, Birkey took the plunge into the deep end of the jazz pool and moved to New York City. He’s coming back to town for a concert with his S.B. quintet at SOhO on July 26 and I took the occasion for a long, relaxed phone conversation with him about his East Coast odyssey.

Birkey was immediately taken aback by the scope and vitality of the N.Y.C. music scene, blown away by the Big Apple as musicians of every stripe have always been. His first six months were pretty scary — he often felt like he was on the edge of homelessness. He had expected that, with all the jazz clubs, there would be jobs available and the clubs would pay decently. In fact, he found — at least in the small clubs where work was sometimes available — that pay was lower than in Santa Barbara. As his proverbial “day job,” Birkey teaches private students and even coaches junior high school bands, before and after school.

“These are not necessarily jazz bands, but I try to incorporate jazz into all my teaching,” explained Birkey. “I had a concert with a bunch of fifth graders last week — a beginning band. I actually had them playing the classic, ‘Killer Joe,’ with improvised solos. It was so cool. When it comes time to do a concert and I see ’em stand up and play, and see the joy on their faces, that’s a huge reward for me. I almost get more of a thrill from that than I do from my own playing.”

After more than a year-and-a-half, people are beginning to recognize his name and he’s getting calls to play and record. He just finished an album with jazz vocalist Mercedes Hall at Sony studios. In another major milestone, the Nate Birkey Quartet (N.Y.C.’s edition) has been playing together for almost 18 months and just recorded a live album at a little club near Times Square. They’ll be touring this summer in Pennsylvania and Florida. Birkey will also play in Denver with a different group.

During the 1940s, there was a club called Minton’s upstairs in Harlem. With Thelonious Monk as house pianist, it was the after-hours spot for the heaviest cats in town. Minton’s has been closed for years, but it reopened last month with Monday night jam sessions. One Monday, Birkey asked to sit in. After they played a tune, he left the stand. The leader stopped him with, “I played a tune with you, now you have to play one with me.” Then the leader did a stereotypical Harlem thing and kicked off “Cherokee” at a completely unreasonable tempo, clearly to see if Birkey could hang. It was a throwback to the N.Y.C. cutting sessions of the ’40s and ’50s, where players would go head-to-head to see who was more powerful, and a testament to the current vitality of the big city’s scene. Nate Birkey had no trouble hanging — he’s clearly grown and prospered in the world’s toughest jazz milieu.

It’ll be good to hear him back here in Santa Barbara.

4-1-1 The Nate Birkey Quintet plays SOhO on Wednesday, July 26. Call 962-7776 or see

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