It was in Sin City, of all places, that a 10-year-old Noah Becker got his first serious introduction to the saxophone. His Thetis Island-based clan had relocated to Las Vegas for three months to escape the rain.
“I wanted to be an electric guitar player at first, like Jimi Hendrix,” Becker said. “My mom thought it would at least be interesting if I tried the saxophone, because she was a big fan of Stan Getz, and used to have a bunch of his records I would listen to as a child. Once I got started on it, I really took to it.”
Becker, who is back living in Victoria for the month of August, is still blowing more than 30 years after his first dalliance with the alto saxophone.
Though far removed from his early days, when he would practise in the woods around Thetis Island, the New York-based Becker still sees himself as something of a jazz student. “When you are doing what you want to do, the only thing you have to do is get better,” Becker said.
He relocated to New York City for the second time last year after spending the previous two decades largely in Victoria. He was born in Cleveland, and spent 1995 at Humber College in Toronto, under the tutelage of saxophonist Pat LaBarbera, but his roots are mostly on the West Coast.
New York City has been great for his career. It embraced him as one of its own — he has showcased his art at a series of solo and group exhibitions in galleries and museums — but many of the skills he employs today were learned locally.
He studied jazz for two years at the Victoria Conservatory of Music, some of which overlapped with five years of classes at the Victoria College of Art. Becker originally wanted to be a comic-book artist, but when he turned 17, gigs started coming, and thus began his double life in music and visual art.
“I don’t paint seven days a week, eight hours a day, and I don’t play the saxophone seven days a week, eight hours a day. But I have enough facility that I can work professionally [in both].”
Those who specialize in two areas are better served in cities such as New York, Becker said. He moved there for the first time in 1997 amid a rush of Canadian jazz players that included two close friends from Victoria, drummer Josh Dixon and bassist Sean Drabitt, who were back and forth from Victoria to New York.
“When we were teenagers, we would hear about [Vancouver Island natives] Phil Dwyer and Hugh Fraser going off to New York and playing on the jazz scene. I was 18 or 19, and it seemed like everyone I knew from the jazz scene in Canada was going to New York at the same time.”
Becker said his place in Brooklyn eventually became the de facto crash pad for Canadian musicians trying to make a go of it in New York. “It was like the Canadian-New York jazz embassy of the ’90s,” he joked.
That all ended with the World Trade Center attacks in 2001. Soon after, Becker moved back to Victoria, where he remained until 2012, and became the founding editor of Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art, an online magazine.
Becker often led his own trios and quartets at Hermann’s Jazz Club on View Street, which almost always featured Dixon on drums. His world was shattered when Dixon died of a heart attack, at age 41, in early 2012. The loss still greatly affects both Becker and Drabitt. His gig Saturday at Hermann’s — with Brent Jarvis (piano), Jules Chaz (drums) and Ryan Tandy (bass) — is his first at the venerable club since Dixon’s death.
“It is meaningful for me to play in that room again,” Becker said. “I would have had him on the kit [Saturday], so on a certain level, I’m hoping his spirit is there.”
Where were you born and raised?
I grew up on Thetis Island. I was brought there at the age of two from Cleveland, where I was born. My parents decided to head west and ended up there almost by accident.
At which point did you know the city was not for you in the long term?
I came to the realization that Victoria was an ideal place to live after living elsewhere. New York has more buzz going on there. But I don’t think I plan on growing old in New York, so I assume I will be coming back here.
What is your favourite thing about Victoria?
The air quality for starters. The nature. All of the things that you notice more when you don’t live here. There’s plenty of time to think and plenty of time to create, and there’s no giant rats running around.
What is your greatest accomplishment as a person?
I just want to get better at what I do, and I think what opportunities I have are by-products of getting better at what I do. Opportunities are an organic extension of trying to do the best you can.
And as a professional?
New York represents a functional way of getting what I do out to an international audience. Showing paintings or doing concerts in a bigger city than Victoria is important.
First album you remember having?
My mother had one in her collection that I always listened to: Stan Getz, Focus.
I spent lot of time listening to [John Coltrane’s] A Love Supreme and Sonny Rollins’ A Night at the Village Vanguard. Lately, I’ve been I listening to a lot of Sonny Stitt.
First concert you attended?
Concrete Blonde in L.A. when I was a kid visiting my uncle. I was probably 16.
Favourite concert you attended?
Hugh Masekela at the Royal Theatre was a good one. Maceo Parker’s gig at Market Square with Fred Wesley was as well.
If you had one motto, or rule to abide by, what would it be?
I don’t really have one. But when I listen to Charlie Parker, I remember why I’m doing what I’m doing, and when I look at paintings by Van Gogh or Francis Bacon, it brings to life something inside of me.
The Noah Becker Quartet is performing Saturday at Hermann’s Jazz Club (753 View St.) Tickets are $17. Doors are 8 p.m.