Piano man

David Ake strives for musical liberty and irreverence in jazz music

Jazz pianist and assistant professor David Ake performs on one of his pianos inside his office at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Jazz pianist and assistant professor David Ake performs on one of his pianos inside his office at the University of Nevada, Reno.

It’s a pretty good crowd for a Sunday night.

While the dinnertime guests sip from their beers and margaritas, five jazz musicians are tearin’ into the second set of their jam session at the Hacienda Restaurant and Bar. Pianist David Ake, drummer Matt Mayhall and bassist Hans Halt get the rhythm going while saxophonist Francis Vanek and trumpet player Larry Engstrom blast out the notes of Charlie Mingus’ “Boogie Stop Shuffle.” Ake bops his head along with the rhythm, his mouth enunciates each note and his hands glide across the keys while the piano rocks and rolls. It’s an energetic performance, and the audience responds with applause and cheers. The musicians thank the crowd and launch into the next song.

Although Ake often performs at the weekly For the Love of Jazz jams, he’s most likely to be seen at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he’s an assistant professor in music.

Two days before the Sunday night jam, Ake was in the more subdued environment of the Church Fine Arts Complex. Inside his office, two pianos are situated apart from each other. A poster of saxophonist John Coltrane hangs on one wall, and a Chicago Cubs pennant and an Apple computer poster with the slogan “Think Different” decorate the opposite wall.

Although the youthful and smartly dressed Ake at first strikes you as an easygoing type, there’s a bit of a rebel under the surface.

“Jazz can become very self-important, you know—stuffy,” he said. “There is a sense of tradition and a sense of history, and good players are aware of the history, but to become so bound to a sense of tradition and so bound to a reverence to past masters, I think it really handcuffs you. And it’s just not as much fun. The music should be fun, joyous.”

Irreverent is a word Ake often uses to describe how music should be. He likes to break down musical boundaries, he said, and he admires artists whose music exudes energy, intensity and urgency. He lists The Who and John Coltrane as examples.

He credits his time spent at the California Institute of the Arts, where he earned a master’s degree and studied under jazz bassist Charlie Haden. In that creative environment—where he played with jazz musicians such as Ravi Coltrane (son of John Coltrane), Scott Colley and Ralph Alessi—Ake said he was able to take chances with his music and learned not to be afraid of making mistakes.

"[Haden’s] whole thing was play as if you’ve never heard music before, which is impossible but very liberating,” he explained. “You don’t have to worry about impressing anyone, just play sounds.”

The Chicago native didn’t really discover jazz until he was in his late teens. As a child, he began playing classical and blues piano and had moved on to playing organ and keyboards in rock bands as a young teen. But at 17, he heard a recording by jazz pianist Keith Jarrett, Solo Concerts Bremen/Lausanne, which he said changed his life. Jarrett’s improvised solos and the sense of liberation inspired Ake in his music. At that moment, his path in life became clear.

“I was lucky in the sense that I never went through the kind of agony of ‘What do I want to do when I grow up?'” he said. “It was always [that] I wanted to play music. It didn’t sit well with the rest of my family, but they’ve since come along.”

Ake attended the University of Miami, which has one of the top jazz programs in the nation. After graduating in 1983, he moved to Munich, Germany, the home of Jarrett’s record label, ECM, and played in a group called Blue. After two years in Munich, he returned to the United States and spent time in New York City and Los Angeles working with and learning from various jazz musicians. He recorded with several musicians and even did some solo work.

He also continued his formal education, graduating from the California Institute of the Arts and later from UCLA, where he earned his doctorate in musicology in 1996.

While a graduate student at UCLA, he and several other grad students participated in the Reno Jazz Festival in 1996. They ended up winning an award.

Several years later, he would return to the city to take a position at UNR. He has been with the university for 2 1/2 years, teaching applied music and music history. He has also participated in the Reno Jazz Festival as an adjudicator. This year will be his third festival.

During the event, professional musicians and several hundred groups of students from across the country virtually take over the UNR campus for three days of jazz workshops and performances.

"[W]e have so many musicians listening to each other, talking to each other, playing with each other—it inspires everybody from the teachers on down to the middle school kids,” he said. “The music is alive and well when you see it presented in this way.”

He particularly looks forward to this Thursday night, when he and his band, The Collective—which includes fellow music department faculty members Vanek, Engstrom, Halt and Andrew Heglund—kick off the festival with a concert featuring drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts.

“We’re really excited about playing with him,” he said. “That’s the benefit of being in-house: You get to play these fun concerts.”

The Collective, originally the Reno Jazz Quintet, have been playing around town for several years now. Ake joined the group about two years ago. Their latest album, North, features four of his compositions.

Ake said he’s impressed by the quality of musicians within the local jazz scene.

“It’s a surprising, vibrant scene here,” he said. “I was not prepared for the level of musicianship here. They are outstanding musicians. … It’s nice to see that there are a number of generations playing jazz. … All these generations get to play together. Each brings something to the other: energy from the young cats and experience from the other guys. It’s a very creative scene.”

Ake also admires how some UNR students are forming their own bands and playing around town. He cites Brian Landrus and local band Five Before Dawn as young musicians who are writing their own music and getting regular gigs. He encourages more people to get out and support the scene.

“I think for students or younger people, to get out and see what these younger people are doing, I think it’s empowering,” he said. “… It’s like, ‘Well, shit, if he can have a band, why can’t I have a band?'”

Although he doesn’t get to write music as often as he’d like, Ake has been focusing on other projects, such as researching for a book he plans to write about American jazz musicians living in Paris during World War II. His first book, Jazz Cultures, will be published in November through the University of California Press. On the personal front, Ake (who turns 40 next month) will marry his fiancée, Hillary Case, in June.

The musician and longtime Chicago Cubs fan said he couldn’t imagine doing anything different with his life. His situation allows him to teach, write, research and play music, and he likes that balance.

“Musicians are always seen as shady characters somehow, until you become a professor, and then somehow you’re all right," he said. "But professional musicians, [they’re regarded as] a little sketchy, you know? But it is a noble path, making music. You know, c’mon, what’s more beautiful than that? Well, maybe playing baseball …"