Charlotte Observer, January 2020 — Sean Mason is a piano player from Charlotte. He’s now a sophomore at Juilliard but has already played in the Jazz at Lincoln Center program and in quartets with Wynton and Branford Marsalis.
Jazz musicians don’t waste words.
When a pianist plunges deeply into the 100-year history of jazz from Louis Armstrong to Keith Jarrett, they say, “He does his homework.”
When his playing blends blues, gospel, R&B, classical music and everything else his restless mind has vacuumed up since childhood, they say, “He has a good ear.”
So when triple Grammy-winning saxophonist Branford Marsalis met an amazing Charlotte teenager and wanted the director of the Juilliard School jazz program to admit the kid, this was his pitch: “‘Sean can really play.”
“Branford has different levels of compliments. He might say someone’s talented or someone has strong technique,” explained younger sibling Wynton Marsalis, head of Juilliard Jazz and himself a winner of nine Grammys. “But he said, ‘Sean can really play’.”
That’s what Sean Mason needed to know. He’d been praised by church musicians, his family, Charlotte music mentors and especially Lonnie and Ocie Davis, founders of JazzArts Charlotte, who helped the shy student at Philip O. Berry Academy of Technology learn to speak and sing through his keyboard.
Still, as he studied at UNC Greensboro in 2017, music seemed to be a joy on the side, not a job at the center of his future. Then he ran into Branford Marsalis, who was subbing on the faculty for a semester and turned Mason’s world around.
Sean Mason, who performed at Middle C Jazz Club in Charlotte in December, said his inspiration for playing jazz came from listing to his parents CDs at a young age, including Ray Charles, Duke Ellington and funk music.
A path to Juilliard
Now he’s a 21-year-old sophomore at Juilliard; the school wouldn’t accept any UNCG credits, so he started college over. He fronts the Sean Mason Trio with bassist Butler Knowles and drummer Malcolm Charles. He’s played multiple venues in the Jazz at Lincoln Center program and performed in quartets led by both Wynton and Branford Marsalis.
On the Sunday before Christmas, you’d have caught him at Charlotte’s elegant new Middle C Jazz club on South Brevard Street. There he swung through his tribute to “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” which he has done somewhere each year since he was too young to drink in venues that hired him.
An interview at the club the next afternoon would find him dapper in a dark, slim-fitting suit. (His website has a Sean Mason Fashion section, for he hopes to design and market clothes.) He seemed easygoing, soft-spoken but confident around a questioner he met only once five years ago, self contained except for fireworks of hair that shoot out from his head.
When asked to perform for a video recording, he said, “Let’s have some blues” — not a song, just improvisation, with Mason leaning away from the keyboard and swaying gently from side to side. It’s a Ray Charles move, done to a Ray Charles piano vamp. If you didn’t already know that the most eclectic of American pianists was Mason’s musical idol, you could guess. Earl Hines, whose 1940s band included Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, comes second.
Sean Mason taught himself to play on a Casio keyboard his grandmother gave him.
Many young musicians don’t know Earl Hines from Duncan Hines. Almost none would listen to 15 hours of Library of Congress interviews with Jelly Roll Morton after hearing Morton’s pioneering music. But Mason did. Mention an obscure pianist in conversation and he’d say, “Gotta remember to look him up.”
That kind of dedication endeared him to Branford Marsalis, who now lives in Durham and teaches at N.C. Central University.
“I had 15 saxophone players and Sean (at UNCG),” he recalls. “I gave him (Morton’s) ‘King Porter Stomp’ to transcribe. I must have given that to 15 students (over the years), and none ever learned it. I asked him about it after a month, and he’d done it. Then I gave him Edvard Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, and he came back and played two of those basically from memory. I said, ‘You might want to consider Juilliard. Go to their website, put in your audition tape and they will call you.’ I told my brother, ‘Be on the lookout for this kid.’
“I can tell which musicians hear more music than they know, which ones have a natural instinct for technical and harmonic proficiency. I try to invent exercises that overwhelm them with their weaknesses. When I taught Sean, he didn’t have any weaknesses I could fix.”
Said Wynton Marsalis, ”He has a combination of soul and intelligence that’s rare ….”
JazzArts Charlotte is proud to have mentored Sean Mason through the JazzArts Youth Ensemble. He was the featured pianist for the JAZZ ROOM tribute to Ahmad Jamal this past May. This is a taste of a full Charlotte Observer subscriber exclusive article by Laurence Toppman & Joshua Komer, January 7 2020.