Chris Jonas is a Santa Fe-based composer, saxophone player, and video artist. As an instrumentalist and composer/conductor, he has performed, recorded, and toured internationally with many of today’s most adventurous artists, working extensively with Anthony Braxton, Cecil Taylor, William Parker, Del Sol String Quartet, TILT Brass, the Crossing Choir, and others. Jonas is a United States Artists Fellow and a winner of the 2012 Meet the Composer/Commissioning USA Award for GARDEN, his ongoing series of live music and transmedia works. He is Executive Director of Littleglobe, the New Mexico arts and social justice non-profit, and is Vice President of the Tri-Centric Foundation, committed to the work and legacy of Anthony Braxton. Jonas was conductor for Braxton’s 6-hour, 63-person orchestra project, Sonic Genome, at the 2019 Berlin Jazz Festival.
I am making a website, as likely many of us do, to share ideas, projects I’m proud of, and take a best guess as to why I make things. My current thought is that what drives me is making art with others: how by making art together, we connect.
For me, to listen to and form relationships with the world and the people around me is to be changed—and to be changed is to move against a current tendency that seems to be increasingly commodified, transactional, objectifying, and extractive. Art can be personal, relevant, and honest.
I’m a multi-arts kind of guy, meaning that I have immersed myself in various creative arenas: jazz, saxophone, composition, conducting, chamber and electronic music, as well as filmmaking, documentary, installation, projected video, theater, production, and how story can affect policymaking. I like mixing and matching from this list, borrowing structures and ideas from one artistic form and applying them to another.
I am devoted to finding ways to make art that surprises and stops the world just a bit. I am devoted to art that provides different points of access, maybe to things we have few words to describe. And, I am devoted to working with others to locate a shared set of tools in the chance of forming something like kinship, with empathy and belonging.
I won’t embrace a simple way to tell this story or identify a single artistic style, discipline, or perspective. But now that we’re well into the 21st Century, it’s damn clear that there’s no screwing around, and that idealism is a necessity. There is no simple anything but here we are.
I was born in Orange County, California, on the coast of the Pacific Ocean. There still existed orange groves, bean fields, valleys of chaparral and California live oak. I watched the landscape become replaced by the Orange County it is today.
My parents came from the post-depression/post WWII working class of Los Angeles. They both worked hard and my dad became a doctor. My mom’s family was connected to what was the closest thing to church my family had: the wilderness. My grandmother grew up in a single-room dirt floor house in a live oak forest at the edge of the Mojave Desert. She explored the semi-arid range of mountains rimming Los Angeles and later spent much of her life in the eastern slopes of the Sierras. She and that area profoundly affected who I am today.
And I have roots in the so-called “westward expansion” of the US/colonial legacy. My great great grandfather, William E. Crump, was the largest slave owner in Texas but lost it all after the Civil War. The story goes that my grandmother did not have shoes but she knew how to set a formal table. Like others who have such histories, I carry with me the question about how we hold such family legacies that include slavery, violence and objectification.
My parents loved contemporary art and I grew up visiting art museums filled with the experimental visual, performance, and installation art of Los Angeles in the 1970s. Then, I went to Oberlin College and Conservatory in Ohio, where I immersed myself in the broad and ongoing question about art and its role in our changing world.
After college, I moved to the Bay Area and fell in love with the music world there. It was grounded in the experimental music scene surrounding Mills College, where I met Anthony Braxton and graduate students who were writing the most marvelously quirky and challenging music I had yet encountered—many remain my key collaborators today. Theirs was a world where music tore open the assumed surfaces of things, and they did so in collaboration with one another. This relationship approach to music was as much an inspiration to me as was the music itself.
I moved to New York City in 1991, in part because of the improvised and new music scene, but really it was for a single driving purpose: making music with others. NYC still had a wide range of jazz and experimental music venues, and the great jazz musicians of the 1950s and ’60s were still playing and telling stories. In my first years, studying jazz at the New School for Social Research, I met many young musicians and formed my first bands, which evolved and grew over the years.
Realizing that to be a bandleader and composer I needed a deeper agility with writing music, I studied theory, harmony, and composition at Mannes School of Music while managing different jobs and gigs to make a living. My main NYC band was a group called “The Sun Spits Cherries” with bass trombone, tenor trombone, drums, and soprano sax—a way to explore music as objects in space and independent lines rather than being pinned to the notion of “harmony.”
Throughout these years, I also found myself working more and more in multi-arts projects which included music but also visual arts, installation and, as the medium became more available, live projected video.
During my time in New York, I was asked to join many projects led by my heroes: William Parker, Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, and others, recording on 50 albums and touring the world. These mentors and band leaders were inspirations and examples of aspects of art-making that are central to my practice today.
With William, I played in his Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra from 1992-2001, playing weekly shows, traveling, and being in a community of musicians who combined incredible skills, artistry, and adventure in their playing.
With Cecil, with whom I played on and off for two and a half years, we built a system to create an open-framework of scores for his compositions, written for different sizes of ensembles and going deep into his affinities for mirror structures and bimodality. For those years, I explored how mutable form combined with moments of musical energy can hold the universe open for moments at a time.
My relationship with Anthony, which now spans more than three decades, has provided a long term exploration of form, performance and community.
After ten years in NYC and meeting Molly Sturges during my graduate studies in composition at Wesleyan University, I relocated with Molly to Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 2001, and started new bands and ensembles, including Bing, and Rrake. Here, another component in my work started to find purchase: the arts as a tool for community voice work of Littleglobe. In direct collaboration with community members, I’ve worked in cross-discipline ensembles, using co-authorship and creative art-making—building relationships outside the usual daily interactions and political discourse—to bring to the surface a complex weave of stories within our local communities. Littleglobe is a team of artists from across a broad swath of heritages, generations, identities, disciplines, and perspectives. After being asked to take over as Executive Director in 2015, I’ve often found myself in a position to open spaces for artists and community members to facilitate collaborative projects.
With the arrival of COVID-19, our team responded by developing a new hyper-local TV program (on a wide variety of broadcast and social media platforms) created for the sharing of co-authored experimental non-fiction short pieces created by Santa Fe residents during the pandemic. This has opened the door for greater levels of storytelling experimentation. It has also demonstrated the power of well-produced, freshly crafted styles and perspectives that can move hearts and reframe civic conflict in ways that make it possible to find solutions together that we could not find alone.
After receiving the United States Artist Award in 2008, I began to focus on bringing the varied parts of my own work into a single creative frame. I created a series of immersive cross-media performance pieces, including the GARDEN series, intermedia opera projects with composer Anthony Braxton, and others. I have also worked as a conductor internationally, directing ensembles in premieres of my own works and those of others, striving to bring mixtures of disciplines, musical styles, performance and theater craft, as well as improvisation into the traditional arenas of classical music and the concert experience.
Over the past twenty years, my musical work has evolved into focusing more on conducting, composition, and cross media performances. I’ve received commissions for large-scale music and video performance projects with some of my favorite international artists, such as, the Del Sol String Quartet, Duo B Experimental Band (Bay Area), Crossing Choir (Philadelphia), ensembles and a variety of musicians in Berlin, Portugal and Ireland, the Chicago Improvisors Group, and with international venues, including SITE Santa Fe, the Lensic, the Santa Fe Opera, Triskel Arts Center in Cork, Ireland, Center for New Music and Z-Space in San Francisco, Roulette, Lincoln Center, and Knitting Factory in NYC, Gropius Bau in Berlin, and other theaters, art spaces, and festivals worldwide.
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One of the consistently hilarious challenges I face here in Santa Fe is randomly meeting people in public places like the market, oil change place, dentist, parking lot. People will introduce me and say—this is Chris Jonas, he’s a local composer. In the next encounter I am introduced as the Executive Director of Littleglobe, or Quinn’s dad, or a sax player, or a painter, or a video guy, or a film commissioner, or a crazy outdoorsy person. Maybe this is a 21st Century condition, but it certainly makes it hard to find a way to wrap up so many parts into a single whole. Part of the incentive for making this website might be to compel people to participate in this marvelously hard to sum up the multi-arts and collaborative work I do, which often involves the complex challenge of building a story that unifies such disparate parts.