New Orleans jazz guitarist Steve Masakowski, daughter Sasha join orchestra for unique evening of entertainment
“My kids have traveled the world more than I have.”
So says Steve Masakowski, the New Orleans jazz guitarist, composer and educator whose children, 25-year-old Sasha and 22-year-old Martin, are international jazz performers.
Martin Masakowski, bassist with gypsy jazz and klezmer band the Balcony Players, has performed throughout Europe and in the United States and Brazil.
Sasha Masakowski, having already sung for years in New Orleans, recently returned from a four-month engagement in China. She’s currently in the midst of a July residency at Zirzamin in New York’s Greenwich Village.
Adding to the chances that Masakowski’s children would be musically inclined, their mother is classical pianist Ulrike Masakowski.
“I’ve been teaching for a long time,” Steve Masakowski, director of jazz studies at the University of New Orleans, said.
“It seems like students who come from a musical family have an advantage. That doesn’t mean that people who have talent but come from nonmusical families can’t succeed,” Masakowski said. “It’s just that children whose parents are musical are constantly in the environment and music really is a language.”
The Masakowski children spent their childhoods hearing their mother playing classical piano pieces and their father practicing, improvising and composing jazz.
“I’ve always known that Sasha has a great talent as a singer, especially as an improviser,” her father said. “I’ve played with some really great singers, including Bobby McFerren and Dianne Reeves, and Sasha is incredible. “Of course, I’m a jazz musician and I’ve been working on improvisation all my life, but I’m always fascinated when I hear Sasha improvise. It’s completely spontaneous. She’s hearing things in the moment. Even if she is my daughter, sometimes I’m in awe of her.”
Steve and Sasha Masakowski will join the Hot Summer Nights and Cool Jazz Orchestra Friday, July 13, for a unique program of jazz and chamber orchestra. The concert’s selections will include pieces recorded by Nova Nola, a New Orleans group whose album, Wetland, features the entire Masakowski family.
The concert at the LSU School of Music Recital Hall is the brainchild of Bill Grimes, jazz bassist, LSU music professor, conductor and orchestrator.
“He really likes the Nova Nola record,” Masakowski said.
Grimes and Masakowski have written arrangements for the concert, which will include examples of the Brazilian music that Steve and Sasha Masakowski are so devoted to.
Like the household he raised his children in, Masakowski’s childhood home helped set his course in music. His older sister brought bossa nova recordings home, future classics by Antonio Carlos Jobim, Stan Getz and, the original singer of “The Girl From Ipanema,” Astrud Gilberto. “I’ve been listening to Brazilian music since my pre-teen years,” he said. “I loved the sound of it. That’s why I gravitated to the guitar. There is so much guitar in that music.
“And to this day Antonio Carlos Jobim is one of my great influences. He’s up there with Duke Ellington and Charlie Mingus, a great composer and orchestrator. His music is so organic and balanced. He’s never written a bad song.”
Growing up on Magazine Street in New Orleans, the guitarist also was influenced by Paul Crawford’s jazz band, which rehearsed two houses down. He also loved the city’s parade music.
Masakowski got serious about playing musical instruments in his late teens. He studied with New Orleans jazz guitarist Hank Mackie and at Berklee College of Music in Boston.
“Hank probably taught every prominent guitar player in New Orleans,” Masakowski said. “He’s the one who really got me headed in the real modern jazz direction, Wes Montgomery, Pat Martino and Joe Pass.”
More learning came via performances with an eclectic group of New Orleans musicians, including pianist Ellis Marsalis, pianist-songwriter-producer Allen Toussaint, jazz traditionalist and raconteur Danny Barker, amazing vocalist Johnny Adams, drummer James Black, saxophonist Alvin “Red” Tyler and contemporary jazz group Astral Project.
“It would be easier to tell you the people I didn’t work with,” the guitarist said. “The thing about New Orleans is that you don’t get stigmatized. Like in New York City, you have the Latin clique, the bebop clique, the free-jazz clique. In New Orleans we all did everything.”
Marsalis hired Masakowski to teach guitar at UNO. Following Marsalis’ retirement from the position of UNO’s Coca-Cola Endowed Chair of Jazz Studies, Masakowski became the second musician-educator to hold the title.
“The teachers at UNO are all professional musicians, active in their field,” Masakowski said. “That’s part of our success, why we attract students from around the world. The best way to learn anything is to learn it from the environment. New Orleans presents an environment that’s conducive for developing a jazz musician, and I think of UNO as an extension of New Orleans and its culture.”