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WRTI is proud to highlight the accomplishments of young artists in our local communities. You can donate now to champion and support WRTI's education initiatives! Learn more about what inspires and motivates these musicians through the interviews in this series.

WRTI Young Artist Spotlight: Saxophonist Katie Neary

Saxophonist Katie Neary
Joseph V. Labolito
Saxophonist Katie Neary

Katie Neary is an 18-year-old jazz saxophonist from the Philadelphia area. She is a first-year jazz studies performance student at Boyer College of Music and Dance at Temple University, where she participates in various jazz ensembles.

Katie attended Harriton High School and was formerly a member of the Lower Merion and Harriton Jazz Bands, the Philadelphia Youth Jazz Orchestra, the Helen K. Schwartz Advanced Jazz Ensemble at Settlement Music School, and the Kimmel Cultural Campus Creative Music Program jazz ensemble. Outside of playing music, Katie is learning the dance style Lindy Hop, and she plans on establishing a student organization at Temple University dedicated to that art form.

10 Questions with Katie Neary:

1. Outside of jazz, what do you like to listen to?

I love various forms of Latin music because they never fail to make me dance. My interest in Latin music began with listening to Latin jazz, bossa nova, and reggaeton. Recently, I've been exploring Brazilian choro and samba, and I’ve been listening to a lot of the fabulous samba artist Elza Soares.

2. Who are some musicians or bands that have influenced your playing? 

My biggest influences include Johnny Hodges, Cannonball Adderley, Sonny Stitt, and Hank Mobley on the saxophone. Sarah Vaughan is a huge influence of mine, as well as Bud Powell, Ahmad Jamal, and, of course, Duke Ellington.

3. What was one thing about your instrument that surprised you when you started learning to play?

The fragility of the reeds used to play the saxophone surprised me. I recall chipping reeds left and right when I was starting out, and each chip or change to the reed affects how the saxophone sounds.

4. What inspired you to learn the Lindy Hop? 

I've always danced to music. I'm not always a graceful dancer, and I don’t have much training, but I'm always subtly moving to the music on the bandstand, in the audience, or practically anywhere in public. Over time, I couldn’t help but notice that my attempt to dance to swing looked a little silly. Given that swing is my favorite musical style, I decided it was time to learn how people actually dance to that music–a dance known as Lindy Hop. I'm happy to report that, after a few classes and dances at Jazz Attacks, Philly's hub for Lindy Hop, I can do more than the two-step to swing!

5. What’s your favorite thing about Philadelphia?

My favorite part of Philadelphia has to be the jazz community. The Philly jazz scene is comprised of incredible people and musicians, and I love the emphasis on jazz education and passing on the craft. I must also mention that the Eagles are a close second for my favorite part of Philly, so GO BIRDS!

Saxophonist Katie Neary
Joseph V. Labolito
Saxophonist Katie Neary

6. What is your process for practicing improvisation?

My process for practicing improvisation is always changing, but recently, I've been practicing by playing with others. When I'm alone, I work on my fluency on the saxophone by learning pieces of jazz vocabulary in 12 keys, transcribing solos, and learning the melody and harmony of tunes. However, I make the most progress when I partner with a bassist or chordal instrument friend and try improvising a bunch, even when I'm not very comfortable with a particular tune. This way, I focus on listening to my accompaniment and on the melody and harmony that I know rather than symbols on a chord chart. After I solo for a few choruses, I identify the parts of the chord changes that I don't understand as well and work through them afterward. This approach helps me create new melodies in my improvisation rather than playing all scales or patterns. With all of that being said, everyone's process for practicing improvisation is different, and in my opinion, it should continue evolving over time.

7. What advice would you give your 9-year-old self?

Remember that everyone is on their own journey in music and in life. It's not a competition or a race. Doing what you love at any given time is enough.

Saxophonist Katie Neary
Joseph V. Labolito
Saxophonist Katie Neary

8. What have been some differences between your musical experiences in high school and college as you start off your freshman year? 

As a busy and over-committed high school student, I struggled to prioritize music. The awesome part about being a music performance major is that practicing is justified in being my top priority! Another difference from high school to college is that I can attend more jazz shows and jam sessions, mostly because my earliest class starts at 11:00 a.m., compared to the 7:30 a.m. morning bell in high school.

9. What was an experience with a teacher or peer that was impactful to you in your music education?

In middle school, I began attending meetings and rehearsals in my school district for an organization called Key of She, and it ended up having a profound impact on me. Key of She Jazz is an organization that supports and encourages girls in jazz, created in 2012 by Olivia Hughart, who was in middle school at the time. At Key of She rehearsals, I felt more comfortable improvising, and most importantly, I felt the warmth from the community of other girls in jazz. Years later, when I was in high school, I reestablished Key of She jams in my school district, and I'm delighted that the current middle and high school girls are continuing those jams this year.

10: Who have been the greatest champions of your career so far?

The most significant champions of my career to this point are my teachers from my high school years. Sumi Tonooka sparked my passion for jazz in the Kimmel Center program when I was a freshman in high school. My private instructor for the past four years, Chris Oatts, taught me most of what I know about jazz and the saxophone. His love for music has infected me, and he gave me the confidence I needed to pursue jazz as a performer. Finally, Justin Faulkner inspired me every Thursday last year in the Philadelphia Youth Jazz Orchestra. In addition to learning a great deal about the music, my passion and motivation grew after every one of those rehearsals. I'm very grateful for all the people I have studied with in the past years and for the endless support of my family and friends along the way.

Katie's Recommended Playlist:

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Lydia Veilleux has worked in music education and arts administration for the past 20 years, and has taught students of all ages in various community settings. As WRTI's Education & Outreach Manager, she oversees educational partnerships, sponsorships, events, and coverage.