November 13th: The Native Son

13 Nov

Portland State Music: 30 for the 30th

Name: Brian Ward

Instrument: piano

Student of Darrell Grant, Charley Gray

B.M.1999  M.S.T.2001 Portland State University

Putting Music Forward

There is a type of musician that once was ubiquitous in Jazz – the Native Son.  These players were the fixtures in every city’s Jazz scene, the epitome of the creative working musician; part of the fabric of the community, playing nightly, or called upon at the last minute to play in a variety of settings.  He or she was a hometown hero, mentored and nurtured by the older generation. They were the players that visiting musicians left town raving about, the ones who made the places they lived into better places to be, and who could turn an out of the way city into a Jazz town.


Putting Skills to Work

Brian Ward’s career is defined by diversity.  He grew up in a musical family in Salem, Oregon and attended North Salem High School, located across the street from Willamette University. A professor there took him under his wing and showed him the chord changes so he could play Jazz.  He started playing professionally at age fifteen. “As a high schooler I’d show up at the Hobbit every Sunday for the jam session,” he remembers, “and Leroy Vinnegar would always put me up first and make me call the tune.  He would then proceed to show me everything I didn’t know about the tune I supposedly knew.  Leroy, Mel Brown and Eddie Wied were always good to me.”

After high school Brian  attended Berklee College of Music in Boston before returning to Portland to play music and develop his craft in 1988.  It was in Portland where Brian honed his jazz skills among Portland masters such as Leroy Vinnegar, Stu Cook, John Jensen, Ron Steen, Mel Brown, Eddie Weid and Janice Scroggins to name a few.  “I knew if I came back to Portland and started playing all the time, I’d really learn Jazz,” he says.  While raising his profile as a sideman for bands such as the Lily Wilde Orchestra, the Donny Osborne Trio and the Carlton Jackson/Dave Mills Big Band, Brian returned to school to complete his formal education, graduating from Portland State University with a Bachelor of Music-Magna Cum Laude- in 1999 and a Master of Science in Teaching in 2001.  While at PSU he studied piano with Andrew Hill, Randy Porter and Darrell Grant. He also studied composition and arranging with Tomas Svoboda, Charles Gray and Bryan Johanson.  Brian was also instrumental in drawing other city musicians to PSU to study and play in the University big band. With this caliber of musicians studying at PSU, the Big Band earned numerous accolades and awards at competitions. As a graduate assistant at PSU he taught second year music theory and sight singing and developed a curriculum incorporating Jazz improvisation for beginning piano students. Brian taught applied Jazz piano at PSU from 2002-2011

Always striving to learn music from different cultures, Brian played with Ghanaian Master Drummer Obo Addy and his band Kukrudu and maintained a musical relationship with Obo as a collaborator and arranger until Obo’s passing. Brian also delved deep into the Blues tradition with legendary Bluesman Curtis Salgado, with whom he toured the United States and Canada extensively. Brian also toured with Native-American performing artist Karen Therese, and played locally with the popular R&B/Funk Band Ocean 503, and Brazilian/Funk Band Indigo with Chuk Barber, a displaced Hurricane Katrina musician from New Orleans and past member of the band WAR. Brian also arranges and performs the Afro-Cuban music with the Bobby Torres Ensemble.
Brian currently is featured as an arranger for Esperanza Spalding, and Thara Memory’s American Music Program. Brian’s arrangements and compositions are performed at Jazz festivals, concert halls, and nightclubs across the United States.

On Wonderbread, his first CD as a leader, Brian plays piano, electric piano, Hammond B3 organ, and keyboards, showing the breadth of his collective musical experience as a player, composer and arranger, especially on imaginative recrafting of classic songs like “Ngiculela” by Stevie Wonder.   “This trio has an ensemble feel since that’s how the music I write comes out,” he says.  “It’s fun to write to the strengths of these guys.”

Brian’s latest journey has taken him to Pullman, Washington, where in August of 2011, he accepted a position as Instructor of Jazz Piano at Washington State University. But if the past is any indicator, this Native Son will find his way back home someday. As he said in a recent interview for the Jazz Society of Oregon: “While touring the country with Curtis I got a chance to see quite a bit.  I came back to Portland with a new appreciation of the Jazz scene here.  The musicians that live here are some of the kindest, most beautiful people in the world.”


Adding Something Unique

He began playing gospel music in African-American churches shortly thereafter where he learned the gospel tradition via “trial by fire.”  “About 1989 this guy called me up and asked me to play piano for a local Baptist church,”Brian recounts.  I quickly fell in love with the music. The rhythm and the phrasing is to me the core of what jazz is.”   He was helped along the way by the best of Portland’s black gospel artists such as Lorraine and Roslyn Wilder, Faye Innis and Terry Davis.

Using the skills learned from playing gospel music, Brian found his niche accompanying jazz vocalists in Portland including Marilyn Keller, Shirley Nanette, Victoria Corrigan and Johnny Martin.  He also served for many years as Assistant Minister of Music at True Vine Missionary Baptist Church in North Portland.


What Has Your PSU Music Experience Meant to You?

“I’m grateful to PSU for providing me a thorough and comprehensive musical background. My professors were all experts and excellent educators. I learned so much about teaching, composing, arranging and performing as an undergraduate and graduate student at PSU. I am also thankful for all of the connections I made at PSU. The relationships I have with fellow students and former teachers have sustained me throughout my career.”


One Response to “November 13th: The Native Son”

  1. Marilyn Keller November 13, 2012 at 11:40 am #

    Brian and I shared several “regular” gigs around Portland for many years and we both grew as musicians, walking through the valley together. One of my favorite arrangements of “Summertime” developed right at his knee out at the Sweetbrier Inn. His move to Pullman has elevated more than his career, he was instrumental in inviting me out to sing at the Black History Celebration at WSU with Dean Luethi and the Choir there. That event also included Master Classes and intense Choral clinics with the Vocal Jazz Group and individuals in the Choral Music program. I can add this experience to my resume and garner work in the field because of it. A big wave raises all ships, and Brian is my big wave!

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