My Story

Even when I was a kid growing up in Albuquerque, I knew that music was my thing. I first picked up the saxophone when I was 11-years-old. From the very first note I blew, the passion was ignited. Playing music has been the driving force of my life ever since.

mullis_anacortesWhen I was in 8th grade, I asked my then saxophone teacher about jazz, or, more specifically, about how to improvise jazz. His answer was succinct but sage: “Listen to jazz every chance you get.” I took his advice to heart and eagerly jumped in. I listened to everything I could get my hands on. I hung out in record stores and poured through cut out bins, looking for jazz albums that I’d read about in Down Beat magazine and other publications. KUNM, the campus radio station for the University of New Mexico, played a fair amount of jazz and I glued myself to my radio with rapt attention and curious ears. The first time I heard “All Blues,” I was so intrigued that I called the station to ask what it was that I was listening to. I read Dizzy Gillespie’s “To Be or Not to Bop” and called the station to request the tunes mentioned in the book. When Woody Herman played at Popejoy Hall on the U.N.M. campus, I begged my parents to take me. My mom says that I was on the edge of my seat for the entire concert. During that time, I heard many of the jazz greats in concert including Bobby Shew, Max Roach, Dexter Gordon, Maynard Ferguson, Woody Shaw and Clark Terry. Playing the saxophone had grabbed me right away but jazz completely captured my imagination. I was playing in the school jazz band but started to get increasingly interested in small ensembles and improvisation. My fascination with jazz became a thread that set the trajectory for my entire career.

band-00By the time I graduated from high school, it was clear that I wanted to pursue a career in music. I did my undergraduate tour of duty at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. During my four years there, I practiced a lot, played in all the bands and learned a ton. I even studied classical saxophone and performed two classical recitals. I graduated with a Bachelor of Music Performance and took off for San Francisco. I gleaned a lot of information about music while I was in Greeley but San Francisco was where the real life application started. This was a very exploratory phase of my career. The music scene in San Francisco was funky and open. I took advantage of a multitude of opportunities, playing all kinds of music in all kinds of situations: jazz groups, rock bands, classical ensembles and theater work. I even played in a garage band called “The Haight Ashbury Free Band” that performed on a flatbed truck for parades and political rallies. San Francisco was a very free and accepting environment for me. I could explore who I wanted to be. I could play and experiment as much as I wanted. It was really a great place to be young.

As many jazz artists are inclined to do, I eventually made my way to New York. Reggie Workman was the first to nudge me in that direction. We’d met at the Stanford Jazz Workshop and one afternoon over lunch, he suggested I consider a move to the Big Apple. The following year, also at the Stanford Jazz Workshop, I met Jimmy Heath, who encouraged me to get a Masters with him at Queens College, basically sealing the deal. A year later I left San Francisco and headed off to New York City, where I would spend the next 18 months under the tutelage of the iconic Mr. Heath. Jimmy is the real deal and my time studying with him was extraordinary. His instruction deepened my understanding of jazz, improvisation and composition, and I continue to apply those lessons today.

mullis_nycI received my Masters of Arts from Queens College and after that, my education really began. I started making the musical rounds in NYC; sitting in wherever I could,  playing sessions, picking up gigs and honing my chops. I was living in the East Village, working in a small music publishing company by day and playing music at night. There were big highs, like playing at the Blue Note and meeting some of my musical heroes. There were cold lows like coming home after a rough gig to a tiny apartment filled with rusty water from a burst pipe. Being a jazz musician in New York City takes grit and an almost ferocious commitment to playing. Despite the hardships and challenges, I remained focused and driven. I eventually became a member of the all-women big band Diva, which was an incredible experience on many levels. During my time in the band, we toured extensively throughout the U.S. and Europe and played with heavy hitters such as Diane Schuur, Joe Williams and Dave Brubeck. I’m on two of Diva’s CDs: “Leave it to Diva” and “I Believe in You.”

I ultimately made my way to the Pacific Northwest. I was already coming around to the sense that I’d accomplished what I’d wanted to in New York. I was ready for a change and for both personal and professional reasons, relocation to Seattle was an attractive option. I made the move in July of 2000. The initial idea was that I would “give it a try.” I discovered a vibrant music scene in Seattle and a compatible community and culture in general. Within a week, it was obvious that I’d found a new home and that the move would be permanent.

mullis_seattleSince moving to Seattle, I’ve played in a variety of situations both as a bandleader and a side person. I’m busy leading two groups: Inside Job, a straight-ahead jazz collective that performs fresh arrangements of the classics, original compositions plus Brazilian and Afro-Cuban Jazz; and Analog Honking Device, which takes an open and experimental approach to the modern jazz. I recorded a CD “Inside Job,” which was released on the OA2 label with Origin Arts. I also performed in Peru at the Lima Jazz Festival with the Seattle Women’s Jazz Orchestra and was featured on the band’s OA2 recording “Meeting of the Waters.” I’ve played gigs at places such as the Ballard Jazz Festival, Benaroya Hall and Jazz Alley and have had the pleasure of working with some of the top players in the region including Susan Pascal, Jay Thomas, Becca Duran, Brent Jensen, Jovino Santos Neto, John Stowell, Matt Jorgensen, Jeff Busch, Clarence Acox and Eric Verlinde.

I spend my time playing gigs, sitting in at sessions, composing music and enjoying the abundance of music that Seattle has to offer. As a smart man once told me, “Listen to jazz every chance you get.” To that I would add, “…and take every opportunity to play it.” As far as a career as a professional musician goes, I think I’ve done OK. I’ve played with world-class musicians and in amazing places. It’s been a long, interesting and challenging road but the drive to play has never left me. Today, I’m focused on a different relationship with the music that transcends money, approval, ego and all those other things. While I still certainly have musical ambition, the spiritual quest is where it’s at for me: trying to remain right-sized and play music with a sense of gratitude and to stay connected to the excitement I felt when I discovered jazz for the first time.