Hot jazz, the style popularized by Louis Armstrong and his peers in the 1920s, has been out of favour for a long, long time. Yet its combination of infectious high spirits and bluesy eloquence refuses to die.
While it will never command more than a small part of the jazz audience’s attention, it’s enjoyed regular revivals: most notably in the 1950s, with the Dixieland craze, and again in the 1990s, as the byproduct of a more generalized interest in swing. A generation later, the world seems ready to revisit the idiom once more, this time with help from an unusual locale: Chilliwack.
That’s where Bria Skonberg hails from, and while she’s now living in the jazz centre of the universe, the cofounder of the recently established New York Hot Jazz Festival credits her Fraser Valley upbringing with forming her musical preferences—along with giving her the multitasking tools that have allowed her to build a career in a competitive environment.
“My first love of jazz came from joining the Chilliwack Middle School band—it was like an 18-piece jazz band, and I wanted to join just because the older kids looked like they were having so much fun,” Skonberg explains by phone from her home.
The 30-year-old singer and trumpet player ended up having fun too, but music wasn’t her only extracurricular activity. “I played a lot of sports, I was involved in student council, and I organized events,” she says, adding that she wound up with “a melting pot of skills” that she still uses every day.
On the musical side, Skonberg benefited from further study at what was then Capilano College, and from on-stage exposure with ageless big-band leader Dal Richards. She did well enough that she made the cover of this magazine in 2010, shortly before her move to New York, noting at the time that she needed “to get uprooted in order to learn a lot more”.
Her plan worked: since heading east, she’s made two well-received solo albums, started the aforementioned hot-jazz festival, and established a creative rapport with musicians as diverse as swing veteran Warren Vaché and hard-bop trombonist Wycliffe Gordon.
She’s also become a bit of a conduit for other local musicians wanting to test their mettle in the Apple. The quintet that she’s bringing to the Vancouver International Jazz Festival includes a pair of former Cap classmates: Evan Arntzen on sax and clarinet, and bassist Sean Cronin.
“I love those guys,” she says, laughing. And although she doesn’t claim that she’s mentoring the new kids in town, she’s likely passing on some of the lessons she’s already learned.
“Early on after moving to New York, I got some great advice from this trumpeter, Lew Soloff,” she explains. “He said, ‘New York isn’t exactly a place to find yourself. There’s always going to be somebody who plays faster and higher, and comparisons happen. But the best chance you have for survival is to figure out what makes you unique—learn that and own it.’ So I’m putting more of myself into the music these days.
“What I do is always hard for me to explain,” Skonberg continues, “but it’s like a mixture of New Orleans jazz and world music, with a little bit of Spanish flavour. I just take all that and mix it with Chilliwack, and something comes out!”
The Bria Skonberg Quintet plays Performance Works on June 26.