Jeff Solon is all about jazz. If he’s not playing solo, or with his duo, trio, quartet or big band, he’s home practicing or writing new compositions. If he’s not practicing or creating new music, he’s teaching private lessons to locals or instructing music majors at Fort Lewis College. The saxophone player, who also plays harmonica, flute and clarinet, has made the study and performance of jazz a life-long effort with little intent on slowing things down.
It was a harmonica that kicked off his music career. A young Solon attending summer camp saw someone playing harmonica doing the Bob Dylan folkie thing; Solon describes that event as “the epiphany” that led to Solon toting a harmonica around wherever he went.
“I carried it around with me in middle and high school, I was a shy quiet kid. I was very much a closet harmonica player,” Solon said. “But I played with friends, we would jam a lot, and I did that through college as well. I was that harmonica player that was always knocking on doors asking to sit in. So I’d sit in with bands and then I started adding instruments because I realized I really enjoyed playing. And I love to do it, and I still practice a ton. Every day.”
A love of jazz came from late-night listening to the radio. The Minnesota native was hearing jazz via a bedside clock radio and soaking up what he could – cool jazz, be-bop or big band, specifics didn’t matter. It was jazz, and he was hooked.
“I always loved the groove,” he said. “I loved the sound and what they were doing. It was those instrumentals with the great groove.”
Solon ended up in Durango for college (even hosting a jazz radio program on KDUR in the station’s early years), and in an effort for the budding street musician to be heard, traded his harmonica for a clarinet. He pieced the street-musician thing together for years, spending much of that time practicing and playing jazz in Central and South America.
“It was pretty exciting for a long time,” Solon said. “I got to see parts of the world, play music, learn about music. Music is an international language, so being able to be in a different country and play music, it opened different doors. You really got to know the culture.”
The nomadic lifestyle ended with a return to Durango in 1985, where he’s been since. Locally, Solon was a jazz pioneer; in the ’80s, the local bar scene favored folk, but the ambitious Solon would put together jazz bands to play throughout the region.
It was also at that time when he started teaching, a facet of jazz that remains just as important to him as playing. Part of his mission with teaching is to bring jazz music into local schools: Solon has been applying, and receiving, a grant from Durango Friends of the Arts for 28 years, a grant that funds school assemblies where he performs and demonstrates instruments for the students. It’s those kind of teaching efforts that put the music into the hands of kids who wouldn’t know John Coltrane from John Stamos.
“By teaching, you understand music better, you understand your instrument better. So, it’s actually made me a better musician,” Solon said. “It’s a chance to give, and it keeps my brain really active. I love watching somebody grow and have those aha moments of, ‘Oh my God, this is so cool.’ Sometimes, I’ll have kids that start in middle school and I’ll take them all the way through high school. And they play beautifully by that time, if they hang with it and if they practice. So that’s very rewarding.”
Solon will play every Wednesday at the Cyprus Café throughout the summer.
Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager. Reach him at email@example.com.