Photo courtesy of Hot House West.

From 14-Piece Band to Nonprofit: Hot House West’s Collective Dream

Music Interviews

Hot House West, a 14-piece swing band that incorporates many styles of jazz, is something special. They do whatever they can to make their music accessible to the ordinary person. They don’t require their audience to maintain over a century’s worth of jazz knowledge and have amassed a following through the encouragement and support of audience participation at their shows. Now, they are looking to take the next step by also becoming a nonprofit organization called the Swing Collective that promotes the culture of jazz music and art.

Nathan Royal. Photo courtesy of Hot House West.
“There’s no reason Salt Lake can’t be a music hub like Austin or Nashville,” says Nathan Royal. Photo of Royal courtesy of Hot House West.

I was invited to sit down with Nathan Royal (Executive Director, guitarist/vocalist), James Martak (Director of Operations, rhythm guitarist) and David Baker (Director of Programs, upright bassist), who make up part of the brain trust of this rare breed of band—one that has grown by reaching out to and including its community.

“I think the core of it is making an impact,” says Baker. “We had a lot of conversations about what our goals were as individuals, as a group and as a community. We maxed out as far as what we could do as just a band, and reorganizing as a nonprofit will allow us to make the most impact on the broader community.” The group could go down many different avenues as things evolve, but first and foremost the focus is breaking down any barriers keeping anyone away from experiencing this music on any level they wish to.

“We want to provide opportunities to people that wouldn’t get the chance to perform with a band like ours,” says Martak. “The Hot House West orchestra is now a 14-piece with people like David who have doctorates in music. A lot of musicians think they need to be a music major to play with a band like us. We’ve seen so much gatekeeping over the years, with jazz music in particular, and there ends up being a lot of older white guys. You don’t see many women or people of color, and they are out there. They just don’t get the opportunities to play.”

James Martak. Photo courtesy of Hot House West.
“We want to provide opportunities to people that wouldn’t get the chance to perform with a band like ours,” says James Martak. Photo of Martak courtesy of Hot House West.

Most folks think of jazz as “something old” and “stuffy” that might as well be in a museum, but Hot House West wants people to see it living and breathing—that this genre is as much theirs as it is anyone else’s. “We want to remove that idea that you have to know anything,” says Baker. “You can just have fun, and you can learn things later if you want to. But if you can just start to experience the joy of the music, then that creates an on-ramp for them to be as deep as they want.” It’s easy to ask why this project means so much to musicians who have already accomplished so much. What do they get out of opening doors for others when they have had to work so hard to open them for themselves?

“Some of the impact that we’ve seen is watching people we’ve brought into the group,” says Martak, “and seeing how much people want these opportunities. Our drummer Taku [Ishikawa] is from Japan and had only been playing drums for two years or so. He came here and ended up filling in on a video we did for ‘Bei Mir Bist Du Shön,’ and from there he played on our album Patron Saint Django. He’s so passionate, he works hard, he’s always got a big smile while he’s playing and he might not have had these opportunities trying to break into the jazz scene the normal way.” 

David Baker. Photo courtesy of Hot House West.
“I think the core of it is making an impact,” says David Baker. Photo of Baker courtesy of Hot House West.

The Swing Collective would do things like match interested beginner musicians with mentors who will provide support like going out on their first gig and answer any questions that might help them navigate the treacherous world of professional music. ”We want this to be a pipeline to get people to create their own ensembles and spread it even further, or they can play with [our] orchestra and fill in when we need them,” Martak says.

“There’s no reason Salt Lake can’t be a music hub like Austin or Nashville, but since we’ve started as a nonprofit it peeled back the layers, showing us that we need to have jams, workshops, gigs, places to record … and that’s still not enough,” says Royal.

Hot House West and the Swing Collective are hosting a monthly series of shows they’re calling “The Swing Renaissance” at ClubHouse SLC. These shows include dance lessons, swing jams, fashion shows, art, food and more. The first three events will be held on Jan. 25, Feb. 22 and Mar. 28, so check their website for more info—I’ll see you on the dance floor.

Read more coverage of local swing, jazz, rockabilly and roots music:
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