San Diego has always had a vibrant jazz scene, at least since the late 1950s when the likes of John Guerin, Don Sleet, and Mike Wofford first began performing in area clubs. That said, the past decade or so in particular has seen a wave of great new talent emerge and bring an international spotlight on what’s happening in our town. At or near the top of that list would have to be pianist Joshua White.
His list of accomplishments is impressive, headlining shows locally at venues such as Dizzy’s, taking second place out of 160 competitors at the 2011 Thelonious Monk International Piano Competition in Washington D.C. and working with some of the world’s top jazz talent, all from his home base here in San Diego. Currently he’s performing with a new combo, which includes NYC drummer Damion Reid, electric bassist Tim LeFebvre (who just joined the Tedeski/Trucks Band), and alto saxophonist Josh Johnson.
Though now a lynchpin of the local music scene, White was actually born in the Los Angeles area in 1985; his parents moved here when he was five. Music was a big part of family life. “My mom, she sang in the church choir with the Encanto Southern Baptist Church, so I attended choir rehearsals with her. Just sitting there and listening, learning all about harmonies and things like that. My dad, who grew up in Jamaica, was also in the choir, but when he was younger he was a DJ. He had a whole lot of records and was always heavy into music, so I would hear a lot of different things.”
White’s arrival at the piano as his main instrument was happenstance. “My parents always had a piano in the house,” he recalled. “My mom was interested in having my sisters take lessons, but it never really took with either one of them. When I was young they noticed that I would gravitate toward music, generally by listening to a favorite song and also maybe plucking out a few things on the piano. It was always an interest of mine – music in general – so when I got old enough my parents decided to take me for lessons here in San Diego. And it went from there.”
By seven White was studying the piano. By age ten he was his church choir’s accompanist. While most musicians would cite a big genre name or musical friend as their earliest inspiration, for White, it was the people he worked with that impressed him most. “In elementary school, my inspiration would be the people that I regularly saw play music. So that would be like the pianist at my church or the organist. Just actually seeing them on a weekly basis, just playing and making music, I found that interesting. Of course, when I got a bit older and more into classical, I would look toward some of the great musicians in that field,” he said.
His first public performance came soon after he began lessons. “It was probably a music recital around the age of seven or eight at WD Hall Elementary school in El Cajon,” he remembered.
White notes that he did try other instruments during his student years, but it was the piano he loved most. “In high school I tried several different things, including French horn, bass clarinet, and flute. I played flute in a couple of orchestras and honor bands, things like that, but by that time I was already playing piano competitions and playing western European classical music,” he said.
His biggest thrill to date is winning that contest in 2011, but that comes with a caveat. “It was a wonderful to play at that,” he said. “The one really great thing about that competition is that it gives you more visibility in terms of having your peers as well as people you highly respect in the field an opportunity to hear what you do.” The caveat is that White would prefer to focus on the future, rather than the past, no matter how recent or lofty the accolade might be.
“I don’t want to be defined by individual moments. That can kind of box you in,” he mused. “One thing about me is that I know you can’t stay there, in the past. You have to create new. When you get to your 20th year reunion and that cat is still reminiscing about that high school game or dance or whatever, it’s okay to a certain degree. But, even if it’s a great thing, you have to move forward.”
Moving forward is important to White. “I listen to all types of music,” he remarked. “Honestly, I don’t even think of what I do in terms of boundaries or jazz. I just play music, original compositions, and arrangements dealing with improvisational horns and more, but I studied what is commonly referred to as the jazz tradition. Most of the masters of that music don’t even subscribe to that term,” he said.
White’s view of San Diego’s music community is positive. “I’m still working to really make my mark with my music by playing with as many different people as possible and San Diego is a wonderful place for that,” White commented. While there could always be more venues and larger audiences, he’s happy to be a part of the local jazz scene even as he casts his net ever wider. “I think that there are so many things to cover it’s hard to pinpoint just a few things, but I’ll start with musicians who have been doing a lot of things for the community,” he said. “What I mean by that is that they open up opportunities for other musicians. Like Gilbert Castellanos, Mike Wofford, Peter Sprague, Holly Hoffman, and so on, all of whom travel around the country and the world, but who also take time to mentor young musicians in the area. I think that’s important to foster the development of new artists. It’s not just about getting a gig for them, it’s about developing the interest of those around you coming up, helping show them how things work and helping develop their music.”
Despite all the accolades and the fact that there are live recordings circulating on the net, White has yet to issue a debut album. “I’m planning to record my debut project with my new group this year,” he confirms. While he is happy to collaborate, it’s clear he prefers to lead his own musical vision. “I would only collaborate if I felt the combination was organic,” he said. “If there was something we both are able to share that’s one thing and if there is a united vision, it would be great to be a part of it. Unfortunately, a lot of the time there are too many leaders, and the end result can be lacking in direction,” White continued. “Even with my own groups I definitely give space for the other musicians to interpret and contribute because that’s how the music becomes what it is. But I have to say, my job as a leader is to bring a context or basis for us to have something to develop.”
Asked if he’s given any thought to where he might be musically in ten years, White laughs.
“If I were to look back ten years ago and saw what I’m doing now, there would be no way I would’ve guessed that,” he said good naturedly. “Because I’d been playing classical music for a long time and I didn’t have the foresight to know I would pursue improvisational music or that this would be my voice right now.”
For his part, White is happy with the accolades thrown his way but well aware that his musical journey is just beginning. “I definitely appreciate the support and encouragement that I get from people, because a lot of times when you venture into territory that is really personal, it can be lonely to try and find your path in the music,” he said. “So it’s always nice to have people encourage you to keep going with what you’re doing.” He pauses to reflect on a career that has already seen his work praised by the likes of Herbie Hancock and gigging alongside the likes of Wofford and Castellanos. “When you know you have so much more to do, it keeps you going,” he said. “That’s the thing, life is short and there’s a lot of stuff to do as far as developing and continuing to grow as a musician. When you get that encouragement from your peers, it’s just that little boost to keep you going just a little bit more,” he said.
Though still a relatively young musician, White is excited at what the future may bring, but basically, he’s just pleased to be making music and having people listen. “Being able to express ideas, like a painter or a poet being able to tell a story, is a gift. It just so happens that my medium is notes and space, like a paintbrush paints canvas. I’m sharing a story and sharing my experiences through these sounds,” he said.