Got That Swing

How local saxophonist, composer, and orchestra leader Jack Saint Clair found his rhythm.

Growing up in a family of athletes, Jack Saint Clair was no jock. While his siblings excelled in competition, Jack “didn’t have that gene” — his least favorite class in high school was gym which he almost failed once for not doing pushups. “My dad was pretty incredulous when he found out” said Jack, “it wasn’t something he ever considered possible from one of his sons.”

He also probably never imagined a future jazz musician when Jack took up the saxophone in 3rd grade. “My parents always insisted we learn to play an instrument. It was very important for them, but I hated it at first” he said, describing himself as a lazy kid.

Fortunately, his love for the TV show “The Simpsons” provided role models – Lisa Simpson (and her mentor “Bleeding Gums” Murphy) – that made playing the sax cool. That’s when things clicked for Jack and he got hooked on music. He started playing a variety of instruments, including woodwinds, piano and trombone, but the sax was always his first love.

Fast forward to 2018 and Jack leads a 17 piece big band orchestra, arranges music, and recently wrote a piece for the Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia that was commissioned by the Kimmel Center and debuted in June. (Based on the “Jupiter” movement from Holst’s symphony “The Planets,” Jack playfully retitled his jazz arrangement “Jupiter, the Swinger of Jollity.”)

How did Jack find his groove, what does he think of the local music scene, and what’s his secret talent? Get ready to dig this month’s Q&A.

Best musical memory growing up?

Sitting in on jam sessions in Philly when I was in high school. One of my favorites was on Sundays at the LaRose Jazz Club in Germantown on Sundays. It was like discovering  another world. The energy was amazing. It’s that great jazz tradition of learning to play together –you figured out how to work together through the music.

And you’d have older players collaborating and teaching younger players. I remember hearing Larry McKenna, a saxophone player, for the first time and it made a huge impression. He was my favorite sound on that instrument. It really inspired me. I went to other session but the one at La Rose was special to me because Rob Henderson, the drummer who ran it, made it very welcoming and insisted on a mix of older and younger players.

What artists did you idolize growing up?

Larry McKenna, Bootsie Barnes. My teachers in high school and Temple particularly, like Dick Oatts. He really changed my whole way of thinking about the sax. He was a real guru. Sometimes I think about the things he said. You had to write it down because you’d only really understand what he meant years later. But at the time, I thought what is he talking about?

How did the band get its start?

We organized a concert at a community center on Lancaster Avenue when I was just out of college and had written a few arrangements — I thought it’d be a one and done kind of event, because it isn’t easy to organize a big band. Doc LaRose, the owner of LaRose Jazz Club was in the audience. He approached me afterward and asked if we wanted to play LaRose. Then it just became a monthly thing at LaRose. It’s been about two years now which is surprising to me.

Do you play just covers or do you write originals?

All our songs are original arrangements. I orchestrate everything. Some of the material is from jazz standards or my interpretation of standards. I also mix in the work of contemporary local musicians like Mike Boone.

How do you arrange a piece?

Arranging is a little like composing because you’ll take a song like “My Foolish Heart,” for instance, which has 32 bars and redress it. There’s an old Gil Evans album title (he was an orchestrator) that puts it nicely – “New Bottle, Old Wine.” The heart of the song, the essence, is in there — you just redress it. It allows you to experiment.

How did you get started arranging music?

I didn’t know it then, but it started with playing a variety of instruments as a kid. It gave me a sense of the various parts each one played in an orchestra. I “officially” have been arranging since college. Even though I was really bad at it when I started, I’ve always loved balancing various sounds and creating a sound architecturally. It started off as a creative outlet but through that I’ve been able to do arrangements for the jazz orchestra of Philadelphia.

What’s the chemistry like between you and the Orchestra? How has it developed in the time you’ve been playing together?

It’s like magic now. I can give the band an arrangement and each one of those 17 musicians is such a great reader, they pick up instantly what I’m going for and add their own spin to it. As an arranger, it’s great because I can write more challenging pieces and I can feature various artists because I know their sound and their personality so well. You write for the artist as a person rather than an abstract instrument.

Favorite song?

An arrangement I did of “The Trolley Song,” that one by Judy Garland, for Chelsea Reed’s group “The Fair Weather Five.” They play it really fast and I tried to make it fun by using all sorts of musical effects, like trombones playing the “bump bump bump” part when they sing “bump bump bump went the brake.”

If you had a time machine, are there any musicians you’d like to travel back to meet?

Duke Ellington. But you know what they say about never meeting your heroes because you’ll be disappointed? I’ve seen Duke in interviews and you can tell that he’s miles away in his head while the interviewer is speaking. Probably composing his next piece. I imagine it might be like that.

How’s the music scene in Germantown?

Still have to fully acquaint myself with Germantown. There’s a lot of underground stuff happening there. And I mean a lot — Germantown has a great cultural scene. We recently recorded an album at Rittenhouse Soundworks. It’s a top-notch recording studio but it’s also a gathering place for artists. Every month they host musicians of all kinds in these great jam sessions. You’ll find all sorts of styles including jazz, chamber music, and world music to name a few.

Basic bio? Pets?

I’m 24. I still live at home with my parents in Chestnut Hill. I’ve got a cat named Moonie. There’s no real musical significance to the name though – it’s actually because he moons you all the time, which seemed funny when I named him in grade school.

Lately there’s been big news — she said yes!!! I proposed to Elizabeth (Strenge) in April. Of course I proposed at LaRose, where we first met in the spring of 2017. Funny how it happened — Elizabeth happened to meet Emily, the girlfriend of my lead alto sax player, in the park one day while they were both babysitting. They struck up a conversation and Emily invited Elizabeth to the show that evening. Providential! (Editor’s note: WOOT!)

Secret talent?

I do impressions. Not very good ones, but I have a few I think are my least bad. I like old movies, so Jimmy Stewart is one. James Mason is another. He always holds his breath and then speaks every word like he’s sighing.

Catch Jack Saint Clair Live

The Jack Saint Clair Orchestra performs every 1st Thursday of the month, from 7:30-10PM, at the LaRose Jazz Club in Germantown (5531 Germantown Avenue). Doors open at 7. Tickets: $15 for adults, $10 for students.

For more info, visit Jack’s website and Facebook page. Cool performance pics on his Instagram feed too.

Jack also occasionally plays with Chelsea Reed and the Fair Weather Five. Check out their website and Facebook page.


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