Music Maker

Sacramento-born percussionist follows his own artistic path

By Jessica Laskey
January 2020

For Jacob Swedlow, “music is a religion.”

“You have to spend countless hours with it,” says the Sacramento-born jazz drummer and vibraphonist. “You have to be devout, you have to trust it, you have to go along on the ride and be a forever student.”

Wise words for a 22-year-old, but Swedlow admits he didn’t always feel that way.

“In high school and college, I approached music from an egotistical standpoint,” says Swedlow, who released his first album, “Dedication: Vol. I,” in November. “I would play to get recognized and stress out before every jazz competition (at Rio Americano High School), thinking if I don’t win this thing, no one’s going to think I’m good—I’m not going to think I’m good. But then I met Billy.”

Swedlow credits many teachers with influencing his artistic path—namely Rick Lotter, a local instructor, and Paul Samuels, one of his mentors at Oberlin College where Swedlow earned his degree in music. But no one has meant more to Jacob Swedlow than Billy Hart—who Swedlow calls an “American music icon.” Hart played with Herbie Hancock, Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis (to name a few) and happened to be Swedlow’s primary drum set teacher at Oberlin.

“Deep down, I knew I had to play for something other than fame and money,” Swedlow says. “When I met Billy, he showed me the real reasons to play music. He taught me that you might get those things, but at what cost? Never sacrifice your message.”

This lesson stuck with Jacob Swedlow and he applied himself so well at Oberlin that he was given not one, but two prestigious performance opportunities at his alma mater. He was asked to join the Sonny Rollins Ensemble—a touring group started by Rollins himself for which Swedlow was the inaugural drummer. He also was selected for the Betty Carter Jazz Ahead program, an intensive 12-day jazz residency, performance and composition program that takes place at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Upon graduating from Oberlin last year, Swedlow set out to create the career he’d always dreamed of—with a little help from his friends. He recalls watching his older brother play bass as a youngster and coveting the amazing fellowship among the musicians, which jumpstarted the younger Swedlow’s interest in making music with others.

He’s since formed the Jacob Swedlow Group with four friends: Levi Saelua, who plays alto saxophone; Lucas Bere, who plays tenor saxophone and with whom Swedlow “gigged” a lot in high school; Sterling Cozza on piano; and Nico Martinez on bass. Swedlow plays drums and vibraphone, a percussion instrument with tuned metal bars that is similar in shape to a xylophone.

“This is the first of many record series I plan to do throughout my life,” says Swedlow, who recently relocated to Chicago but still performs around Sacramento—most recently at CLARA for the Midtown Vanguard Jazz Series. “It’s full of little musical memoirs, tunes that represent a person, place or event that has shaped me into the person I am today. We recorded four original tunes, as well as the jazz standard ‘ESP’ by Wayne Shorter—I really resonate with his message.”

With his band, Swedlow is finding the kind of creative satisfaction and dedication to his craft that his brother and Oberlin mentor Billy Hart should be proud of.

“My goal now is to keep learning and getting better,” Swedlow says. “Whether that means staying in one music scene or teaching or traveling—whatever the music needs, I’ll do.”

“Dedication: Vol. 1” is available on all music-streaming platforms and on Soundcloud.

Jessica Laskey can be reached at Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.


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