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Travis Shook meets jazz comeback head on at Tula's
After a promising career went south with drugs and alcohol, Travis Shook is back in fine form and will play at Tula's in Belltown Wednesday


The jazz pianist Travis Shook, a curiosity to some who remember his name, a cautionary tale for others, lives in rural, upstate New York, far from the city and the place he first greeted fame. People don't recognize him much these days, and for a long time he preferred it that way.

"I'm 40 and I feel a lot more comfortable with myself now," said Shook, a fixture on the Seattle jazz scene in the early 1990s and once considered one of the greatest jazz musicians of his generation. "That's all that matters to me. Musically, I'm a much better player than I was. But the main thing is that I'm comfortable with myself. That was my biggest hurdle."

For most, that would seem a small accomplishment, but for Shook, who experienced meteoric success and sudden failure, who was addicted to alcohol and drugs, who was virtually unemployable for a number of years, this is not an insignificant step.

"Comeback," is the word he settled on. Shook will perform next Wednesday night with his trio at Tula's Restaurant & Nightclub in Belltown, his first performance in Seattle in about five years. He also will perform this Sunday night at the New Orleans Creole Restaurant in Pioneer Square with a quintet led by Thomas Marriott.

Shook grew up in Olympia, attending school with the jazz saxophonist Eric Alexander. Shook attended college in New Jersey, studying with Harold Mabern at William Paterson College. He returned to Olympia in 1990, intending to stay for only a few months.

One night he stumbled into the 13 Coins restaurant near Seattle-Tacoma International Airport with a friend and heard the sound of a bass, played by the legendary Buddy Catlett.

"He had that sound, that focus," Shook said of his eventual mentor. "There's a depth to it that only a seasoned veteran has. I learned everything from him, not just musical things but life things."

Catlett was Shook's link to other local musicians and gigs.

"The guy was amazing," said horn player Jay Thomas. "The first time I heard him, I thought 'who in the hell is that?' He was already in a very small circle of players in terms of ability. I'd listen to him practice and when he played Bach, he played so slow and with perfect touch. It was like tai chi."

Shook's big break came in 1991, when after sending in an audition tape, he was picked to compete in the Jacksonville Jazz Festival's Great American Jazz Piano Competition. He won in spectacular fashion and as a result was given a recording contract with Columbia Records.

During a breathtaking, seven-hour session, he recorded his first album with the late drummer Tony Williams and was booked to play the Blue Note jazz club in New York in support of the album.

The album was well received, but his performance at the Blue Note was panned by a critic from The New York Times. Shortly thereafter, his record label, for various reasons, dropped Shook. The rush of sudden fame quickly receded.

"Starting out as the leader of a group is especially tough," said longtime radio jazz host and producer Jim Wilke, who followed Shook's early career." It works better if you start out as a sideman to a well-known musician."

Shook continued to play and tour, most notably with singer Betty Carter, until in 1995 he started drinking heavily, an amount he described as "24 shots a day." He added drugs to the mix and simply stopped working.

His marriage to singer Veronica Nunn almost ended before he stopped drinking in 1997. Since then the couple have started their own record label (Dead Horse Records), for which they have recorded three albums.

"A lot of people told me, 'You got a lucky break,' "said Shook." I've never been a skilled networker. I don't know how to talk to people, how to openly ask people for things and share things. It's always been difficult for me. New York was never easy for me. I was nervous in clubs with people around ... but I was never nervous when I got on stage to play."

(Hugo Kugiya, The Seattle Times, Sept. 3, 2009)























































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