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A Career and a Passion : Years ago, Kye Palmer was on his way to becoming an engineer. Today, he makes his living playing jazz tunes.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; <i> Zan Stewart writes regularly about jazz for The Times</i>

Some people seem so destined to follow a particular path in life that no matter how ardently they may attempt to stray from it, they simply can’t.

Take trumpeter Kye Palmer.

“Music is almost a primal need for me,” says Palmer, 31, who plays Thursday with pianist Gerard Hagen’s quartet at Jax. “Ever since I was 7 or 8, I have been so fascinated with music, and have gotten such a strong emotional impression from hearing it.”

This is the same Kye Palmer who, six years ago, was just about set to take his bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering from Cal Poly Pomona and get a job developing computer systems with a firm in Monterey.

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“Music was what I loved, but I never saw it as a career,” says Palmer, a native of Redlands who now lives in Long Beach. “Besides, I was good at science and math,” and in college, those areas seemed the “natural ones” for a degree. Even while in school, Palmer never abandoned his favorite music, mainstream jazz in the be-bop/hard-bop mold.

But a potential full-time career in engineering--Palmer had already worked as an associate engineer for McDonnell Douglas and Honeywell while an undergraduate--got waylaid. Renowned Los Angeles-area trumpeter Bobby Shew, who had heard Palmer play as a guest with the Cal Poly jazz band, called him and asked if he was interested in playing with Woody Herman’s big band.

“I said, ‘Yeah!’ Who wouldn’t be interested?” Palmer remembers asking rhetorically.

The years 1988 to 1990 with Herman’s ghost band--the esteemed bandleader died in 1987--proved to be prophetic for Palmer. Primarily, he jump-cut to another career: music.

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“It was my first professional experience where I was making my living as a musician every day,” he says. “And I haven’t worked a job in engineering since,” he laughs.

Appearing with the Herman ensemble, which was led by saxophonist Frank Tiberi and was then touring four and five months at a crack, raised Palmer’s performance level several notches.

“It was a real eye-opener,” he says. “I could never have learned on my own what I learned with that band. When you’re practicing, most of the time no one is listening so it’s not the same kind of pressure you have in front of an audience. When you get used to that pressure and distraction, and start playing as well as you do in practice, then your playing goes way up.”

Palmer still appears occasionally with the Herman band, but mostly works in Southern California, where he performs steadily. The jobs might range from playing at Disneyland with a marching band or an R&B; unit to guesting with a Dixieland band led by Eddie Reed in Long Beach.

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He says that while he doesn’t play a lot of strictly jazz jobs, he still gets to play a lot of jazz. One of his favorite jobs is with Hagen, an Orange County-based pianist who has been leading a quartet with Palmer, bassist Chris Colangelo and drummer Kevin Tullius for about three years.

“I love the way we synthesize originals with standards like ‘Body and Soul,’ ” says Palmer, who names Clifford Brown and Freddie Hubbard as his principal influences. “With a standard, you can tell where things are going, but pieces by, say, Kevin, are more modern, and you have to be more intuitive.”

Hagen’s pianistic approach intrigues Palmer. “He’s different,” says the trumpeter. “He’s a very flowing player who doesn’t just run the chord changes, and the tunes we play showcase his strengths.”

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Palmer is yet another Southern California resident who studied jazz improvisation with Charlie Shoemake, the vibist who now lives in Cambria but who ran a jazz studio in Sherman Oaks from 1974 to 1989.

“Of the 1,500 or so people that studied with me, Kye was one of those 20 or 25 players that was really important, who understood the music,” Shoemake says.

The trumpeter looks forward to the day when he’ll lead his own band, playing his own music. “My long term goal is to put something together that communicates what I want to say, something from the be-bop and hard-bop tradition but with an individual sound,” he says.

WHERE AND WHEN

Who: Kye Palmer is featured with the Gerard Hagen quartet.

Location: Jax, 339 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale.

Hours: 9 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. Thursday.

Price: No cover, no minimum.

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Call: (818) 500-1604.


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