In December of 2007 Dean Christesen created RVAJazz.com. In 2009, RVAJazz joined the RVANews team, Now after three and half years Christesen is saying goodbye to Richmond to study art management at Columbia College in Chicago and passing his duties onto Aaron Williams.
Its 9 o’clock in the morning. Early for jazz musicians. Dean Christesen and I sit in the RVANews office. Artifacts from Richmond line the walls of the old principals office turned conference room. Dean and I reflect on his three and half year journey with RVAJazz while talking about my past and my future with music, the website and Richmond.
Williams: What inspired you to start RVAJazz and how did you start it?
Christesen: I started RVAJazz in December of 2007, which puts me as a sophomore at VCU (Virginia Commonwealth University) in the music program. I didn’t necessarily feel like I had the authority to do something like this but I did feel like it was needed in the community. Not just for the community or the musicians, but for myself. I was often wondering what was going on any given night of the week. I would have to go from website to website to website, go from MySpace to MySpace, when MySpace was still the key ingredient and find out who was playing where.
It was starting to get really annoying for me and I wanted it all in one place. So that’s kind of how it all started, as a calendar for what was going on. Then I figured I would try out my writing chops and write news. Basically keep everyone up to date with the scene. That’s how it started.
Williams: You just put up a calendar?
Christesen: Yes, it was a BlogSpot blog. I used a picture that my dad took of a brick wall and I overlaid white text and that was the masthead and that was it. Not too long after that, I got the domain name RVAJazz.com. It was really just an experiment of mine to write anonymously about the scene and the main players in the scene.
Williams: It was anonymous at that time?
Christesen: It was anonymous for a long time.
Williams: When did it stop being anonymous and what made you stop?
Christesen: I’m not sure exactly when it stopped, we would have to check the books on when it stopped being anonymous. Again, the reason it was anonymous is because I didn’t feel like I had the authority. I was just a young kid documenting…not just documenting, critiquing and criticizing the scene. So it was like, “who is to listen to this kid?” So that is why I was anonymous. I guess when I became not anonymous…It’s not when I realized, “Oh yeah I’m now an authority, now I can speak under my name.” Who cares if I am an authority or not, this is a resource that is needed and it is more work to be anonymous than it is to actually fulfill this goal.
Williams: Were people catching on?
Christesen: Not really, but it made it really hard to do interviews. Everything was email based. Even people like Skip Gailes, we would be talking in class and he would be like, “Who is this RVAJazz?” It kind of hurt a little bit to not be able to tell Skip that it was me. “I don’t know Skip, (laughs), I don’t know who it is.” Eventually, I just became not anonymous. That was right around the time that I began planning the first RVAJazz Fest. So I was like, “this is going to be impossible if I am still anonymous and there is no need for it anymore.
Are you excited?
Williams: I am very excited. I love this city. People in this city are why I am into jazz and why I am into music. Its not because I discovered some recordings of some people from the 50’s or 40’s or 30’s, its because I met people in this city and heard people in this city play. Taylor Barnett was my brother’s high school jazz band director and he has such a magnetic amazing personality. He is one of those people you just want to be around because he is so passionate and amazing at what he does.
Then I met Bryan Hooten and I had the same experience as my brother at my high school. I just started meeting people. It is so different to experience something live than it is to listen to recordings, and I have a passion for original music. Richmond has all of that. It is so approachable. I was just a kid and I had the ability to meet people who I really looked up to. Now to be a part of that, sometimes as a player, and to document that is amazing.
Christesen: Well you are a young guy. You are a freshman at VCU and you are one of the few people that as a high schooler in the area, already had a reputation, especially with your band High Noon. So what was your high school experience like? Did you study with Bryan and you were in the Greater Richmond High School Jazz Band?
Williams: Bryan was my high school band director at James River High School. We met once a week after school. Freshman year, his and my first year, the saxophone section was so weak. This was the first year we had a jazz band and the saxophone section was so strugglin! The band was super young. I didn’t have any idea what I was doing. He brought in John Lilley because no one had an idea of what saxophone was really supposed to sound like. So I approached John Lilley and asked if I could take lessons with him.
He kind of hesitated for a minute. I think I even asked, “Do you teach lessons?” He responded, “Well yeah, of course I do.” (Laughs) He has some other students now but I was his only student for a really long time, which was amazing. I learned a lot of great things.
The cool thing about Richmond is that there is a lot of emphasis put on original music and building bands. For me, I started writing music, put a band together and recorded a record. For me, that was just obvious. High Noon, for me was, “duh.” I talk to some people from other towns and they have played a lot of standards gigs and different things but its not quite as obvious to do that. I really love the creative process and the process of working with other people towards a collective goal. High Noon is probably one of the most rewarding things I have done in my life.
The Greater Richmond High School Jazz Band was really amazing. I was a member for three years. VCU seemed like the logical decision on where to go to college. That is where I met most of the guys in High Noon and a ton of other people. It is cool that even on a high school level those connections are being made.
Christesen: Yeah, you aren’t excluded because of your age. Everybody is welcome and you especially because you assert yourself. You are there hanging out. You are at the Matt White parties (the leader of Fight the Big Bull). That is certainly part of it. Being friends with everybody, so you know what is going on. Friendship is part of the music making community here in Richmond. Everyone is in bands together and they all learn from each other.
Williams: Absolutely. Everyone has been super welcoming even though I am a lot younger than everyone else.
Can you talk about your departure from Richmond and RVAjazz.com? How has your experience building this website from scratch influenced what you want to do?
Christesen: I am going to Chicago in August to study arts management at Columbia College. RVAJazz prepared me for that. My career path has become less of that of a performing musician. Even though I was a performance major during my undergrad: jazz studies, that is ok with me. It doesn’t hurt me that I am not going to be playing music professionally for the rest of my life because I have discovered other strengths of mine. I did that because of RVAJazz.
I discovered that I could put on these “bigger than small scale” events because I am organized and I think I can see the big pictures enough to put on things like that. I have also realized that a lot of musicians need help. That goes back to the very beginning of RVAJazz when I was just creating a calendar. A lot of these people didn’t even have a calendar of their performances, which tells you they aren’t even promoting their events to their fullest potential. That is really a shame because that is what it comes down to for musicians. Maybe they are promoting their CDs a lot or maybe they are not but these club dates maybe go totally under the radar.
Facebook has changed a lot of that and people are talking it up as much as possible on Facebook but it goes so much further than that. People are embracing this new media but are totally forgetting about traditional media. I think I can help with that. I think I have tried to help with that and learned more from doing it through RVAJazz.
Williams: RVAJazz had a lot to do with my ability to get downtown and find out about these shows because I wasn’t a Facebook friend with these people. That was important to me. I remember going to check the calendar and I would run and talk to my parents, “this is the night, this is the night I HAVE to go.”
After more than three years with RVAJazz, there is a lot to be said! The second half of this interview will appear next week.
Photo credit: Lauren Serpa