JC Sanford and Asuka Kakitani spent more than a decade living the jazz life in New York City, the jazz capital of the world.
Sanford was an in-demand trombonist, composer and conductor who led several cutting-edge big bands including the Grammy-nominated John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble and his own JC Sanford Orchestra.
Kakitani was a composer who created lush, vivid pieces inspired by nature and brought them to life with her 18-piece jazz orchestra. Both released all-original albums that earned international acclaim.
"We were struggling artists in Brooklyn, but we were carefree," Kakitani said by Zoom earlier this month. "We were younger and didn't have anybody to take care of. We were just wanting to write music and perform, and as long as we could do that, we were happy."
In 2014, they became parents to a baby daughter. "We had an apartment that was big and affordable," Sanford said. "Then the owner sold the place and we had to move into another place that cost $500 more a month and was way crappier. Many of our friends were leaving New York and moving near their families to raise kids."
Fast-forward seven years. The family now lives in a comfortable rambler in Northfield, 40 miles south of Minneapolis. On Sunday, Sanford will lead the JazzMN Orchestra — Minnesota's premier big band — in a concert at Crooners devoted exclusively to women composers, including Kakitani.
Sanford grew up in Northfield and his mother still lives in the town that is home to Carleton and St. Olaf colleges. He and Kakitani thought about moving there after their daughter was born.
They decided to give New York one more year, but "so many things went wrong," Kakitani recalled. Jobs didn't materialize. Gigs fell through. Someone else got the great apartment. "One thing after another was not cool," Sanford said.
"I'm not big on fate, but it felt like New York was saying, 'We don't want you here anymore.' "
Kakitani grew up in Osaka, Japan, studied jazz in Kyoto and Boston at Berklee College of Music, then went from Boston to New York. She had never lived in a small town. She spent the year researching what it would be like to live here. "Cold climate, and I didn't know anybody, and not many Japanese people," she said.
But she also found evidence of a state that valued the arts: the American Composers Forum, the Innova Recordings label, Springboard for the Arts.
For Sanford, "I always said that I could move anywhere if there was one musician that I knew I could play with." He had known Dave Hagedorn for years. Hagedorn, a vibraphonist, built the jazz program at St. Olaf and ran it until his retirement in May 2020.
It was Hagedorn who suggested Sanford do his doctoral studies at New England Conservatory, where he became the protégé of trombonist and arranger Bob Brookmeyer. That led him to Minneapolis drummer JT Bates and his brother, bassist Chris Bates, whom he met at a 1997 seminar led by Brookmeyer.
He got back in touch with the two. During a visit to Sanford's mom in spring 2016, he and Kakitani found a house and moved soon afterward.
One day, he called JT Bates and asked, "When can we get together and play?" JT said, "Chris Thomson is playing Icehouse tomorrow. Why don't you come and sit in?"
A busy couple
Since then, Sanford's career has moved steadily forward.
He's released four more albums as a leader, including "Imminent Standards Trio Vol. 1," released this summer on the local collective Shifting Paradigm Records. He has a quartet with the Bates brothers and Zacc Harris on guitar. He became artistic director of JazzMN in 2019 and starts teaching full time at St. Olaf this fall.
Kakitani's focus has shifted more toward new music. She has written commissioned pieces for Hagedorn, the Quince Ensemble and the folk-fusion trio Sprig of That. She and Sanford co-founded the Twin Cities Jazz Composers' Workshop, an incubator for new music that featured six world premieres in its 2018 inaugural showcase. They also founded the Inatnas Orchestra, which gave two sold-out performances pre-COVID.
Both have tapped into the support available to artists from Minnesota foundations and the state. Sanford was a 2018 McKnight Composer Fellow and won a 2019 State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant. Kakitani has won a 2016 Jerome Fund for New Music Award, a 2019 McKnight Composer Fellowship and a 2020 Artist Initiative Grant.
Not bad for a couple who didn't know if they would continue with music when they first arrived.
In Brooklyn, they were spoiled by having many musicians they could call at a moment's notice to play in their bands. In the Twin Cities, "the bench isn't as deep," Sanford said. "That wasn't a surprise, but the talent level of people here was surprising."
"It was a big change for us," Kakitani said. "It was a good time for me to ask myself, 'Do I want to do this?' Now I'm sure this is what I want to do."
Finding time to be creative
Two turning points for Kakitani were getting her McKnight fellowship and radically changing her schedule. A few years ago, she started going to bed at 9 p.m. and rising between 4 and 5 a.m. to compose.
"It's dark. It's quiet. You don't get bothered. Everyone is sleeping. I get up, make coffee, and boom, I just work. I'm not checking e-mail, I don't look at the internet, I don't worry about the world or climate change or the pandemic. I write 10 or 20 seconds of music. And then I'm good for the rest of the day."
For Sanford, it's the opposite. He works nights, "after they go to sleep. That's the only time I can get anything done. All these things I haven't gotten to all day are there in front of me, and I have to do all of them before I can do anything creatively. I'm very lucky if I can get the horn on my face."
When COVID hit, he was furloughed from JazzMN. The Composers' Workshop and Inatnas went on hiatus.
"One thing I did not miss was finding players, organizing rehearsals and hustling for gigs," he said. "All that kind of work is exhausting, so there was a part of me that was just like, 'Great! I don't have to do that now.' Inatnas and the Composers' Workshop will both come back when it makes sense, but those details of organizing are very heavy weights."
Kakitani kept writing. And their family spent a lot of time together. "We went biking, the three of us," she said. "We never did this when it wasn't a pandemic. That was joy."
Can they imagine still being in New York?
"Yeah, I can imagine it," Sanford said. "It would be awful. Almost every day, we're just so glad we're here. If there was ever a tipping point of 'Was this the right decision?' the pandemic was it. We had certain friends in New York who figured out how to make some stuff work, but overall, it was pretty brutal."
After five years, do they have any regrets?
"I don't have regrets," Kakitani said. "It's different, and we're embracing different. But I have to say I'm really happy here. Looking at the garden, you see animals all the time, running around, and beautiful flowers. Every time I look outside to see squirrels running and birds coming, it fulfills my heart."
Pamela Espeland is the Artscape columnist at MinnPost and an occasional contributor to NPR.