Update: the Berkeley Public Health Division canceled the Sunday Oct. 18 outdoor show at The Back Room featuring Nakadegawa-Lee.
The first thing you notice listening to tenor saxophonist Nathan Nakadegawa-Lee is his tone. Big, wide, and breathy, the sound seems to emanate from deep in his solar plexus, emerging from the horn with a warm, physical presence. He’s a 19-year-old Oaklander with an old soul, and it’s no surprise that his formative influence was listening to recordings of the insouciantly swinging tenor titan Dexter Gordon.
“My roots are in that big, old-school sound,” said Nakadegawa-Lee, who will perform this coming Sunday afternoon with a sextet featuring some of the region’s top young players at The Back Room, the Berkeley performance space that turns a small cul-de-sac off University Avenue into a socially-distanced outdoor music venue on weekends.
While Nakadegawa-Lee has plenty of technique, he’s concentrating on developing his presence on the tenor. “I’ve always been chasing Coltrane,” he said, “With ‘Trane, I feel like people are fascinated by his harmonic exploration and his technique. I’m more fascinated with his sound in general. And lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of Sonny Rollins.”
Nakadegawa-Lee is a knowledgeable player who understands the various styles and history of the tenor saxophone, from the cool-toned swing era master who paved the way for bebop, Lester Young, to post-bop stars like Wayne Shorter and Joe Henderson. He’s soaking it all up while also developing his voice as a composer who applies his vintage sound to state-of-the-scene forms and ideas.
An Oakland native who graduated from Oakland Technical High School, Nakadegawa-Lee recently started his sophomore year at the New School in New York City, which boasts one of the country’s most esteemed jazz programs. Back in the East Bay since New York City (and his school) shut down in March, Nakadegawa-Lee has been taking classes online.
Although the Oakland Unified School District has struggled to keep music programs funded, Nakadegawa-Lee embodies the way a creative outlet can keep students engaged in school. Jazz has proven particularly fertile soil in Oakland, and he’s had no trouble finding peers similarly motivated. Oakland schools are fostering numerous talented jazz musicians.
With so many of his friends and compatriots also back home, Nakadegawa-Lee lined up a stellar band for Sunday’s show. (He also performs regularly on Saturday afternoons at Lake Merritt with drummer Ben Esposito, an ongoing gig covered previously in The Oaklandside).
“This is a really interesting group of people,” Nakadegawa-Lee said about his band. “We’re coming from such different places, and we haven’t all performed together before. We actually rehearsed yesterday in my backyard. We’ll probably do one more before we hit on Sunday.”
Joining him in the front line are Albany-raised alto saxophonist Tommy Noble, a freshman attending Michigan State University online, and Corte Madera vibraphonist Sebastian Alexander Johnson, who connected with Nakadegawa-Lee last year at the New School.
Drawn to Noble by his big vibrato and similar passion for jazz history, Nakadegawa-Lee started playing with him in 2016 at Oakland’s Small Wonder, “a little place on Grand Avenue where drummer Genius Wesley had this weekly gig that he turned into a jam session, and a bunch of us would go play all this intense crazy modal stuff.”
Johnson is a double threat as an improviser and a composer. “He’s a spiritual dude with a unique way of playing and interacting with the group,” Nakadegawa-Lee said. “He really understands energy and the flow of music, especially when you get him playing his own tunes.”
The all-Oakland rhythm section that will play Sunday in Berkeley is equally formidable. Pianist Mary Nguyen and Nakadegawa-Lee became musically inseparable as students at Oakland Tech, where they spent hours playing duo together, and working out standards. A biology major at U.C. Berkeley, “she has this way of playing that’s deeply informed,” Nakadegawa-Lee said. “She’s listened to old stuff but she’s not afraid to let loose and play messy.”
Bassist Aiden McCarthy attends Bishop O’Dowd High School in East Oakland. He switched from guitar about four years ago, and despite his relatively limited experience on the instrument “he’s a great bassist with a powerful beat,” Nakadegawa-Lee said. “He also writes good tunes, though we’re not playing any of his stuff.”
The band’s engine is drummer Jayla Hernández, a recent Oakland School for the Arts graduate who just started the Roots, Jazz and American Music program at San Francisco Conservatory with a full scholarship. She and Nakadegawa-Lee know and play with a lot of the same musicians, so it was natural for her to recruit him when she was asked to lead a set at Yoshi’s last year as part of a memorial concert for drummer Victor McElhaney, a dear friend of hers who was shot and killed in an attempted mugging near the University of Southern California, where he was a standout talent at the Thornton School of Music. McElhaney was the son of Oakland City Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney.
Hernández and Nakadegawa-Lee have mutual admiration for each other’s talents. He hails her rhythmic prowess, noting that “she has a great swing feel, and is great at playing grooves. She’s got a lot of respect for the music and understands where it’s coming from.”
Hernández knows a gig with Nakadegawa-Lee means “for sure you are reading,” she said. “He’ll put the music in front of you and you’ve got to deal. I haven’t played for seven months, it’s my first gig and back to this?! Nathan makes you work and pushes, and it comes from a place of love.”
Nakadegawa-Lee is from a creative family with many accomplishments. One of his younger sisters is Greer Nakadegawa-Lee, Oakland’s Youth Poet Laureate, and the other, Scarlet, is a painter and artist.
He credits his experience growing up in the Oakland public schools with drawing him into music, starting at Peralta Elementary studying clarinet with teacher David Tidball. Things got bumpy at Claremont Middle School, however. The school’s music program lacked a permanent teacher for his first two years. Weekly visits by Oaktown Jazz Workshop instructors kept him interested, but it wasn’t until he got to Oakland Tech that jazz became his passion.
During esteemed music educator Helena Jack’s last semester at Oakland Tech, he got a taste of the Oakland Eastside All-Star Ensemble, a big band that has nurtured generations of talented young players. Nakadegawa-Lee continued in the group when Ted Allen took over as music director. By junior year, he’d quit running cross country to spend more time playing music, and felt he had found his way to a path that made sense.
“The goal is definitely to be a professional musician,” he said. “I’m not sure how I want that to look, but thinking about the classes I’ve taken, this is the only thing that’s sustained me mentally, that didn’t make me want to quit. I feel like I’m passionate about it, but it’s more like it’s the only thing I want to do.”