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Jazz sax in a Native key

NEW YORK – Cherokee saxophone player and bandleader Sharel Cassity has a trademark lick. It sounds like the wavering falsetto that starts a powwow song.

“I believe that jazz comes from the powwow drum,” said Cassity, who lives in New York. “There are elements from Africa. The harmonic consistency comes from Europe. But you don’t get that thump, that boom, boom, boom in the bass and drums without the powwow.”

Jade Synstelien, the first bandleader to hire Cassity, said she brings a Native sensibility to all her work, including her new CD, “Relentless.”

Cassity performed with the Tony Lujan Septet at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian earlier this month. The concert was a tribute to bebop pioneers Dizzy Gillespie and Oscar Pettiford, who was Choctaw and Cherokee.

Pettiford, who led a New York band with Gillespie as bebop was emerging in 1943, redefined the importance of the bass to jazz. He told the magazine Jazz Times that jazz was attempting to render American Indian rhythm.

Cassity’s family is musical on her Cherokee father’s side. Her father is a music therapist, her grandfather a harmonica player and her aunt a concert pianist. She recalls being “surrounded by music” during the time she spent with her father. “But I lived with my mom, who worked at a federal prison,” said Cassity, who spent much of her adolescence in the Oklahoma City area. “I would close myself in my room and practice all the time.”

Those long hours won her scholarships, ultimately to the Juilliard Institute for Jazz Studies, where she earned a master’s degree. Synstelien remembers meeting Cassity nine years ago at Smalls Jazz Club in New York City.

“She would be in the very back room by herself, practicing long notes, long tones on the saxophone, while she was putting herself through music school. She has a work ethic greater than any musician I have ever met and she is growing into a better musician moment by moment.”

Synstelien recruited her to play in his Fat Cat Big Band. Since then, Cassity has become a member of a handful of bands of regional and national repute. Two years ago, Sherrie Maricle asked Cassity to join the Diva Jazz Orchestra, and last year the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band also added her to its lineup. Hear Cassity lead her own band on alto saxophone on YouTube.

Maricle’s Web site describes Cassity as being able to draw “upon the polish and discipline of her conservatory training to augment what JAZZIZ Magazine called her ‘beautiful, highly-personal tone. ... this altoist’s flights are positively bird-like.’” Hear Cassity on soprano saxophone with the Diva Jazz Orchestra on YouTube.

As a student and later a professional musician in New York’s jazz scene, Cassity is often the only American Indian in the room. Yet she longs for the connectedness she recently felt when she met a Navajo trombone player, or learned about Pettiford’s Choctaw and Cherokee roots. Listen to Pettiford on YouTube.

Synstelien said Cassity brings her own uniqueness to the international language of jazz, but also her talent, which allows her to play with the big cats. She can play “the fat sound of Cannonball Adderley,” he said. “She can play any style of jazz.”

“All the things people love from all time, from different jazz records,” Synstelien said. “She can do it right, with all the required soul and passion.”

Visit Cassity’s Web site.

The American Indian News Service is produced for the National Museum of the American Indian by journalist Kara Briggs, Yakama/Snohomish. All content is free to publish or post. E-mail her at Visit the American Indian News Service at