Boulder-born saxophonist Jeremy Mohney had a longstanding weekly residency at the No Name Bar in Boulder before COVID-19 halted the live-music industry in March. The eccentric jazz musician also excels on the clarinet and often jams with local groups across numerous genres. Mohney is known as much for his dazzling solos as he is for holding court over drinks at the No Name between sets and after gigs, shuffling in and out of conversations that touch on his heroes, who range from Louis Armstrong to Norm McDonald.
The babyfaced Mohney and his band have a slew of self-released albums and singles on Spotify and Bandcamp, and were a staple at swing dances, bars and old-timey events in the Front Range and Denver before COVID-19 limited the musician to playing online performances for donations. Now living in Denver, Mohney is offering unique straight-to-vinyl recordings for just $25 through Leesta Vall Sound Recordings’ Shut-In Sessions project, which allows fans to buy a seven-inch vinyl record of a track recorded just for them, with a personalized message included on the track.
We spoke with Mohney recently about the direct-to-vinyl campaign — which will stop accepting orders on June 24 — and more.
Westword: How has the virus affected your career?
Jeremy Mohney: Well, I’ve played a gig or two, but nothing serious. For the most part it’s been online, but we did play one backyard party with some social distancing. That was fun. It was really, you know, sort of fulfilling on a spiritual level, if you will.
Have the online concerts helped with your income?
At the beginning of it all, it really did. For a long time, I was doing solo concerts in a stairwell and couldn’t get together with the band at all. Since then, it’s kind of trailed off, actually.
Have you heard anything from the No Name Bar about starting up your weekly gig again?
I’m thinking about doing something there again at some point, but I don’t want to go back to doing anything regular there. I think that caused a lot of stress for a lot of different parties, just playing in the same place for no money and virtually no tips. Getting paid in whiskey has its advantages, but it also [laughs]...you know. I think I need to grow up a little bit from that.
For someone who grew up in Boulder, how did jazz become the music that you live and breathe?
I was really close to my grandfather growing up, and I still am. I don’t get to talk to him as much as I’d like, the way life is, but he really turned me on to a lot of good records growing up. I still listen to them and love them. It probably has a lot to do with my personal relationship with my grandfather, but the music just speaks volumes for itself. It’s such an honest form of expression, created by great people who really further everyone’s understanding of what it means to be a human. It’s just a beautiful, beautiful art form that more people need to be aware of, I think — swing, in particular...Chicago-style, New Orleans-style, whatever you want to call it. That swing is the spirit of America, or what America should be.
You play classics, but you write swing music, too.
Yeah — I just love the style so much. I really let it get into me enough that I feel like I kind of do it justice when I write it.
What is your musical education?
I was in band at Boulder High, and I studied with a private teacher named Greg LaLiberte. I guess the plan was that I was gonna try out for college, but that didn’t really work out. I decided not to pay for it; among other things, I didn’t want to get a degree in saxophone for writing papers.
Have you had lessons since high school?
I was lucky that as I was getting involved in the swing-music scene around here I did get the chance to take for free, from UC Denver, an ensemble class, a band class for traditional jazz, which is essentially the music that we play. I wouldn’t say that it particularly guided me on any path that I wasn’t already on, but it definitely was a big help, and I appreciate that. Other than that, I’ve just been playing gigs. It’s a good skill to have as a musician, to be able to listen and to jam, as they say.
Right now, with Black Lives Matter in the streets and most people understandably upset about racist police brutality, do you feel like being steeped in the history of jazz is a way to prevent racism, just knowing how much African-Americans have contributed?
Absolutely. Daryl Davis, the blues piano player who played with Little Richard and B.B. King, personally meets [Ku Klux] Klan members. He’s black, and he meets Klan members and just talks to them and convinces them to leave the Klan. The reason I think of that is that one of his stories is about how he was playing in a bar, and this white guy came up to him and said, “Hey, you play piano like Jerry Lee Lewis.” He said, “Well, that’s funny…not really. Have you ever heard of Fats Domino or Little Richard?” The [white] guy was dumbstruck, you know, and it turns out he was a racist, and he was a part of the Klan, and just having that conversation led to him eventually leaving the Klan. It’s an amazing story. Look at Benny Goodman and the way he hired black artists and put them on the radio in the 1930s, well before civil rights. He made himself into a true hero of American culture. Those are great stories that are all part of this music.
How did you get involved with this straight-to-vinyl project?
Well, it’s sort of how a lot of people meet their girlfriends these days: online. Just write back, “Hey.”
How did you decide which two songs people can choose from?
Just mainly…I don’t know. It’s hard to choose really anything, for me. I guess at the end of the day I have to make a decision to put something out. One of them is a vocal tune [“Show Me What You Got and Swing It”]. It’s got some silly lyrics. I just wanted to sing some swing and get in the spirit of what a swing dance is.
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Is recording to vinyl a personal thrill for you, too?
Oh, yeah. I’ve always wanted to have a record with my music on it. It’s a little cost-prohibitive. This program does a great service by offering small-batch records to artists, at no up-front cost to the artists. It does require some work. We have to actually record individual takes of the songs and hopefully not screw them up. We’ll use a mixer and a condenser mic, which is actually the tradition of this music, to just use one microphone and blend acoustically to the room and sort of gather around it.
One more thing: How much of an influence will Norm McDonald be on these recording sessions?
Well, I can just say this: It’s a shame that he can’t run for president. That’s all I have. I’ll leave it up to him to say the rest, because he’s funnier than I am.