SJW faculty artists put the swing into Soul

Released this past December 25 on Disney +, Pixar/Disney’s new animated feature Soul tells the story of a middle school band director, jazz pianist Joe Gardner, who finally lands his dream gig in one of the hottest bands in town, the Dorothea Williams Quartet.

Joe’s jazz journey is interrupted by a near-death experience that is the point of this fascinating movie, but not before he has a transcendent audition with the quartet. Joe is in the zone as he plays, and helping him get there are beautifully animated characters, including drummer Lamont “Curley” Baker, bassist Miho, and alto saxophonist Dorothea Williams — the jazz playing of whom are provided by SJW faculty artists Roy Haynes and Joe Saylor (drums), Linda May Han Oh (bass), and Tia Fuller (alto sax), respectively.

“I am honored and humbled to be the saxophonist playing in Pixar’s new film, Soul,” Tia — who performed and taught at SJW in 2001 and 2013 — wrote in a recent Facebook update.“I’m excited to share this role with legendary Angela Bassett, who is the voice of Dorothea Williams. What an extraordinary opportunity it is to be apart of a such an important animated role as a strong black woman who plays the saxophone and who has her own premiere quartet in New York. The team at Pixar was impeccable with not only the content and storyline, but also by including a diverse cast and capturing accurate movements and fingerings of all of the musicians.”

Bassist Linda May Han Oh taught at SJW and performed at the Stanford Jazz Festival in 2016. She’s similarly thrilled with her contribution to the film, as she writes in a Facebook update: “So excited for Soul to come out. I’m playing as part of the Dorothea Williams Quartet, along with Jon Batiste (piano), Marcus Gilmore (drums), Tia Fuller, and also the amazing Roy Haynes.” Roy Haynes performed at the Stanford Jazz Festival most recently in 2000 and 2012, and Joe Saylor was in SJW’s Mentor Fellowship Program in 2006-2007, and became a faculty member following that.

Pianist Jon Batiste, who wrote several songs for the movie and who was himself the model for Joe Gardner’s incredibly accurate piano technique, has performed at the Stanford Jazz Festival.

Bassist Marcus Shelby, a regular faculty member at SJW, also performs in the film, as the voice of Joe Gardner’s late father.

Though uncredited, SJW Founder and Artistic Director Jim Nadel was consulted by Pixar about jazz and jazz musicians during the planning stages of Soul.

SJW is particularly proud of the members of the Edna Brewer Middle School jazz band, who provided the brilliant rendition of “When You Wish Upon A Star” during the opening title sequence. Band director Zack Pitt-Smith is one of the superstars of jazz education in California, and when we at SJW are lucky enough to have some Edna Brewer MS musicians attend our programs, we can always see and hear Mr. Pitt-Smith’s influence in the great attitudes and advanced sound of his students. Congratulations, Edna Brewer Middle School!

While not strictly a children’s film, Soul provides a wonderful look at the passion and spirit of jazz musicians — as well as mind-blowing animated renditions of instrumental technique — and is highly recommended for anyone interested in jazz.

We’re proud of the SJW faculty artists and alumni who helped bring this extraordinary film to life.