Native tradition meets jazz innovation: Native Jazz Quartet to perform Friday

Native Jazz Quartet to showcase Tlingit lullabies set to jazz

Tlingit traditional music and jazz have long shared space in Ed Littlefield’s mind, without quite touching.


He was introduced to the first before he could talk, and learned to love the second as a kid growing up Sitka. But though the two traditions have fed his creative output in various ways throughout his career as a musician, composer and educator, he had never explicitly brought them together in his work.

Then his subconscious stepped in.

One night a couple of years ago he had a dream in which he was singing one of his favorite Tlingit lullabies, called “The Hook Song,” while playing a drum. In the dream he then began drumming an Afro-Cuban rhythm while continuing to sing. The singing and the drumming melded perfectly.

“I woke up the next day and said, ‘This has got to happen!’” Littlefield said earlier this week.

Littlefield, now based in Seattle, has just released a CD, “Walking Between Worlds,” of Tlingit lullabies set to jazz, a project that is believed to be the first of its kind.

He’ll be playing selections from the CD Friday night at the Juneau Arts & Cultural Center with fellow musicians Christian Fabian, Reuel Lubag and Jason Marsalis. Fabian is also celebrating a CD release of his own, “West Coast Sessions,” featuring the same core group of four musicians, and will share his new work at the show as well.

“Walking Between Worlds” features traditional Tlingit songs Littlefield’s mother, Roby Littlefield, sung to him when he was a baby; she had learned them from Tlingit elder Charlie Joseph in Sitka.

“The ones I picked for the album were my favorites,” Littlefield said.

In addition to his dream and his mother’s singing, he’d been inspired over time by other jazz musicians who’d experimented with combining traditional Native American music and jazz, specifically Jim Pepper and Don Pullen. Pepper, of Creek and Kaw ancestry, was an Oregon-based jazz saxophone player who worked Native American musician elements into his music. (He was also a guest musician on Juneau Tlingit jazz musician Archie Cavanaugh’s album “Black and White Raven.”) Pullen was a jazz pianist who wove in Native American influences in his compositions, most notably on his last album, “Sacred Common Ground” (1996) which featured singing by the Chief Cliff Singers of the Kootenai people of Montana.

“The first track on that blew my mind,” Littlefield said. “I listened to it about 40 times in a row.”

Jazz, itself a fusion of styles, is particularly well-suited to this type of experimentation, said vibraphone player Marsalis, of the famous Marsalis family of musicians.

“Jazz is an open architecture that can bring in any music,” he said.

Littlefield kept the original melody of the songs intact, while adding jazz rhythm and harmony. He sings on some of the tracks (his grasp of Tlingit is a two on a scale of one to four, he says); others are instrumentals.

In the studio, the CD quickly came together. It was recorded over the course of two long sessions, a testament to the chemistry between the band members.

“I don’t think we did more than two takes of any song,” Littlefield said.

During that period the four men also recorded Fabian’s CD, “West Coast Session,” which also features musicians Brad Turner, Lance Bryant and Gates Thomas.

”Ed asked me to come to Seattle to play on his CD and then I thought, maybe we can do my CD at the same time,” Fabian said.

After recording both CDs, Fabian noticed that he and Littlefield were thinking along similar lines; though Fabian’s CD, his sixth, isn’t Tlingit inspired, it does include some old folk music reinterpreted as jazz, such as track 2, “Lemurian Hymn.”

In discussions after the recording sessions, the four band members discussed the idea of expanding the concept of Native jazz to include other indigenous traditions, beginning with an exploration of their own family backgrounds. The group is an eclectic one: Fabian was born in Sweden and raised in Germany, Lubag’s parents emigrated from The Philippines, and Marsalis is deeply steeped in the musical history of New Orleans, considered by many to be the birthplace of jazz.

Marsalis pointed out that folk, essentially music based on one’s heritage, has long been a source of inspiration for both jazz and classical musicians, who often rework old melodies into something new.

“Composers like Beethoven,Bartók, Mozart -- they all used folk music,” he said.

Fabian said he hasn’t yet researched Swedish or German folk music but is curious to explore it, and to help share indigenous music with the public through the broad platform of jazz.

“Jazz is considered the universal language,” he said, adding that the project could easily go global.

Piano player Reuel Lubag, an active musician based in Seattle, said he would welcome the chance to dig into his Filipino roots.

“For me that’s going to require a little research,” he said. “I’m a first-generation American, my folks emigrated, so for me it will give me a chance to look at the culture and the music. My folks have some records at their house. So it’s kind of exciting.”

Littlefield said the project also offers a chance to help kids explore their backgrounds. While the quartet is on tour, they have been stopping in schools to share their work with students. About 900 kids were signed up to see them in Anchorage, and another 700 in Juneau. They also made stops in Ketchikan, Fairbanks, Seattle and Sitka.

“We’ve been trying to do outreach because I think it’s important that the kids and the communities get to know this music,” Littlefield said.

Littlefield was formerly the music director at Sitka High School, where he taught jazz band, symphonic band, jazz choir, concert choir and guitar. In Juneau he has been active in music as well as local theater, composing songs for Ishmael Hope’s “Reincarnation of Stories” and, with Jocelyn Clark, music for Perseverance Theatre’s production of “Eurydice.” Littlefield also played the role of K’alyaan in Dave Hunsaker’s play “Battles of Fire and Water,” and has been a teacher at Sitka Fine Arts camp for more than five years. This is where he met Fabian, also a music teacher at the camp.

Fabian said he’s developed a strong attachment to Sitka over the years, and recently purchased property there. The fifth track on his CD is named “Kasiana,” after the islands located off the coast of Sitka.

“I liked it right away. It’s an incredible town,” he said, citing in particular the community’s devotion to the arts.

Littlefield said he hopes to develop a jazz program through Sitka Fine Arts Camp as soon as this summer, where he and Fabian can continue to explore the musical intersection of Native melodies and jazz music. In working with Tlingit songs, he will probably be composing some of the melodies himself, as many Tlingit songs are clan-owned.

In addition to being creatively satisfying, the music project has for Littlefield been another way to integrate where he came from and where he’s going, to honor the traditions of the past while integrating new ideas.

“I’m playing jazz and singing my Native songs, and I do this out of respect for the culture,” he said.

As of this week, both Littlefield’s and Fabian’s CDs can be purchased online through, iTunes and other online outlets. They can also be purchased at the show. Littlefield’s CD can also be purchased locally at Peer Amid Beads, at the corner of Front and Seward Streets downtown.

For more information and hear samples, visit and

Know and go

What: Native Jazz Quartet, featuring Ed Littlefield, Christian Fabian, Jason Marsalis and Reuel Lubag.

When: 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 16. Doors open at 7:30 p.m.

Where: Juneau Arts and Cultural Center

Details: Tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for students and seniors.


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