Trumpeter, vocalist and educator Bria Skonberg hails from Chilliwack in British Columbia, and has swiftly established herself as a respected interpreter of roots jazz traditions. A self-described “instigator of adventure,” Skonberg engages audiences with surprising takes on iconic jazz tunes and stretches the vocabulary of those classic styles in her original compositions. Skonberg is the co-founder of the New York Hot Jazz Festival, the recipient of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Swing Award, and was named Best Vocal and Best Trumpet by Hot House Magazine. She plays at South on Main on Thursday, March 17.
So, I had to Google “Chilliwack,” and it’s stunning! I’m wondering how you ever left. Do you miss it?
(Laughs.) Every time I go back, it’s a little bit prettier. But, I mean, it’s not where you are, it’s who you’re with. I miss the relationships. I miss my parents and family members, but nowadays I can talk with them all the time. There’s Facetime, there are ways to feel close even when you’re far.
You came from a musical family?
Well, they’re musical hobbyists. My parents were teachers in public schools, so they were really great at getting us kids — I have two siblings — getting us all involved in lots of things from sports to dance to local politics, things like that. So, music was just one of those many things that we got exposed to, and took to, because of a great school community.
You’ve said that you played mostly jazz from between 1900 and 1940. Why that era?
I think that I have a kind of niche repertoire in that era because it’s less common. Having gone to college and gotten a jazz degree, I can play bebop, I can play these different Latin styles, and I really enjoy that, but it’s kind of a part of American history and jazz history that’s been overlooked a lot. With post-secondary education, sometimes they’ll spend very little time on those formative years of jazz and just jump to the more academic, mathematic styles. I’ve been drawn to it because, yeah, it’s kind of a unique thing. I love melodies, I love that it was made for dancing, it was made for parades, it was made to get people out of their seats, and that’s very impressionable when you’re that age. You know, you’re 13 or 14 years old, and you’re watching the older kids, everybody’s having fun, just having a great time to this music. I was always under the impression that music should be made for people to have a good time, and to bring them through different sorts of emotions.
New Orleans is a long way from British Columbia. How did that sound make its way into the core of your playing?
Right! Well, I had this very organic experience, but then as I started to go into music, I started to ask the same questions. I was, like, how does this music get to Chilliwack? How does this all happen? As I learned more, it’s like, “OK, I’ve been watching the movie, I haven’t read the book. I need to go to the source, and learn something about this.” So, my version of going to the source at that time was going to Mardi Gras, which, as you learn more about New Orleans and its people, you learn that going to Mardi Gras in New Orleans is like coming to New York and going to Times Square! I had some connections with friends, though, and I got to see a little bit of the culture that was down there. It definitely crossed into: “OK, this is something I could do every day.”
I love that you call attention to the great Anita O’ Day in your performances. You’re both such rhythmic singers. You both have such a lyrical sense of line, but also the ability make your voice percussive.
Yeah, thank you. I think, while I realized she was my favorite singer, I didn’t think I sounded like her. She was just so much fun to listen to, especially as a horn player. She doesn’t really do a lot of scatting with syllables, but she can paraphrase a melody in the coolest way.
She sings like a horn.
Yeah! And we’re right in the same kind of register.
There’s a super rhythmic song on your new record called “Go Tell It.” I love it because, while it jumps like jazz we know, it situates itself lyrically in a current, collective sort of moment. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about where it came from.
Well, I mean, as far as the message, I was writing this album during the Olympics in Russia. Hopefully, you have something on each album that’s a little bit of a snapshot of the present day. One way of writing songs is to go to the public domain and look at familiar melodies and find inspiration, so I searched around, and “Go Tell It on the Mountain” was one of those. I thought about it, and I thought about Peter, Paul and Mary, and how they did their rendition for the civil rights movement. Then I thought, what’s the civil rights movement of our era? It’s LGBT rights. So, that song is just trying to get at all those elements. I think the rhythm behind it is one of those “call to action” drumlines, a New Orleans thing. Yeah, I just wanted to write something that was strong, and about having a voice. Honestly, I was just a little bit irritated about the situation [Russia’s anti-homosexual stand] and just wanted to say something about it.
On that recording, there’s a part where your trumpet sounds a little bit electrified. How do you get that sound?
Basically, I run a microphone through a guitar processor, and then that goes out into the speakers. (Laughs.) Yeah, I love that, because I get to use the plunger a lot — that’s that kind of “wah-wah.” I mean, it’s a plunger! So, this kind of bends the sound, and makes it sound cool like a guitar riff.
You’ve even made your trumpet sound like Jimi Hendrix.
Yeah! And in another song, I was quoting Guns N’ Roses.
Right! Listening to live recordings of your combo work is a little bit like playing “Name That Tune,” where you guys are slipping in these little references, having a total conversation — is it planned?
Well, that one, the riff on “Go Tell It,” that kind of Valhalla riff, that one was intentional. I just think today’s concertgoers come from a lot of different walks of life, and it’s fun to play something that someone will find familiar.
Can you tell me a little bit about your horn? It’s a pretty special instrument.
Yeah. I play a Bach Stradivarius, which was gifted to me and literally bought by some jazz fans and my trumpet teacher at that time, Warren Vaché. I was working hard, and he just said, “We need to get you a better trumpet.”
You’re the co-founder of the New York Hot Jazz Festival and the New York Hot Jazz Camp. How did all that come together?
So, people were being drawn to 1920s jazz, and that has to do a little bit with popular culture. You know, “Boardwalk Empire,” “Great Gatsby” type stuff. So, the director, Michael Katsobashvili, really wanted to tie all those elements together, and he admired what I did, so he enlisted me in helping bring those people together. It’s happened three times now; it’s pretty nuts. It’s grown and grown, and now it’s a huge party. My personal vision, though, is to create a more thorough understanding of jazz history in music education, to teach jazz history alongside social history in elementary schools. The first part is all about New Orleans jazz and democracy, the second part is about jazz and the Harlem Renaissance, and The Great Migration, and then it’s jazz and the civil rights era. Jazz has really been a through line for American history and culture, and the soundtrack for a lot of different movements that have happened all over America’s history.
So, for the young festivalgoers: They’ve seen the movie, now they need to read the book?
Yeah! I see people that are falling in love with the music daily, and it makes me so happy, and yet I also see a lack of depth in the understanding of the connection it has to the soul.
Bria Skonberg and her quintet will take the stage at 8 p.m. at South on Main on Thursday, March 17, as part of the Oxford American Jazz Series. Doors open at 6 p.m. For tickets, visit metrotix.com, or call 800-293-5949.