Jennifer York’s High-Flying Days, Bass-Playing Nights
It’s an old story: struggling musician works a day job to supplement the meager wages earned while playing late-night club dates.
Bassist Jennifer York is no exception. But her day job starts when most after-hours jazz clubs are still going strong. She’s up at 4:30 a.m., gathering her wits and her makeup. She arrives at Van Nuys airport by 5:15 a.m. and by 5:30 a.m., as the airborne traffic reporter for KTLA Channel 5 News, her cameraman and the pilot are lifting off in Skycam 5.
“Looking a little green this morning,” says the cameraman as he hits York with a spotlight that comes on while she makes her report.
“I was up till midnight,” she counters, teasing her hair and smoothing her makeup, while unscrambling the traffic information that’s pouring into her headset.
There’s a spilled load of bicycles on the San Gabriel Freeway, and Skycam 5 will be there to document the backup. York props a pair of stuffed animals in the copter’s window, scribbles some notes on her clipboard and turns to face the camera mounted in the rear of the cockpit.
A couple nights later, York can be found fiddling with her bass amp on the tiny bandstand inside Tribeca, a sleek Encino restaurant and watering hole.
Her quartet moves into the familiar strains of “Autumn Leaves.” She leads the way playing an upright that makes York, who is tall to begin with, seem small by comparison.
For the second set, she switches to electric bass guitar, pounding out the rhythmic vamp of Grover Washington Jr.'s “Mr. Magic.” During her solo, she slaps the strings in the heavyweight style of bassist Marcus Miller (one of her heroes), combining rhythmic and melodic elements in a way that causes a knot of male patrons at the bar to shout their approval.
York, 31, twists and turns with the beat, obviously deep within the music and enjoying herself mightily. By the time the night’s last set is finished, there’s little more than four hours left before her alarm clock goes off again.
York’s daily schedule would leave most people sleepy-eyed and cranky. But she is a whirligig of energy at both ends of the day, bursting with the kind of enthusiasm that few bring to a single job, let alone two.
“I love both my jobs,” York asserts with such animation that even a cynic can’t help but believe her.
“Jennifer has more energy than any 10 people I know,” says saxophonist Ann Patterson, leader of the Maiden Voyage big band that also boasts York as its bassist. “She’s so serious about her playing. There’s no way that she’s depending on her visibility in television to get by on the bandstand. She’s working very hard to become a great musician.”
York is equally dedicated to her broadcasting.
Her clear-headed reports during last year’s Laguna and Malibu fires, coming on days that often found her working 18 hours without a break, helped her team earn an Emmy nomination for live coverage of an unscheduled news event.
The divergent paths York follows is a result of both conscious effort and circumstance.
“It’s like I tripped and fell into this job,” she says of reporting. “I consider myself a bass player first, but I love doing newscasting. I can’t imagine my life without both.”
Born in Covina, York grew up in Hemet and began playing the piano when she was 5. She was attracted to an electric bass in the seventh grade because “it looked just like the one Paul McCartney played.”
“I tried to keep up both piano and bass for a while, but bass finally won out. It was rare to see a girl play bass and it felt really special to me. It’s a very rhythmic instrument, very percussive and melodic, and I found I could combine both those aspects.”
York gave up the bass when she moved on to study political science at UCLA. Now broadcasting was her goal. She went to New York in 1984 for an internship with ABC and “Good Morning, America,” a stint that she turned into a full-time job.
After three years in New York, she joined the staff of a Hackensack, N.J., radio station as its promotions director. It was there that she realized how much she missed being involved with music.
So in 1987 she returned to the Golden State, enrolled at the Musician’s Institute in North Hollywood and waited tables at Jerry’s Deli. She was quickly hired to play in an all-female band at Disneyland.
“I couldn’t believe I got the gig,” she says. “I had left the bass for eight years and had truly forgotten how to play.”
The Disney job allowed her to support herself as a musician. But when the gig ended after a year, things changed. “That’s when reality hit. I didn’t know that you might need a day job other than playing.”
She parlayed her broadcasting experience into a position as traffic reporter for KFWB-AM (980), becoming its airborne reporter in 1989.
In the meantime, she kept plugging away at her music career, playing in the pop band Smart Cookies and, later, the Christian band Rachel Rachel.
But she was also developing a new love: jazz.
“I was always a fan of Weather Report and (its bassist) Jaco Pastorious, and I thought playing ‘Bird-land’ like him would be the greatest. In 1987, I went to a Chick Corea concert in San Diego and totally fell in love with (the playing of Corea bassist) John Patitucci. I’ll never forget that concert. It totally freaked me out, and I thought, ‘My gosh, that’s what I have to do the rest of my life.’ ”
York began pursuing the upright bass in 1992, studying with respected bassist John Clayton, composer and co-leader of the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. That same year she was hired by KTLA.
Now York works the occasional club date--she can be found every Wednesday at Tribeca and occasional Sundays at Amazon in Encino--as well as working with Patterson’s Maiden Voyage and trumpeter Stacy Rowles’ Jazzbirds. As a measure of her seriousness, she studies with Christopher Hanulik, principal bassist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Her husband of less than a year, Nils Johnson, is also a bassist who travels with the Ray Charles Orchestra.
She says she’s anxious to get a CD out with her quartet and travel the world playing jazz festivals.
“The group’s only been together nine months and it’s been such an enjoyable ride for us. Things are really starting to open up.”
But her broadcasting career is also important.
“John Tesh is a great role model for me,” she says. “He does his TV show during the week then tours with his band on the weekends. He’s made both broadcasting and music work together.”
So has Jennifer York.