Drummer Takes Off-Beat Path to Success

Photo of Jaz Sawyer

Search Chant (Drum Solo) Jaz Sawyer Search Chant (Drum Solo) by Jaz Sawyer.

Jaz Sawyer is Bay Area through and through. He started playing drums as a young boy at Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco. “I learned under the maestro and legendary choir and music director John Turk,” recalls Sawyer. “He and the band let me play on songs and jam after the celebration.”

When he wasn’t playing in church, Sawyer was at the Haight Ashbury Music Center using the drum set, or in Aquatic Park playing in drum circles. He lived and breathed percussion. “I played trumpet for two years in elementary school, but all during that time I played along to records on my makeshift kid drum set from the music store.”

Despite his passion and talent, Sawyer’s road to SFCM’s Pre-College wasn’t straightforward. “As a young musician, I found formal study and performance a challenge. I was used to playing with records like Stevie Wonder at home and at community events, and I dreamed I would learn how it—a music career—comes together. I was completely fascinated with figuring out the process and the journey.”

His mother, a single parent, was supportive of his dreams and helped take him (and the drum set) to concerts and gigs. “There was always a fifty-fifty chance the venue would have drum equipment. This taught me how to plan, from deciding what to bring to mapping out when to take the bus or arranging a ride from a family member.”

Sawyer recalls seeing commercials for SFCM programs with then spokesperson Bobby McFerrin: “My mom would always encourage me to sign up, but I hesitated for two years. I learned how to keep a beat and groove without much formal training. The idea of reading drum set patterns and exercises didn’t seem like a natural learning process at first.” However, once he got to SFCM and other programs like the Stanford Jazz Workshop, things started clicking. He found mentors and inspiration in teachers and other performers, and he began to relish the challenge of the path he’d chosen. “I finally appreciated the concept of challenging myself. I understood the importance of the formal study of music.”

Things really got cooking from there. At SFCM, Sawyer earned a scholarship and was inspired to make the most of the chance. “There were not a lot of kids that looked like me there. I felt a sense of responsibility and realized that not many other kids had such a great opportunity to participate in the program. I spent almost every other day practicing at SFCM after school. I also really loved going to the music library. Sometimes I would spend two or three hours listening to recordings, reading all the liner notes, the scores, at times listening to a piece more than once. It was very inspiring to hear how the professionals did it.”

To say percussion is Sawyer’s calling doesn’t begin to do it justice, and even in his early years there were days in which he was immersed in music from dawn to well past dusk. In the 10th grade, his Saturday’s were spent learning solfège, participating in six-hour rehearsals with the prestigious San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra, and then heading to a Latin jazz gig in the evening. For Sawyer, there was—and still is—no life without music.

Today he is a sought-after performer and educator with a special commitment to paying it forward and providing opportunities for people who are underserved and underrepresented. “I feel the strong obligation to give back to the community that supported me. My goal is to reassure students of their confidence and provide actionable items. I want to break down stigmas around who gets to be successful. I know what it’s like to struggle, and it can be frustrating. But passion and perseverance will get you to your end goal. I’m here to make sure that happens.”

Sawyer has played on over 75 albums, appeared on-screen in TV shows and films, and tours widely each year. He has performed and recorded with Wynton Marsalis, Abbey Lincoln, Michael Tilson Thomas, and George Benson, to name a few, and is currently earning a doctorate in education and organizational leadership at Northcentral University. In April 2020, he’ll play at SFJAZZ with SFCM student Zoh Hamrick, saxophone.

He cites his time at SFCM as providing fundamental training for his future projects in orchestras and jazz ensembles. To young musicians just setting out on their careers he offers words of reassurance and advice:

“It takes time and effort to develop a career in music. The time you put into practice and developing yourself will return in many ways of success. Always do what you’re passionate about while developing your skills, and the accomplishments will come both small and big. Ask for help. Communicate with your teachers and take care of your family because you will need their support for your resources, encouragement, and they will help you to reach your endeavors so can you can fully realize your talent. Finally, value yourself, treat others with respect, and always remain humble.”