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Get to Know Jason Hainsworth

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The Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and RJAM Executive Director talks about his lifelong passion for the saxophone, musical influences, and creating a more equitable music industry.

June 8, 2021 by Tim Records

Educator. Mentor. Saxophonist. Jason Hainsworth wears many hats at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. One minute he’s mentoring Roots, Jazz, and American Music (RJAM) students in the classroom. The next minute he’s jamming with them as part of RJAM side-by-side concerts at SFJazz. Later, he is leading the school’s diversity, equity, and inclusion work and moderating a panel discussion with guest artist Jessie Montgomery.

Even though his roles at SFCM keep him busy, Hainsworth never loses the passion for music and teaching that brought him to the Conversatory.

Below Hainsworth discusses how he got his start in jazz, his musical influences, RJAM, and his vision for a more equitable future.


What was your childhood like and how did you get started in music?

My brother played saxophone. He is about 10 years older than me and eventually he stopped playing the saxophone, so we had the instrument laying around the house. I told my mother that I wanted to play the drums and naturally, she said, “Hell no, we have this saxophone here, so you're going to play the saxophone.” That’s how it all started. I took lessons and played in elementary and middle school bands. Over time, other people noticed that I was pretty good. They told me that I should try out for All-City or All-County events and I would either win an award or be able to play in those bands. I started getting accepted into performing arts middle schools and performing arts high schools. One thing led to another and I began to take private lessons. Fast forward a couple decades and I’m here.

Were you interested in jazz right away?

Yes, I was interested in jazz right away. I remember seeing and hearing my brother play the saxophone. I was in kindergarten and he was in middle school. I heard his band play a Count Basie song and I thought, “Wow, I want to play that. I want to play in a band that sounds like that.” Pretty crazy for a five-year-old. I will say my musical interests went in and out of jazz as every youngster does, especially growing up in the 80s. I listened to Run DMC, LL Cool J, Public Enemy, Queen Latifah, and Prince—I was a huge Prince fan. Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder, of course. All of those interests were kind of intertwined.


You've talked about your brother a little bit, but who are some other big musical influences in your life—teachers or people that you listen to?

I was very fortunate to come from a strong community of black musicians. They really believed in seeing a child and saying, “I can show this person something.” They would see me, as young as 11 or 12—the saxophone at that point was bigger than I was—trying to play songs and going to concerts. They would pull me aside and we’d shake hands and they’d show me some little line that I could practice. Those were the local people. My high school band director, Dr. Robert Morgan, still has a big influence on my musical life and is someone that I mirrored in terms of career and musical philosophy.

As I grew up and started listening more intently to jazz, I loved John Coltrane and was obsessed with Branford Marsalis and Wynton Marsalis. Those last two were really influential to me because they were alive. It was really important for me to see someone living that actually looked like and wasn’t much older than me play jazz. YouTube wasn't around and DVDs weren't readily available to actually see a video of John Coltrane. It made them mythical figures. How did someone like that play so fast or how does he have such a beautiful sound? I couldn't figure it out but being able to go see Wynton or Branford Marsalis or Chick Corea play made it register in my brain that it was actually possible.

What's been the most difficult part of your journey to getting to where you are today?

I don't think there's one particular thing that has been most difficult about my journey. Some of the difficulties are making your way not musically, but just in terms of maneuvering around society. As we are witnessing things in our country right now—which have improved—there’s still the simple fact that it's really hard surviving in this country as a person of color. That's just a point-blank statement. So my difficulties had some affiliation with the fact that I am a black person in the United States. That means having the opportunity to study music or be a part of certain ensembles, because of how I look, or being awarded certain awards, whether it's scholarship dollars or awards that are based upon my talent level as a composer or performer. But the beauty of music is that typically, the community of musicians is merit-based, meaning if they want you in their band, and they hear that you have value to being in their band, then usually, that trumps most things. That's a great thing. However, the work that it takes to get to the point where you are noticed can be a difficult proposition.


You’ve been newly appointed SFCM’s Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and Special Advisor to the President. What changes do you think need to be made for the music industry to be more diverse and inclusive?

I tend to think about these things in two ways. There's a short-term aspiration and a long-term one. The short term is just defining what ideally our musical world should look like. That's a hard thing to unlearn for people, because it's not like this has been around for 50 years; it’s been around for centuries. I'm not just speaking in terms of the U.S. I'm talking globally. We need to start acknowledging that classical music is not the sole source or means of art. Musicians from all around the globe have created just as important, if not, in some respects, more important aspects of music that have influenced all genres. We can all do something to improve how we treat one another as musicians and members of society. Part of my role is to let my colleagues as well as my students know that it is okay to have the conversations that have been pushed aside for far too long. Nothing has improved because we tend to ignore the giant elephant in the corner.

It is okay to have the conversations that have been pushed aside for far too long.” - Jason Hainsworth

The long term thing is trying to provide a space for students and faculty at SFCM to ask themselves,“Okay, now, what do we do? How do we go about fixing these things?” That means internally at the Conservatory, but also externally in terms of the Bay Area, in terms of the West Coast, in terms of spreading and hopefully filtering this type of outlook throughout the entire U.S. and then out into the entire musical world. I hope it's not pollyannaish that I make that up—or just overly idealistic—but that's how I think about things.

Are you hopeful that things are improving? What kind of progress do you see?

I tend to be a goal-oriented person. I also tend not to sugarcoat things. Believe me, if things were crappy, I would absolutely say so. But I do see that there are improvements. Oftentimes, it goes back to how even the smallest things like the work we’re doing behind the scenes as a school that I already know will make a lasting impact. I'm very proud of these things. I tend not to put them all out because I don't like jinxing myself. As soon as I announce something, I have a fear of it going to crap immediately. But there are absolutely things that we're doing behind the scenes that will make a huge impact for years to come which is awesome. The sheer fact that we now have a task force on equity and inclusion of former graduates of the Conservatory is an amazing thing and it will be an apparatus that will keep all of us honest. The sheer fact that this is our inaugural year of having an emerging black composers competition. That's a really big deal right there and something that would not have come to fruition without the support of the administrators at the school—President Stull, but also that task force holding our feet to the fire and saying, “Listen, we've been an institution for 100 years now, let's change the game up a little bit and make something really long-lasting for the school.”


In addition to leading diversity work at SFCM, you’re also the chair of the RJAM program and a teacher. Can you talk about your approach with students and what you hope to pass on to them? What makes the RJAM program unique?

My overarching approach to the students or the “cats,” as I call them, is being a mentor to them. They have tremendous applied and ensemble faculty that they work with daily, but I want to make sure that I give each student in our program the best experience they can possibly have. Oftentimes, that may mean pulling them aside and having a one on one lesson with them, and me saying, “Well, let me show you something that maybe you haven't worked on, just as an instrumentalist.” Or it may be something as simple as saying, “I hear that you're checking out these musicians, you should check out these musicians as well.” And me just sending them a long list of albums that they probably have never heard before or pulling them into my office to tell them that what they just did was incredibly stupid and never do that again. It runs the whole spectrum, but I still remember that the best thing my teachers gave me was their time.

The best thing my teachers gave me was their time.” - Jason Hainsworth

That may not have meant having X's and O's conversations with them. But it could have meant just that they saw that on that day I had no money, and I hadn't eaten, so they took me out to get pizza and told me about their day or what they were practicing. Those types of experiences are important and those are—I'm happy to say—the types of experiences that all of our students have with their respective teachers.

Creating a culture and a vibe in a jazz department is extremely vital. We can't make our department feel like a classical department because we're not. Our performance halls are jazz clubs not Carnegie Hall (even though it does happen occasionally). Our ultimate Mecca is usually a really nice venue that we can play at for a week-long engagement that probably has about 15 tables in it and serves drinks. Our gigs can start anywhere from ten at night to two in the morning, so our vibe has to be that of a laid-back atmosphere but still has the formal structure of a school. We teach our students the basics and jazz fundamentals as well as how to navigate that type of jazz climate as young, professional musicians.

We have such an amazing collection of musicians on our faculty—their presence and willingness to be here and be a part of this experience is unmatched. The very cool thing about our faculty is that they all want to be here. It really shows because we have so many faculty that live on the east coast and that's a long flight. But when they're here, they are all-in and they take extra time to get to know all of our students, which is really how relationships and careers are built. The sheer experience of getting to know all of these people as they come in, such as Warren Wolf, Steve Davis, Chad Lefkowitz-Brown, or Julian Lage, and to work with any of these world-famous musicians is amazing.

We also have a collection of amazingly talented students too, which you would not find concentrated in one place at another university—maybe you’d have one or two students that stick out from the others. But here, everyone in the jazz program is really, really, really good. What that enables us to do is raise our musical level up on a semester basis, because there's a healthy level of competition among the students. They don't feel obligated to be in a serious competition of “I have to play better than this person.” It's more about “I have to find my own individual voice, based on what my teachers are sharing that I should improve upon.” That’s a very different experience than your usual school of jazz studies.

Get to know Jason Hainsworth and explore SFCM’s Roots, Jazz, and American Music program.