MUSIC: Jazz sax in a Native key

Posted on April 20th, 2010 by americanindiannews in Music, Recent News

New York—Cherokee saxophone player and bandleader Sharel Cassity has a trademark lick. It sounds like the wavering falsetto that starts a powwow song.

Photo by Michelle Watt Sharel Cassity plays the alto saxophone in front of a mural of jazz greats. The Cherokee musician recently performed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.

“I believe that jazz comes from the powwow drum,” said Cassity, who lives in New York. “There are elements from Africa. The harmonic consistency comes from Europe. But you don’t get that thump, that boom, boom, boom in the bass and drums without the powwow.”

Jade Synstelien, the first bandleader to hire Cassity, says she brings a Native sensibility to all her work, including her new CD, “Relentless.”

Cassity performed with the Tony Lujan Septet at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian last spring. The concert introduced Cassity to bebop pioneer Oscar Pettiford, who was Choctaw and Cherokee. The concert also paid tribute to Pettiford’s friend Dizzy Gillespie.

Pettiford, who led a New York band with Gillespie as bebop was emerging in 1943, redefined the importance of the bass to jazz. He told the magazine Jazz Times that jazz was attempting to render American Indian rhythm.

Cassity’s family is musical on her Cherokee father’s side. Her father is a music therapist, her grandfather a harmonica player and her aunt a concert pianist. She recalls being “surrounded by music” during the time she spent with her father. “But I lived with my mom, who worked at a federal prison,” said Cassity, who spent much of her adolescence in the Oklahoma City area. “I would close myself in my room and practice all the time.”

Those long hours won her scholarships, ultimately to the Juilliard Institute of Jazz Studies, where she earned a master’s degree. Synstelien remembers meeting Cassity nine years ago at Smalls Jazz Club in New York City.

“She would be in the very back room by herself, practicing long notes, long tones on the saxophone, while she was putting herself through music school,” Synstelien said. “She has a work ethic greater than any musician I have ever met and she is growing into a better musician moment by moment.”

Synstelien recruited her to play in his Fat Cats Big Band. Since then, Cassity has become a member of a handful of bands of regional and national repute. Two years ago, Sherrie Maricle asked Cassity to join the Diva Jazz Orchestra, and last year the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band also added her to its lineup.

Maricle’s website describes Cassity as being able to draw “upon the polish and discipline of her conservatory training to augment what Jazziz Magazine called her ‘beautiful, highly-personal tone… this altoist’s flights are positively Bird-like.’”

As a student and later a professional musician in New York’s jazz scene, Cassity is often the only American Indian in the room. Yet she longs for the connectedness she recently felt when she met a Navajo trombone player, or learned about Pettiford’s Choctaw and Cherokee roots.

Synstelien says Cassity brings her own uniqueness to the international language of jazz, but also her talent, which allows her to play with the big cats. She can play “the fat sound of Cannonball Adderley,” he said. “She can play any style of jazz.”

“All the things people love from all time, from different jazz records,” Synstelien said. “She can do it right, with all the required soul and passion.”

Visit Cassity’s website at

Hear Cassity lead her own band on alto saxophone at

Hear Cassity on soprano saxophone with the Diva Jazz Orchestra at

Listen to Pettiford at


By Kara Briggs
American Indian News Service

Download this article as a Word document

Comments are closed.

More News


FOOD: Let’s eat: The executive chef of the Mitsitam Cafe whips up a cookbook

FOOD: Let’s eat: The executive chef of the Mitsitam Cafe whips up a cookbook

Washington, D.C.—Chocolate, chiles, tomatoes, blueberries and corn are just a ...

RECIPE: Mitsitam Cafe buffalo and duck burger

Buffalo and duck burger topped with roasted pepper, Dijonaise sauce ...

RECIPE: Mitsitam Cafe’s Mexican hot chocolate warms up cool summer nights

When the summer sun gives way to cool nights, chef ...

RECIPE: As cherries blossom, a taste of summer

Cherries pair with the earth and sea in this favorite ...

RECIPE: Chocolate’s indigenous history makes spicy tale

Washington—Chocolate is a flavor as old and varied as the ...

Readers' Favorites

CULTURE: Children step up as culture-bearers

CULTURE: Children step up as culture-bearers

Washington, D.C.—Kelly Church, a weaver of black ash baskets, is ...

EXHIBITION: Quileute separate fact from fiction for ‘Twilight’ fans

Seattle, Wash.—The Seattle Art Museum opened an exhibition of some ...

ART: One man’s interest helps save ancient art

Dennis White, 63, an Ojibwe mathematics scholar from the Lac ...

ARTS: Jungen’s farfetched animals stretch the imagination

Washington—Artist Brian Jungen’s oversized animals have invaded the Smithsonian’s National ...


MUSIC: Nakai expands the language of Native American music

MUSIC: Nakai expands the language of Native American music

R. Carlos Nakai’s new album “Dancing into Silence,” (with William ...

MUSIC: Sky’s the limit for blues musician Derek Miller

Washington, D.C.—Derek Miller stepped onto an international stage in early ...

MUSIC: Jazz sax in a Native key

New York—Cherokee saxophone player and bandleader Sharel Cassity has a ...

MUSIC: Native American school band rocks the oldies – and the ancients

Ten years ago Kim Cournoyer answered an ad seeking a ...

MUSIC: Roots of the blues go deep into shared Native and African American history

Jimi Hendrix meteorically rose to rock-and-roll fame playing, smashing and ...


PEOPLE: Helen Maynor Scheirbeck (1935-2010)

PEOPLE: Helen Maynor Scheirbeck (1935-2010)

Washington, D.C.—Dr. Helen Maynor Scheirbeck, longtime champion of American Indian civil rights, ...

MOVIES: Big and blue, ‘Avatar’ with Wes Studi comes to DVD

Cherokee movie star Wes Studi is no stranger to standing ...

Movies: Native film star tells of his hero’s journey, on and offscreen

For Wes Studi, playing a character confronting colonial powers while ...

People: Unsung hero has a million books he’d like you to check out

Irving Nelson has had a desk in the director’s office ...

Museum: Seeds of understanding accompany interns into wider fields of work

Washington, D.C.— As the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American ...

Online Exhibitions

ARTS: Animal images tell visual story of boys in trouble

ARTS: Animal images tell visual story of boys in trouble

Rick Bartow’s sculpture “From the Mad River to the Little ...

Exhibition: “A Song for the Horse Nation” gallops into museum and onto the

The exhibition “A Song for the Horse Nation” recently made ...

Fritz Scholder continues to stir, stretch boundaries of Indian art

The Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian recently held ...

U.S. Postal Service delivers a tiny timeline of Native America

Washington—Stamps have carried art portraying Native Americans all over the ...