PORTLAND, OREGON | FRIDAY 10:31 PM
The end of the work-week approaches as the sidewalks fill with effervescent personalities counting down the hours until the weekend. There are a myriad of methods in which everyday civilians seek to unwind. The masses of mid-twenty-somethings might text their friends the location of their preferred destination for the night. The mandatory requirements include: alcohol (preferably a full-bar), a back-porch or easy access to the outdoors so the mid-hourly pattern of chain-smoking can continue uninterrupted, and live music. These minute details all comprise the makings of a good night, unhindered by the stress of an unpleasant forty-hour work-week that pays the bills (and funds these nights of decompression).
However, as patrons work their way into their choice of bars and clubs, another group of individuals are still on the clock. The bartenders, servers, club owners, security, and let’s not forget – the musicians. While the masses seek to unwind and decompress, the people putting on the show are there to earn a paycheck and complete a job.
It’s roughly forty-five minutes until the first performers of the night are on. The basement of Rialto Poolroom is empty, except for the bartender cutting up fresh lemons and limes, the band members sound-checking their instruments, and the videographer scoping out the venue to ensure they secure the proper angles. Come the weekend, the basement of Rialto Poolroom transforms into the Jack London Revue, a jazz-club and a hidden-gem that hosts some of the most talented up-and-coming musicians Portland has to offer. On this night, trumpeter Chang Park fronts his band NaMu as they seek to hone their sound in front of crowd that will be filled with friends, fellow musicians, and those scrounging the west-side of Portland for live music. The crowd is beginning to fill in, the venue introduces the band, lights are set, and Chang is ready to front the show.
You are a busy guy. You have to run to rehearsals and meetings constantly. How do you manage that busy lifestyle day in and day out and still maintain your mental integrity?
CHANG: Really, just scheduling. Like putting things down, going over them for the day and then proceeding with it. Not making it too complicated. Because if you get too overwhelmed with it, then you start losing how you proceed with things.
What is your upmost priority when it comes to having rehearsals and meetings, going downtown to talk to certain people, and then still having a show later that night. What’s the priority for you?
CHANG: I think probably the business side. With music and practicing, that’s me that I have to deal with. But with meeting people and handling things, I have to consider the opposite [perspective]. I prioritize meetings and getting things right and preparing everything. Then the music comes afterwards.
Being a performer is a job. You get a paycheck and try to work on the business end of things. But what is something about your occupation that the general public isn’t privy too and might find surprising?
CHANG: Hm. The rehearsals put in, because sometimes you’re dealing with a large band.
Like NaMu. There are a lot of working pieces there.
CHANG: Yeah, and that can go for a lot of other bands as well. But, getting people together, scheduling, that’s one of the hardest parts. One of our guys is out of town right now because he was visiting family for the New Year and Christmas. So, today he won’t be here, but tomorrow he will be there for the gig. Working on scheduling rehearsals is always a tough thing. But there’s also shaping the music and trying to figure out how to really approach one’s part [in the band]. We each individually have our parts that function in the music. But sometimes we can be imbalanced with each other.
You work with some prestigious and notable musicians out here. Being under the tutelage of Alan Jones, one of America and Europe’s most creative jazz drummers, composers, multi-instrumentalists and teachers, playing alongside Nicole McCabe, a Portland based alto saxophonist, and pianist Charlie Brown III, a fixture in today’s PDX music scene; there is a sort of electricity in the air around you – as a musician and an individual. How do you remain humble and keep things in perspective?
CHANG: Oh man, I’m the wrong person to talk to about this. Well, again trying to keep it simple – having high standards pushes me. There’s always better people [out there]. Being around players that have a much better perspective towards music makes [me] feel like I really want to get to the point they are at and try to approach music in that way – having a larger sense of mindfulness towards [music]. When I play, there are some things that I know that I lack in my playing. So I guess that’s what kind of keeps me from accepting those compliments [that people throw out there], which is actually [worse] on my part. Because these compliments are a positive thing that I should start accepting. But it is something that, I don’t know, I have a hard time trying to grasp.
Anyone who is striving to be great at their craft can’t take those compliments seriously. You might say “hey, thank you, I really appreciate what you are saying,” but you can’t take it seriously because you know that you want to be somewhere much further than you currently are now. So you kind of have to stray away from those compliments.
It’s officially 2020. Do you have any resolutions? What is your goal for 2020, whether is be in life or in music?
CHANG: For me, it’s about staying true to myself. It’s a cheesy thing to say, but selling out is not what I’m looking to do.
What is selling out in your opinion?
CHANG: To me, selling out is, well…once it’s not about the music anymore, that is a form of selling out. Sure, yeah it’s great that you can market yourself and get a crowd coming to your gigs, but, the music has to be there – at your personal standard.
So you’re saying if someone came up to you and said, “Chang, here’s a bag full of money. But I want you to change the way you play.” You wouldn’t do it?
CHANG: No, I wouldn’t want to play music that I don’t enjoy playing or listening to. But it’s hard to do that at the same time.
Turning down a bag of money is one of the hardest things to do.
CHANG: Exactly, there’s not a lot of gigs for horn players if you think about it. Unless you have your own thing going [for you] or you are famous. There aren’t a lot of big options, I guess. A lot of horn players in town are jazz artists and having people come out to your jazz gigs can be rough. But you see horn players in the backgrounds of bands. Now, whether they like playing that music or not, that’s where it stands. I can play with a ska band – a music genre that originated in Jamaica in the late 1950s and was the precursor to rocksteady and reggae – but, I don’t necessarily like ska music, you know? And I can gig with them, tour with them even, because sometimes there’s a high demand for ska music at festivals. But, then it’s like I’m taking time away from what I really want to do, music wise. You then have to ask yourself which is more important, the money or the music? It’s difficult because you are an artist and you’re trying to be a creative with your instrument, but money is a big thing (laughs).
When we speak, even when it is outside of music, it’s still somehow about music. Outside of music, what does it for you?
CHANG: Really, hanging out with friends. Finding other company. Or really, I like to go on lone walks around parks or neighborhoods.
Really? What are you thinking about when you go on these walks? Or are you not thinking?
CHANG: I’m trying to not think (laughs), that’s the goal. But you know, a lot of thoughts run through everybody’s head. I try to chill out and take a deep breath because thoughts can really overwhelm you – whether they are good or bad.
Let’s talk about NaMu. It has been a project in the making for about a year or so now. What is the direction you see NaMu going towards? You’ve added pieces, you’ve changed your sound, you’ve played more shows, and done more rehearsals. Where is NaMu headed?
CHANG: I’m trying to let [NaMu] be known in Portland right now. Yeah, it has been a year, but not a lot of people have really seen [the band]. So, we have talked to Teutonic Winery to set up a monthly residency there. Last Friday’s [of the month], we will be playing there. We are also trying to go out of town more and play with other great bands in the pacific northwest. Really, we are trying to promote ourselves and see where that takes us. Maybe fix up some of the composition and make things pop. I think the band members see this as kind of a big thing. They all see their own vision of what the band could be. So, with my vision as well, we try to push the band in different directions to allow people to grow musically and as a person.
What is one thing that is special about the music scene out here?
CHANG: Um, it’s really small and compact. But, there are a lot of great musicians. It’s a small circle and you can easily get to know the players around here and they can be helpful at times. The Portland State University music faculty has a lot of heavy musicians that I wouldn’t have even dreamed of meeting in Portland.
Do you feel like a leader, in any sense of the word?
CHANG: At times. You know, it’s hard to put on the leader hat, especially within a group of friends that you are playing with. Because outside of that band, you stand in a different position within that relationship. I try to work on being a leader all the time, because you can put your foot down and say things like “no you can’t do this” but if you abuse it, especially with your friends, they can feel attacked.
Who is somebody that you would love to work with musically that you haven’t had the chance to yet?
CHANG: It would be [professional jazz pianist], Darrel Grant. I’ve worked with him a little bit, but I’ve never really worked with him on stage. I think there is a difference when you work under someone in comparison to working on stage with them. You know, playing their music.
Thanks for reading. Keep up with Chang and his band NaMu on Instagram.