January 30, 2014

STRANGER: Aaron L. Myers II
LOCATION: The Mediterranean Spot, 1501 U Street NW, Washington, DC
THEME: Dinner with a jazz musician

That’s the first time I’ve been serenaded at dinner.

When I entered the Mediterranean Spot in Washington, DC, the only jazz I heard was the restaurant’s sound system playing Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Charles. But then I sat for a meal with jazz singer and pianist Aaron L. Myers II, and he sang for me.

I think I blushed.

Aaron, a cheerful 30-year-old with a gently commanding voice, was undaunted about the mini free concert he was giving. That’s understandable as he’s been performing music in one form or another since before he was a teenager, and it’s his focus 24/7 these days.

Aaron’s style is jazz and “neo-soul,” and while he writes a fair amount of original material, his repertoire also includes covers of jazz classics. But he doesn’t try and mimic what went before. He puts his own personality into others’ songs, and that’s how I got the show.

I’d asked him to explain what he meant by putting his own voice on another artist’s work.

“Take My Funny Valentine,” he said. All right. “It’s a somber song. But when I first heard it, I thought it was kind of comical,” and then he crooned across the table in a slow, sad voice:

Is your figure less than Greek?
Is your mouth a little weak?
When you open it to speak
Are you smart?

Pushing back from the table in mock shock, he snapped, “If someone said that shit to me I would be livid! There would be no way a valentine would be happy with that.”

But he listened to the song again.

“Then I found myself falling in love with it, and with myself, and then I realized these are beautiful things. ‘Is your figure less than Greek?’ — it might be, but I love it,” he said with a smile, complemented by his deep, warm voice that has an upbeat ring to it.

“And that’s when it gets into the other part of the song, ‘But don’t change a hair for me, stay, little valentine, stay.’”

He started snapping his fingers rhythmically, then repeated the same lyrics as before but this time with a happy groove, giving the words a nudge-and-wink cheek to them that the more melancholy version was lacking.

“So when I sing it, it’s not somber,” he said. “I put a groove with it, move around with it. You feel the passion and how I’ve taken this song and what it means to me. Let me articulate how it struck me, and do you identify with how I’ve expressed this? That’s what jazz is. You do what you want, but it has to be an expression that is identifiable. If one person identifies with it, that’s successful, that’s jazz.”

It’s that approach that Aaron takes with his music, which is a full-time job.

He’s the artist-in-residence at Black Fox Lounge, a live music bar in Dupont Circle, a neighborhood that’s on the cusp of requiring a black Amex just to enter. Aaron plays his mix of jazz and neo-soul at the venue several times a month. He fits it in around his busy schedule of touring, writing songs, working for his church, and many other activities.

“I’m doing what I want to do, and I want to do it for the rest of my life,” he said.

Aaron suggested that we get dinner at the Mediterranean Spot, a relatively new place in the busy U Street corridor in Northwest Washington. Under previous owners, it was a bakery with tables and chairs for lounging and sipping coffee. The renovated place’s seating area retains that look. But now it’s juxtaposed with an overhauled counter that looks more like a standard fast-food takeaway.

The menu features a range of Mediterranean-themed dishes, including shish kebabs, falafel, shawarma and hummus, as well as a host of pizzas.

Ordering is a pretty straightforward affair. Ask at the counter for what you want, then sit and wait until the friendly owner brings it over.

Aaron’s fond of the restaurant because it’s open late, perfect for his less-than-regular schedule. He’s said he’s always had an active calendar. As far back as his childhood in small town Goodlow, Texas — population at the time 312, now down to the 200s — he kept busy practicing music, writing fiction, working for his church, and probably sneaking in some sleep here and there.

His family’s always been musical, primarily through gospel at the local Baptist church. Aaron’s grandparents had a piano and when he was six years old “it just made sense” to one day walk up and start tinkering with it. That whim led to 10 years of private lessons.

It also led to Aaron directing the gospel choir in his school and also serving as minister of music for his church starting at age 12. He helped plan services, hire musicians, and design, teach, and learn the music each week. Some teenagers might prefer to spend their time online or as far away from the religious life as possible, but not in Goodlow.

“It’s a small community so you have to figure out your niche early,” he said. “I knew music was it, but in a place like that there aren’t many places to do it except church. So that’s where I did it.”

Church is where he fell in love with gospel music, in particular the work of Reverend Dr. James L. Cleveland. “He was my biggest influence,” Aaron said. “His music had such an impact on how we view church and laid the groundwork for how gospel music is written today, which in turn has influenced a lot of R&B and secular music, too.”

Cleveland was also a jazz musician, blurring the lines between gospel and jazz — which has a reputation among some churchgoers as the devil’s music. Aaron was a fan of both styles, getting his introduction to jazz via Louis Armstrong records.

So how did the devil’s music fit in with the religious life?

“Not well,” he said, cracking into a laugh. “I had to keep my love of jazz quiet, my area was not big for jazz so there weren’t many people to talk with about it. But I stayed so constant with it because without jazz, we wouldn’t have had gospel.”

He cites the work of Thomas Dorsey — a jazz pianist who crossed into writing gospel music — as “giving me the inspiration that both are tied together.”

After high school, Aaron joined the Army when he was 17 years old. He was stationed in Fort Gordon, Georgia. The September 11 attacks in New York happened while he was in basic training, and he said it gave him a resolve to stay in the services. “No-one I met wanted to bail when that happened, it made us more determined, it became, ‘Hell yeah, let’s get ’em!’”

But he didn’t have a chance, as an injury to his back forced him to take an honorable discharge two years later. After the forces, he went to Navarro College in his home state of Texas. It’s a community college where he majored in theater and business.

“I’ve loved entertainment my entire life,” he said, interrupted as the Mediterranean Spot chef placed down our massive plates of food and a side of four falafel.

He grabbed one of the deep-fried falafel balls and took a bite, complimenting it. He was right, they were delicious. Pretty filling though, so I only managed half of one.

While Aaron’s love of entertainment kept him busy at college, it wasn’t the only passion he had. At the age of 20 he also ran for mayor after hearing of several problems, such as the city manager being fired. “I figured I couldn’t do any worse and could bring in a fresh pair of eyes,” he said. While he lost (it wasn’t even close), it planted a seed for politics that would sprout several years later.

At the time, however, his focus remained on entertainment and he used a winter break from college to try living in Los Angeles. He fell in love with the city. “Everything seemed possible,” he said.

During his life in the City of Angels he experimented with standup comedy, inspired in part by his “affinity” for comedy that began when he first saw a VHS of Richard Pryor.

As inspiration for his standup, Aaron drew on his experiences as a newcomer to LA, and of his hometown. “But I realized it’s not good to base comedy on locations, it’s best to base it on situations which will translate anywhere you go. So I used my personal story in a comical way, telling tall tales that people find amusing. People seemed to like it,” he said.

And he liked Los Angeles. But he left the city in 2008 for one reason: Barack Obama.

“I’d heard about this guy named Barack who was running for president,” said Aaron, and after reading the Chicago senator’s books Audacity of Hope and Dreams from My Father, decided to hold a fundraiser for the Democratic candidate. The turnout at the venue on Hollywood Boulevard far exceeded expectations, and Aaron knew this was a special campaign. He applied to work for Obama’s campaign.

Aaron worked the primaries and state convention in Texas, and was then placed in Fort Myers, Florida, as a field organizer. “I’m a Texas Democrat, which means I’m probably a Republican in 14 states. I can talk Republican. They needed a person who could go to Republican areas, who was easy to talk to, and could convince them to vote for Barack Obama. That’s what I did.”

After Obama won election in November 2008, the political seed planted by Aaron’s mayoral run had flowered into an ambition to run for office again in his home state.

But his plan was interrupted by a phone call from Linda Grover, the founder and director of the Global Family Program, part of the United Nation’s Peacekeeping initiative. Through the political grapevine, Grover had heard of Aaron’s work in Florida and wanted him to work for the organization on a trial basis. A week after starting at the program in Washington, DC, he was hired permanently.

Unfortunately the economic downturn harmed non-profits, and Aaron had to oversee the shuttering of the Global Family Program. But he decided to make DC his home, and this time to dedicate his focus to his first love: music.

The nation’s capital is a music town, he noted, with jazz musician Duke Ellington born and raised in the city. The U Street corridor where the Mediterranean Spot has a longer history with jazz than Harlem, Aaron said.

Settled in Washington, Aaron did various political and other odd jobs such as speechwriting before running into a member of a local Baptist church at a party. They got to talking about how Aaron had been music director in his teens for his local church and how the church member was having difficulty learning some music for a service. He wanted Aaron’s help.

“You have to love your work

“I was apprehensive,” he said, as he hadn’t played music in more than a year. He’d injured his hand when part of a building fell and crushed it. After that he hadn’t had the heart to tickle the ivories again. But he went to the church rehearsal and started to play. It went well. He kept playing. And it went so well that he’s now that church’s minister of music.

While his focus at the church is on gospel, he still maintains the love of jazz and is able to express that side of his personality through recordings and performances.

His residency at Black Fox Lounge came about after he wandered into the bar one night and got talking to the owner, who showed Aaron the new venue’s piano. Fueled by a couple of Hendrick’s-and-tonics — his drink of choice — he played what he thought was just a few songs for the owner and a handful of customers. A few minutes had probably passed, he figured. But the owner checked the time. It was four in the morning. Time flies.

That impromptu performance won Aaron his regular slot at the bar, and he’s grateful for the work, saying the Black Fox Lounge is a great experience for him.

He’s also plenty busy with other aspects of his music career, and it’s that hectic schedule that first helped him discover the late-night hours of the Mediterranean Spot.

Good thing he did, because the food is fantastic.

Aaron polished off his plate of beef and lamb shawarma, served with rice and a salad. It was the first proper meal he’d had all day, so his hunger was understandable.

The falafel had made me slightly full, so I only managed half my chicken shawarma platter, served with the same sides. The chicken was tender and the meal faultless, other than the serving being too much for one sitting. I took the leftovers home and mercifully they were just as good the next day — something that’s not always guaranteed.

While I attempted to hack through the mound of food, Aaron said he’s got his year ahead planned with church, the Black Fox Lounge, and promoting his own work.

Aaron is his own manager and agent, and is organizing a tour of northeast cities to play songs from his debut album, Leo Rising, and is at work on a second album, Lion’s Den.

The debut was good enough that it secured him three nominations for the Washington Area Music Association’s annual awards show: best debut album, best jazz album, and best jazz artist. Alas, he didn’t scoop any of the gongs at the February 16 show, but he said it’s an honor to get the nominations.

But how does he get inspiration for albums in the first place?

“First you have to write. Then your problems have just begun,” he said, laughing again. After hearing the following details, I was amazed he stays so energetic.

“Then you have to make sure you’re in love with your work. It’s about to be put up for the biggest amount of scrutiny that you will ever encounter in your life. You have to then choose musicians, rehearse, choose a studio that’s affordable. Then you have to make sure all the music is copyrighted, all your license fees are paid, you have to find the publishers to make sure they give you permission to do it,” he said in one long breath. And that’s just cutting the record.

“Then when the album’s done you have to press it, figure out someone who can design a cover, who’s going to do the artwork. Then have to find a place to sell it, then you have to make sure you get it on iTunes, Spotify, and then you’ve got to sell the joker, look out for PR opportunities, get press releases. You have to become a businessman — you’ve got a product to sell,” he said.

“My biggest fear is dying without living

That agenda means Aaron’s year is pretty much mapped out for him, but he loves that. “I don’t mind a few changes, but I prefer going into the year knowing someone wants to hear my music or that I’ll have an opportunity to express myself through the arts. I would be devastated if I opened a year and there was nothing planned,” he said — and that leads into one of his big fears.

“One day I won’t be able to do any of this,” he said, recapping his extensive workload. “My biggest fear is dying without living. Constantly, I’m wondering how to live. I think the best way for me to live and to get the fulness out of that experience is to perform,” he said.

When Aaron hits the stage, he said the euphoria he gets from performing and getting audience feedback is better than any drug — “not that I take any drugs!” he clarified.

“But that’s why so many musicians are drug addicts, there’s nothing like that feeling on stage when you get that first applause, or you poured everything out on the stage and they want more. Nothing can replace it. It’s a high you can’t get elsewhere,” he said.

Aaron has a partner he can go home to and share his experiences with, but he says part of the jazz musician inside him will never connect with others. “I love my girlfriend to death, but unless you’re also on the stage you won’t know that energy” from performing, he said.

I pried for further details about his connection with his jazz music, but he wasn’t for letting me in on the secret.

“That’s between me and my piano,” he said, leaning back in his chair.

He thought over it for a few seconds, then gave this analogy: “Say that you see someone who is drop dead gorgeous with someone who is plain, and you wonder what the hell is going on here. The piano and the music are drop dead gorgeous and I’m plain, but I always say you never know what’s going on behind closed doors. Something magical happens there that keeps them with each other. That’s what it is between my piano and my jazz.”

He refuses to practice in public. “It’s that private. If I showed you that, then you know why I’m with the music. And often times with any relationship, if you’re discussing private things publicly you have to get permission from both sides,” he said, adding, “The music has not given me permission to do that.”

It might be a secret that Aaron takes to his grave, but when that eventual day happens, he’ll be leaving the mortal world happy.

His father died at the age of 53, and that has left Aaron with a constant thought of whether he’s living his life to the full and whether he’ll be satisfied if he dies at the same age.

“I’ve lived enough life now for people who are 80. The choice I’ve made to do entertainment and live this way is a choice that, if I were to die tomorrow, then I did the right thing. I’ve lived. I’ve been heard and my expression has been identified. That you can’t beat.”

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