Santa Monica-raised, Venice-based pianist John Beasley has gigged with every-one from James Brown to Steely Dan, Queen Latifah and yes, the Spice Girls
By Michael Aushenker
It’s a grey Tuesday morning and John Beasley is running behind.
The Grammy-nominated pianist/keyboardist and composer is still in the shower as his wife Lorna welcomes a writer and a photographer from the Argonaut into their quaint Venice cottage for a tightly scheduled early morning interview.
It’s not that the veteran musician is being rude. He’s always on the move — so that when it comes to his profession, he’s always on time.
On Saturday, Beasley pays homage to Frederick Hubbard at Blue Whale Bar downtown with EastWest JazzScene, jamming with Carl Allen, Eric Revis, Ralph Moore and Marquis Hill.
Hubbard is one of myriad musicians he’s worked with. At just 54, Beasely’s lengthy credits include close collaborations with Miles Davis, James Brown, Chaka Khan, Chick Corea, and yes, mid-‘90s U.K. pop sensations the Spice Girls.
“They were sweet,” Beasley recalls of Scary, Sporty, Posh, Baby and Ginger Spice right after their smash first single “Wannabe” broke in 1996. “They were innocent. They had never traveled before.”
Beasley backed the English girl group on key TV appearances breaking them into the States: “Saturday Night Live,” “The Tonight Show,” Letterman. The Spice Girls liked to assign nicknames. So a Filipino guy in their entourage became “Buddha Spice.” “I was Smooth Spice,” Beasley says, chuckling.
Beasley toured with Davis circa 1989 and remembers the jazz virtuoso, a Prince fan, painting canvases in his hotel room at night.
Beasley also backed Brown, who in 1970 had detoured from funk long enough to collaborate with Oliver Nelson on the album “Soul On Top,” for which Brown recorded with Louie Bellson and his 18-piece jazz orchestra. Recreating these cuts live at the Hollywood Bowl, Beasley and the musicians rehearsed for days without Brown. Then the Godfather of Soul showed up.
“As soon as he got there, it was like, he cut to the chase. What parts feel central? He was like a surgeon,” Beasley recalls.
With rap diva Latifah, Beasley toured in her post-“Chicago” phase, playing sultry songs from her mid-2000s albums “The Dana Owens Album” and “Trav’lin’ Light.” However, he did back her on some of the rap cuts she made her name on: the anthem “Ladies First” and the Grammy-winning “U.N.I.T.Y.”
The peripatetic Beasley has a long itinerary ahead for 2015. In March, he plays in Poland, Tokyo and Indonesia. In April, he backs Dianne Reeves at the Kennedy Center in D.C. before heading to Europe to play with Gregoire Maret and return as musical director of UNESCO’s International Jazz Day on April 30 in Paris. (Last summer, Beasley played before 10,000 people in Osaka as the Jazz Day concert was streamed to 2.3 billion people worldwide.)
This summer sees Beasley playing keyboards at a Hollywood Bowl tribute to Jaco Pastorius and with his MONK’estra in San Francisco and at LACMA before flying to London to work for Thomas Newman on the score of a late-2015 blockbuster. (Beasley cannot yet discuss this project but just consider that he also worked with Newman on the film score for the 2012 James Bond blockbuster “Skyfall.”)
“He’s been a great mentor,” Beasley said of Newman. “He’s a very unusual film composer in that he’ll map out a queue that sounds perfect already [and then invite his musicians to contribute].”
Beasley just finished scoring the documentary “Malala” (about Nobel Prize-winning Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai) and the sequel “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” due in multiplexes March 6.
Not bad for a musician with mucho local ties — a Santa Monica High School graduate whose parents taught music at John Adams Middle School (which Beasley attended) and Santa Monica College.
Beasley bypassed university studies because he was already gigging by his late teens; his daughter Sierra, 25, graduated from SMC and works part-time at John Adams as a counseling intern.
In 2013, Beasley formed the MONK’estra, a 15-piece combo delivering big band arrangements of classic Thelonious Monk compositions such as “Epistrophy,” “Ugly Beauty” and “Blue Monk.” Beasley’s tribute to the 20th-century master pianist happened thanks to tinkering around on some 21st-century music software.
Like his piano-prodigy hero, Beasley is always composing originals. He’s released solo albums dating back to 1992’s “Cauldron,” produced by Walter Becker of Steely Dan (he’s toured with the band). His 2010 album “Positootly!” received a Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Instrumental Record.
Unfortunately, jazz clubs such as the Blue Whale appear to be as endangered as actual blue whales.
“There are more and more young people playing jazz all the time, but less and less places to play jazz,” Beasley laments.
“It’s never been the go-to music,” he says, acknowledging that jazz has always occupied a fringe following compared to the popular music of any given decade.
Married to Doctors Without Borders Communications Strategist Lorna Chiu since 2003, Beasley has lived in Venice the past 15 years.
“It’s a little isolating out here,” he says, as there’s nothing like the energy of Manhattan or Paris or London. “I miss that when I’m here.”
However, reclining in his backyard, he concludes, “This is a great place to be this time of year, that’s for sure.”
And with that, he is off to downtown to secure a travel visa for Japan.
Beasley performs at 9 p.m. at Blue Whale Bar, 123 Astronaut E. S. Onizuka St., Los Angeles. $20. Call (213) 620-0908 or visit bluewhalemusic.com.