January 23, 2008


By Mark Langton
Article Launched: 01/23/2008 03:35:52 PM PST, Marin Independent Journal

Directing a high school symphonic band by day and performing in his own, 60s-era jazz quartet by night, saxophonist John Mattern is really just a five-string banjo player at heart.

When Mattern, 44, took over as director of Redwood High School’s music program in 2004 and announced his intention to start a college-accredited advanced guitar class, no fewer than 110 students signed up, almost overnight, many arriving on skateboards, instruments in hand.

Garages all over Greenbrae, Corte Madera and Terra Linda fell still.

“The garage band kids tend to be better self-starters than most,” says Mattern of students in his Advanced Guitar Workshop. As promised, the class now has University of California accreditation, effectively giving the garage band rockers the same credit as anyone in the symphonic program -- and rightly so, as far their teacher is concerned.

“They’re already motivated,” Mattern continues. “They want to be rock stars. I try to tell them that sometimes there’s a big difference between being a rock star and being a musician. I try to keep them focused on the fundamentals: Scales, arpeggios, chord theory, hard work. Not that trying to be a rock star is wrong. I tell them, just don’t let anybody pigeonhole you. And whatever you do, don’t pigeon-hole yourselves.”

Mattern walks his talk, so good luck trying to pigeonhole him. Apart from being one of the most highly respected educators in the state (in 2007, classical music station KDFC of San Francisco named him 2006 Music Educator of the Year, selecting him from among 600 music teachers in Northern California), he is also regarded by many as one of the more eclectic and innovative saxophonists performing in Northern California music scene, as well as a world-class, much-sought-after studio musician. For over 15 years Mattern has been the sideman of choice for performers like Bonnie Raitt, The Temptations, Little Anthony and the Imperials and Alex DeGrassie – just to name a few -- shifting easily from jazz, to reggae, to classical, to rock.

Mattern is now putting the finishing touches on the debut recording of his own ensemble, the John Mattern Quartet, which features Mattern on saxophone, Chris Amberger on bass, Alan Hall on drums and Lee Bloom on piano. They have a gig this Friday night, Jan. 25 at the Belrose Theater, to showcase their unique blend of bluegrass and ‘60s-era modern bop.

“My first instrument was a five-string banjo,” Mattern says. “And though I got my master's in jazz studies from the New England Conservatory in Boston, principal instrument, saxophone, banjo and bluegrass were my first true loves."

Mattern feels strongly that if you pay attention to your roots, and just have fun with what moves you, all the honesty in the artist comes out. “I’m having a blast, adapting all this folk music that I used to play on banjo, and reinterpreting it in the hard-bop setting of the quartet.

After he got his master’s degree, Mattern returned to Ukiah to take over the student band led by his former teacher. After teaching in Ukiah for 12 years, he took a break from it for four, only to discover how much he missed teaching. So when Redwood had an opening in 2004 for a music director, both teacher and school snatched each other up.

The first time Redwood High senior Sarah Barr (who Mattern describes as an “amazing, amazing talent”) encountered her mentor was during her freshman year, the night she entered a school talent show. Trained as a classical pianist since childhood, her music was going nowhere, she says, and her life had no direction. But then Mattern started talking about jazz – nothing too specific, mostly in the abstract. But what he said that night changed her entire life, says Sarah, 17.

“I’d never heard anyone talk about music like that,” she said. “You just couldn’t help but get caught up in his energy. He has this passion that’s absolutely contagious.”

“He definitely has the ability to inspire,” says Redwood High School senior Nick Klansko , 17, “Mr. Mattern showed me how to persevere. He makes me want to work harder. He always says, ‘Doing nothing is never an option in my room.’ He says, ‘Show up. Bring a pencil. Rely on your intuition. Have fun with what moves you. Every day is a new day to improve yourself. Every day is a new day to take another step forward….”

“We have these listening days?” says Sarah, clearly jazzed. It sounds like a question, but she doesn’t wait for an answer. “And Mr. Mattern’ll bring in these old records, and it’ll be, like, COLTRANE…” Here, she stops, for there are no words, no words, as she gives reverence its quiet due.

Nick laughs. “But he sure gets mad if you don’t have that pencil.”


Who: The John Mattern Quartet

Where: Belrose Dinner Theatre, 1625 Fifth Ave., San Rafael

When: 8 p.m. Jan. 25

Tickets: $15 to $20

Information: 389-5072 or http://www.thebelrose.com/

Mark Langton can be reached at mark.langton@comcast.net.

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