Never underestimate those local high school jazz programs. They often lead to scorching musical careers.
Devan Kortan (second from left in top photo) is one of those fortunate young people to come up through a local jazz program in the Sacramento school system that paired up-and-comers with the coolest mentors, then gave them the chance to get out and be heard. Then there was jazz camp, where he met his musical peers, all of them in love with The Great American Songbook. Three years into a Philosophy degree at Sac State, Devan with his swing-loving bros now form The Kortet.
How young were you when you started being interested in music?
My mom played guitar and sang since I was little. When I turned 10, I wanted nothing more than to play the bass, which then was a natural segue into playing guitar.
Was jazz played in your house growing up?
My parents have incredibly diverse musical tastes. My dad listened to everything from Thelonious Monk to Beastie Boys to Sade to Jimmy Hendrix.
How did you meet your band mates?
Andrew Stephens, Carson Messer and I went to the same high school, Rio Americano, a school with a superb jazz program. Dexter Williams went to school down the road at El Camino, but we all came together at the Sacramento Traditional Jazz Society’s jazz camp up at Sly Park a few years ago.
When did you form your Kortet?
The band formed at the jazz camp, mostly due to us becoming really good friends! The band followed from that.
I honestly cannot remember the Kortet’s first gig – we’ve done what seems like hundreds at this point. We had really fast success in the youth band community in the area. We were quickly invited to play at all the festivals and events in the area.
Who are some of the community mentors who had a direct influence on your training?
All of the instructors at the jazz camp were so influential. People like Bill Dendle, Eddie Erickson, Bria Skonberg, Westy Westenhofer (may he rest in peace) and Ed Metz especially. Also Sacramento locals like the great Dr. Steve Roach at Sacramento State taught me how to be a disciplined musician as well as healthy and motivated.
Name your favorite jazz artists.
Jimmy Raney, Stan Getz, Joe Pass, Jim Hall, Django Reinhardt, Bob Brookmeyer, Clark Terry and Julian Lage stand out in my mind. The person that made the biggest impact on my life and performing is Eddie Erickson, one of the best singer/banjoist/guitarists in the world. I’m blessed to call him my friend.
For the Kortet, we draw a lot of inspiration from the Oscar Peterson Trio from the mid-sixties (Oscar, Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen).
What is the jazz community like in the capital city?
The Sacramento jazz community is an interesting one. On one hand, it’s extremely casual, but on the other, it’s an old boys’ club. The gigs that do exist are held very closely. Sacramento has a disappointing amount of listening and live dance venues. Everyone is talking about this cultural movement and revitalization here, but I feel that it’s mostly just happening on Instagram. People hate paying for content these days and artists continue to struggle.
How did you get the attention of the Sac Music Fest, where you cats will be playing this Labor Day?
Since we have a good relationship with the Jazz Society, it was pretty easy to get their attention. We tend to be the poster children for the jazz camp.
The Kortet has been at the festival since 2013, starting out as a youth band. We’ve been a paid “adult” band for the last two runs.
Why do you gravitate to the Great American Songbook?
There’s an immense amount of beauty and poetry in the American Songbook, you just have to know how to recognize it. I never get tired of hearing standards!
Talk a little about the Kortet’s members.
I love them all so, so much. Not only are they my band mates, but they’re my best friends. When we come together twice a year to do gigs, it’s easily the most fun I have all year long. All of us bring something special to the table. I am the band coordinator, namesake, and de facto spokesperson.
Honestly, Andrew Stephens’ skill and knowledge are really what makes this good band great.
You must have received lots of advice about how hard it is to make a living at this. What say you?
Yep, it’s super hard. It’s more than going to the gig at night. It’s putting your charts together, practicing, coordinating your band, communicating with the venue, making sure your gear is in order, dressing nicely, being personable and marketing yourself which is the most difficult and most time-consuming thing to do.
We are living in the golden age of social media. How has that informed your marketing efforts?
I think it’s made us more self-conscious!
What are your plans to expand your band’s reach and perform in new places?
We’ve got a lot of ambition to reach bigger festivals. The plan for that is to get more swinging and hire a (better than me!) singer.
One is in the works coming late summer (2017)!
Photos with permission of Devan Kortan
© Debbie Burke 2017