The World of Jazz Through the Eyes of Pearl Django
September 7, 2023 - by Mackenzie Ault
The World of Jazz Through the Eyes of Pearl Django
For almost 30 years, Pearl Django has captivated audiences around the world with their musical talents. Drawing inspiration from Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli, they have released 15 CDs, performed around the globe, and have had their music featured in many movies and TV shows.
From the wilderness of Alaska to the vibrant music scene of Seattle, get to know their wonderful violinist, Michael Gray. Learn more about his musical journey, his involvement with Pearl Django, and the exciting projects that lie ahead. We'll discover his favorite venues and the magic they hold. Plus, don't miss insights into his collaboration with the charismatic Gail Pettis.
I became interested in learning the violin through a series of serendipitous events that unfolded in my life approximately 50 years ago up in the wilderness of Alaska. Initially, I was a self-taught instrumentalist, having a background as a drummer. My journey to Alaska involved homesteading in this remote and beautiful part of the world. It was during my time there that fate intervened in a unique way: someone trekked from the nearest road to my house with a banjo in hand, but decided they didn't want to take it with them on the rest of their journey. That banjo became my winter companion and introduced me to the world of string instruments. Soon after, I acquired a violin. It's funny how life sometimes leads us down unexpected paths. With the long Alaskan winters providing ample time, I had the opportunity to truly delve into the intricacies of playing the violin. My journey from Alaska eventually led me to Seattle, where I further honed my musical skills and embarked on a lifelong passion for the violin, embracing the joys of exploration, experimentation, and discovery along the way.
How did you get involved with Pearl Django?
My journey with Pearl Django began after I moved to Seattle in 1987, following the completion of two music degrees in Alaska. Seattle was a vibrant hub for musicians, and I had the opportunity to collaborate with various artists from diverse musical backgrounds. One such collaboration was with Scott Law --who had previously played with The Grateful Dead -- exposing me to a wide range of musical styles. As a traveling musician, I navigated the local music scene and it was during this time that fate intervened. Neil Anderson, one of the founding members of Pearl Django, approached me in need of a violinist for a gig. After performing at that initial gig, the very next day, they extended an invitation for me to join the band. Surprisingly, there was no formal audition process, and I recognized the importance of seizing such a fortunate opportunity. Since then, Pearl Django has become my primary musical expression, spanning over three decades of creative and collaborative musical exploration.
You’ve previously performed in Downtown Bellevue. Are you excited to be back?
Absolutely. Returning to Downtown Bellevue is a source of great excitement, and this time, the prospect of performing with Gail makes it even more thrilling. Gail is an exceptional singer with a warm and engaging stage presence. In Pearl Django, I typically take on the role of front man by engaging with the audience and creating that connection. However, when I'm on stage with Gail, I get to step back from that responsibility and witness how effortlessly she connects with the audience. Her charisma and talent are magnetic, and the audience just can't get enough of her. Our collaboration spans about six to seven years now, and every opportunity to perform together gets us genuinely excited because we believe it bring out the best in each other during our musical performances.
What are you most excited to experience in Downtown Bellevue while you are here?
I'm genuinely looking forward to my time in Downtown Bellevue. It offers a unique and vibrant atmosphere distinct from Seattle, which is always refreshing. One highlight I always cherish is my annual visit to the Hyatt for the Wintergrass Festival where we've had the pleasure of performing on numerous occasions. It's an enjoyable experience to be at the downtown hotel during the festival, surrounded by a diverse array of musical performances. In the past, we've also had the opportunity to participate in the Bellevue Beats & Bites Music Series. Those performances have always been a blast. Bellevue boasts a fantastic fan base, and it's heartening to see so many people filling the seats. The condensed and accessible layout of downtown Bellevue is a welcome change from Seattle's more sprawling cityscape, adding to the overall excitement of being here.
What has been your favorite venue of festival to play at?
One of my absolute favorite venues to perform at is Jazz Alley where we've had the privilege of playing nearly 150 shows. It's an exceptional venue for music, boasting fantastic sound quality and an audience that's genuinely there to listen and support our performance. The atmosphere is electric, and they want us to succeed Jazz Alley has also provided us with opportunities to collaborate with various guest artists, making the experience even more marvelous. Sometimes, however, the most memorable performances happen in smaller venues. Intimate venues allows us to shift our playing and communication, elevating us to the next level of synergy and creativity. We experience a similar sensation when performing with Gail, where the connection on stage feels almost molecular, making us all better musicians. Gail is undoubtedly one of those special people who enhance our musical journey.
Do you have any projects that you would like to highlight?
Absolutely, there are some exciting projects on the horizon. Pearl Django is currently in the process of working on our 17th CD, which we're hoping to debut at Jazz Alley in January. It's always a thrilling experience to create new music with the band. Additionally, I'm involved in a string trio, comprising two violins and a cello. Both of my fellow musicians are seasoned jazz players, and this project is truly a labor of love. We've recently embarked on the recording process, shortly after returning from performing gigs in Europe. What makes this collaboration particularly enjoyable is the unique dynamic between string players as we share a special connection when it comes to improvisation. Rehearsing with my talented colleagues often turns into a joyful experience filled with laughter, making it a truly rewarding musical endeavor.
Craving more? From October 4-8, the Bellevue Jazz & Blues Music Serieswill showcase 20+ live performances at 11 different venues across Downtown Bellevue, with over 17 free shows. See our 2023 all-star lineup of musicians and discover your next favorite artist!
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