THOSE ATTENDING this Sunday afternoon’s Jazz Jam at Embassy Suites in Seaside will include a host of Monterey Bay jazz musicians to celebrate the life of fellow jazz pianist Jan Deneau. Among them will be Eddie Mendenhall, a gifted pianist himself with a unique style that is widely admired here and elsewhere, including abroad. In fact, Mendenhall has collaborated with a Who’s Who of jazz artists, among them “Senator” Eugene Wright, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Drummond, Gary Meek, the Manhattan Jazz Quintet, George Young, Paul Contos, Peter Yellin and many more. Now his reputation precedes him and his talents have long proved to be highly portable.
Until quite recently, the small Mendenhall family—Eddie, wife Mitsuru, whom he met in Monterey, and daughter Kanoa—moved around the SF Bay Area. “We made a big circle for three or four years, to Morgan Hill, Novato, Richmond, mainly to give our daughter access to performing arts high schools. She got to have a lot more playing time and travel to festivals. She was in the Next Gen Jazz Orchestra at this summer’s Monterey Jazz Festival.” The family is now back in Pacific Grove. “Kanoa just turned 18 and is a full-time student at Columbia University and goes to Juilliard for bass lessons and to play with an ensemble. She loves New York.”
The three working musicians in the Mendenhall house reminds him of his own childhood. Eddie began studying piano at age four. “I would tinkle around the keys when my mom would drop my brothers off for piano lessons.” His family had a big musical appetite that mainly favored classical. By the time he was eight he was good enough to play music by Schumann and Beethoven “in front of my school,” Foothill Elementary in Monterey. At age 13, attending Walter Colton Junior High in Monterey, “A clinician from the Monterey Jazz Festival came by and when I heard that music I was hooked. I could hear solos in my head. That day I was scatting, playing with rhythms and melodies, improvising, syncopating.”
Attending the Monterey Jazz Festival only further ignited his musical imagination. “When I first got to Stevenson School, Rob Klevan and Bif Smith were my teachers. I think Bif is still teaching English at Stevenson. He’s one of the only jazz piano teachers around. He’s so formidable.” In 1989 and ’90, while still a Stevenson student, Mendenhall earned a place in the MJF High School All Star Band and had the opportunity to accompany Dizzy Gillespie on the main stage. “Luckily Paul Contos asked me to join the traveling clinician program. I got to ride around in the van with Bruce Forman.”
Soon Mendenhall won scholarships to attend the Berklee College of Music in Boston and graduated with a Bachelors Degree in jazz composition. Still, “I love classical music. I did graduate studies in conducting, learning scores, trying to memorize stuff.” He singles out some favorites: Mahler, Stravinsky, Debussy, Ravel.
Then he spent seven years in Japan. “I became one of the busiest pianists in the Tokyo jazz scene, playing in jazz clubs, major hotels, touring the country and performing at embassy parties.” With so much time as a soloist, he found his own voice as a composer. “The main influences in my music came from Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Hank Jones, Hampton Hawes and Bill Evans,” he says.
Mendenhall has long been active in jazz education, as a piano clinician with the Monterey Jazz Festival, an instructor for their summer jazz camp, director of Kuumbwa Jazz Center’s Honor Band and instructor at the California Jazz Conservatory in Berkeley. Currently he also teaches private students.
Several years ago, Mendenhall teamed with bassist Dan Robbins and drummer Steve Robertson. The trio backed the steel drum jazz legend Othello Molineaux during a California tour. Mendenhall has performed and recorded with Ray Brown’s Great Big Band for a decade and is featured on the fall 2010 release of Brown’s CD “Kayak.” Mendenhall’s own compositions range from solo piano to large ensemble. His original writing is heard on his debut recording of February 2011, “Cosine Meets Tangent,” and features vibraphonist Mark Sherman, drummer Akira Tana, and bassist John Shifflett.
“My ambition now that I live here again is to find more ways to give back,” says Mendenhall. “I’m looking for ways to get young people excited about and involved with jazz, specifically through more work in the MJF education program,” he says. “As I was mentored, I want to offer that same personal mentorship, and not restricted to just the piano.” He complains about a lack of new music. “Too many of the same tunes. Even though we’re improvisers, we’re still going in circles. Audiences should be shocked. Beethoven was all about shock and awe. I compose a lot and force myself to evolve as a composer. The arts are facing hard times. We need the arts for personal expression and for community.”