Jazz came knocking

Pianist Joshua White has grown from church pianist to budding jazz superstar.
  • Pianist Joshua White has grown from church pianist to budding jazz superstar.
  • Image by Brian Ross

“He’s like a breath of fresh air to our community. I don’t have to worry at all about the direction the music is taking because when you play with Joshua, he’s going to bring it. You let him drive ’cause you know he’s gonna get you there.”

—Trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos, last year’s triple-crown winner at the San Diego Music Awards.

When San Diego pianist Joshua White placed second in the 2011 Thelonious Monk International Piano Competition, the rest of the country began to appreciate what local audiences have sensed for several years: this is a cat about to explode. White is somewhat circumspect about the whole experience. “I don’t use it to define myself,” he said, “but since I didn’t finish music school, and I don’t have a record out, and I’m not touring with some really high-profile players, people do pay attention when they see that. But for me personally, I’d rather just get to the piano and let that speak to my credibility.”

That credibility is growing by leaps and bounds. White began classical piano lessons at the age of 7. From the beginning, gospel music was a parallel expression for the youngster who was playing for services at Encanto Baptist Church by the time he was 11. He spent the next seven years toggling between mastering material such as Chopin’s “Polonaise in A Major” and tackling on-the-spot transposing of spirituals to the vocal range of the choir. And then jazz came knocking.

In 2003, upon turning 18, White attended the UCSD Jazz Camp, and it’s hard to say who made the deeper impression — the student or his teachers, who included Pulitzer Prize nominee trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, composer Anthony Davis, and pianist Mike Wofford.

“Joshua was the most devoted student I’ve ever worked with by far,” says Wofford, who toured with both Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan and recorded with the likes of John Lennon and Oliver Nelson. “Absolutely focused and with a great intuitive grasp of the music even at that early stage a few years ago.” Dan Atkinson, who founded the jazz camp 25 years ago, reflects: “What comes back to me now is how serious and disciplined a student he was. You could see that he was totally immersed.”

“It was like all of my study from the age of seven up until then was all leading to the beginning of exploring creative music,” says White. “I didn’t have any experience in anything remotely close to that. But being in that environment and being open to it — the information can infiltrate your entire being.”

White returned to the camp the next few summers, and by the time he was done, he was playing gigs with most of the renowned faculty.

“He has really developed an original style, which is incredibly difficult to do, and I continue to be fascinated by his achievements in that regard,” says Atkinson, who is also the jazz-program coordinator for the Athenaeum Jazz concert series. White is one of the few local musicians Atkinson books into the series, which mostly focuses on national touring acts. “I feel like the connections he’s made through the Monk competition and playing in New York and L.A. are about to pay real dividends for him. I won’t be surprised at all if I hear that a really high-profile bandleader like Greg Osby or [current Downbeat magazine cover subject] Ambrose Akinmusire calls him to join their band.”

Heady thoughts for a young player, for sure, but White remains grounded. “I don’t hold my breath, even though artists and their managers are calling all the time — that’s not going to distract me from what I’m already doing.”

In addition to being a fixture at venues such as Dizzy’s (4275 Mission Bay Drive, Pacific Beach), UC San Diego’s Loft (9500 Gilman Drive), and Seven Grand Whiskey Bar (3054 University Avenue, North Park), White makes frequent treks to L.A.’s newest jazz mecca, the Blue Whale in Little Tokyo. “I feel like, even though it is a couple of hundred miles up the 5, I want to open up with that community and play with all those different cats,” White relates. “Because they’re not that far away. We need to keep the door open so it’s not like ‘us and them’ but something we can build together.” He also feels the gravitational pull of New York City and has made regular forays into that environment, even if his bags aren’t packed yet. “It is becoming increasingly difficult for artists to live in the city, and this is coming from guys who’ve lived there for 20 years. But do not get me wrong — if the opportunity presented itself — like to tour with Jack DeJohnette for three months — I can definitely go!”

Mark Dresser, the globally celebrated bassist who drafted White into his West Coast group three years ago, thinks the move may be inevitable. “My instinct is that it isn’t working to his advantage career-wise staying local,” Dresser said in an email from Rome. “New York is still the center of the scene.”

For White, music is all about intuitive exchange in the present. “You can’t be afraid of the moment,” says the pianist, referring to how he communicates with his bandmates. “Don’t ask questions about where you should go. You have to figure that out for yourself. Sometimes I play with cats who think that it has to be ‘out,’ but to me, it’s all in the same spectrum — the goal is to be able to go anywhere — and that literally means anywhere.”

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Kudos and thanks for the in-depth article in the print edition of the reader. Joshua White is a gifted pianist. Robert Bush is a gifted writer. The Reader is a gift to San Diego. Keep up the good work.

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