Half Moon Bay Review
June 23, 2004
She has a powerful sax appeal
Going into her first school band at 10, Sonya Jason chose saxophone for one reason: "Ironically, because it was shiny," she grinned.
Since then, Jason has grown into a striking and sincere woman, has performed around the world with a shiny sax, taught kids and adults to play too, and mastered other shiny instruments, in jazz and classical music.
She has bucked conventions that say that a woman jazz player can only make it on looks, and also fronted bands.
Now, 10 years after her first Coastside appearance, she will appear Friday night from 7 to 11 p.m. in the Ritz-Carlton lounge fronting the John Moriarty Trio.
It was much more than the shine.
"It was no accident that I chose the sax, because it was clearly my voice," Jason declared.
On Friday night, she will play "smooth" jazz a la KKSF, which airs her music frequently. It's instrumental jazz with an easy melody and familiar rhythm.
She describes smooth jazz as her "forte," perfected over her three albums, "Secret Lover" (1989), "Tigress" (1993) and the newest, "Supper Club," (2000) which will be on sale Friday at the Ritz.
Her instruments include a sopranino sax with a clarinet-ish tone. (She plays classical flute and clarinet at parties or weddings, and teaches them all, too.)
On Friday, she'll play her Yamaha Custom Z sax with a buff black lacquer finish and keys that are, yes, shiny.
Jason, now 41, hails from a small town in Nebraska (population 600.) Her mother was a piano teacher, so little Sonya discovered music at age 4. When she joined that first school band, she was already skilled at sight-reading.
She says she'd been drawn to jazz for its challenges. While classical music is very technically precise, she said she found it to be "confining," while jazz seemed individualistic and dramatic.
Players have to think outside the box: "It's more personally expressive," she said.
She finished high school in Phoenix, came to Oakland in 1981 to attend Mills College, and graduated summa cum laude from Berklee College of Music in Boston in 1985.
She returned briefly to Phoenix to start performing and teaching, first led a jazz band in 1987, and produced and recorded her first album, "Secret Lover," in 1989. Well-received in Phoenix, it went on to national airplay.
In 1991, she came to Los Angeles and began world tours with her own band. Once she played for the Golden Jubilee - 50 years on the throne - for the king of Thailand. She toured Japan twice, and led quartets in clubs and an ensemble of six in concerts.
She joined musical forces with trumpeter Ray Anthony at the Playboy mansion in concert on New Year's Eve, 1998.
She first saw the Coastside in 1994, brought here to perform by Pete Douglas of the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, and fell in love with it. Five years later, seeking "a quality of life," she moved here permanently.
"I'm very connected with the ocean," she said. "The Coastside has the best of all worlds - a rural setting, a small community, plus proximity to San Francisco.
The Coastside is a handy 20 minutes away from San Francisco.
"I have the feeling of being at home, but accessible to the cultural centers," she said.
She continued to expand both her career and her teaching here.
In her first year, she and her band played for the Solano County Fair, opening for every act for 12 straight days. She played at Mezza Luna on the coast and at Bogie's in San Mateo, and sat in with other bands.
She also continued to teach in her Montara studio and at Cunha Intermediate School, privately and through a jazz workshop she developed about a year-and-a-half ago. Open to two to 12 students from sixth-grade up who have had at least a year's experience on their instrument, the workshop stresses jazz phrasing and improvising. Students learn to solo from the top.
"It's amazing to see how quickly they pick it up," she marveled. "Especially the sixth-graders - they're not shy. They take it on."
She says it's in her favor to be a woman when she fronts a band. "It's more unusual and exciting for people to see a woman instrumentalist up front," she said.
But it's hard to be in a side role as a woman instrumentalist, where she says she's faced "absolute discrimination" and an "old-boy network" pressuring her to look good.
"If you sit around and wait for the phone to ring to get hired by other bands, you'll have a tough time," she said.
So she's aggressive. "I like to look good," she said, "but I don't think it should be a determining factor on why I get hired."
She calls the Bay Area more conducive to judging musicians by merit, instead of looks.
"The culture here is more supportive of the arts, and a way of thinking that allows for creativity," she said.
She says she's glad she stuck to her priorities over these years.
"The bottom line is, you have to do what you can do," she said firmly. "This is my gift, the craft I have honed all my life, and the only thing I can do is to keep doing it. Keep putting it out there. It's my contribution to the world."